DOCTOR, FLY FISHERMAN AND INVENTOR OF THE BAIGENT’S BROWN FLY
Situated in the Consecrated/West Section of Jesmond Old Cemetery.
Dr. William Baigent, the son of Thomas George Baigent, a druggist and grocer, and Dorothy Walter, was born in Darlington on 18th December 1862, according to most of the records I have seen. However, his gravestone indicates he was born in 1863 and other records state 1864!! Baigent studied medicine at the University of Durham College of Medicine in Newcastle upon Tyne and graduated M.B. in 1885, proceeding to M.D. five years later with a gold medal for his thesis on Multiple Peripheral Neuritis. Before settling down in general practice at Northallerton, he had held posts of Senior House Physician and Resident Anaesthetist at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle and Resident Medical Officer to the Dunston Lodge Asylum. In 1893, he contributed to the Northumberland and Durham Medical Journal a statistical analysis of 3,000 cases of anaesthesia with chloroform. He was for many years a member of the British Medical Association and, from 1919 to 1925, served on the Rural Practitioners’ Subcommittee of the Insurance Acts Committee. During WW1, he organised and conducted the Northallerton Red Cross Military Hospital and was Commandant of the local Voluntary Aid Detachment, for which services he received the M.B.E. William also drew the illustrations of the Fundus Oculi for Sir Thomas Oliver’s book on lead poisoning.
More interestingly in terms of ‘uniqueness’ to Jesmond Old Cemetery, Dr. Baigent was very well known as an authority on fly fishing and fly-dressing, being an accomplished tyer of flies by hand. He had been vice-chairman of the Tees Fishery Board for ten years. Additionally, he invented the Baigent’s Brown fly, which has been used to great success by thousands of fly fisherman over the decades – apart from my Dad and I in South Uist!!!
The Baigent’s Brown formula….
Body: thick yellow floss silk
Wings: woodcock or hen pheasant tail, tied forward of the hackle
Hackle: large dark furnace
Whisk: optional, as hackle
Dr. Baigent was also the first angler to advocate the use of two flies, spaced two feet apart, when dry fishing, instead of the customary single fly; he held the view that the flies fell more lightly on the water and were less likely to be subjected to drag.
Long before his death in 1935, family and friends of Dr. Baigent had urged him to write a book about his fishing methods and fly tying. Unfortunately, he died before being able to fully collate and publish his ideas but in 1937, his wife, with the help of a few close family friends, managed to privately print a limited run of 65 copies of ‘A Book on Hackles for Fly Dressing’. This rare publication, housed in a blue calf folding box, features 11 cards with 164 mounted hackles, complete with an additional slim volume of accompanying text, introduced by his friend, Lieut-Col W. Keith Rollo. It is a particularly sought after book, with collectors paying over £5,000 for a copy. Wish I had one!!
After his marriage to Jane Thornton Garbutt in 1894, he and his wife settled in Dunston House, Northallerton, fishing the Swale, Ure and Tees but it is the Castle Forbes water on the Aberdeenshire Don where he is most associated, and it is here where the Baigent’s Brown is said to have been invented. He also produced a range of ‘Refracta’ dry fly patterns, which were later marketed and sold by Hardys of Alnwick for five shillings a dozen.
Dr. Baigent died on April 12th, 1935, aged 71, having suffered a ‘heart attack’, leaving £10,908 in his will. His wife, Jane, died on December 7th, 1945.
Dr. Baigent and his wife were childless but adopted their niece, Sheona; she was born to Isobel and Herbert Birkinshaw at Ovingham, Northumberland, the second of four children. When Sheona was two, her brother had diptheria and her mother was pregnant, so she was sent to stay with the Baigents at Dunston House, where she was to spend most of her childhood, describing herself as ‘an only child with two brothers and one sister’. She married her cousin Oliver Lodge, eight years her senior, who was a surgeon in the Royal Navy. After the war, Oliver worked as an ENT surgeon in Halifax and was also a pioneer in brain surgery, being the first to plant radon seeds in tumours of the pituitary gland. In later life, Sheona wrote a couple of books, one of them entitled ‘Swan Feather; recollections in poetry and prose’, which was published in 1993 (when she was 92), and tells of her childhood in Northallerton and how her Father taught her to fish and tie flies.
In her book, Sheona describes how she found a letter belonging to William’s mother, dated September 27th, 1890, addressed to St. Mary’s Vicarage, Berwick on Tweed…. “My dear Mother, A little more good news for you. I have been fortunate enough to come out first among the M.D.’s and, in consequence, got the Gold Medal for being the most distinguished graduate of the year. With much love, your affectionate son. P.S. My essay on Multiple Peripheral Neuritis was spoken of highly by the examiners”.
Sheona is buried in the Holy Trinity Churchyard, Brathay in Cumbria.