National Archives Expose Izaak Walton's Secret Life

By David Prudames | 23 August 2004
Shows a stained glass image of Izaak Walton. He is sitting in front of a window reading with one hand raised to his face.

Famed for his classic study of fishing, The Compleat Angler, it seems Izaak Walton was also a tax collector. Image: stained glass window depicting Izaak Walton, Winchester Cathedral.

Newly discovered documents at The National Archives have revealed that Izaak Walton, author of one of the most popular fishing books ever written and a friend of John Donne, was a tax collector in his spare time.

Well known as the writer of the much-loved The Compleat Angler and an ironmonger, until now Walton’s life as a public official has been a well-kept secret.

This insight into the life of one of fishing’s most celebrated exponents comes as National Fishing Week gets under way. Aimed at encouraging people of all ages to give it a go, the event continues until August 30.

"While he is well known to have been an ironmonger and a keen angler, it was not known that he also served as a tax collector," explained Jonathan Mackman, the researcher at The National Archives who uncovered the information.

Shows a photograph of a hand-written document with details of tax payments.

The tax documents held at Kew reveal how Walton collected taxes in London. Courtesy The National Archives.

"This is a good example of how the tax records at The National Archives can add a little more colour to our knowledge of famous figures from the past."

The National Archives, based at Kew in south west London, has one of the largest archival collections in the world, spanning 1000 years of British history from the Domesday Book to newly released government papers.

Jonathan Mackman made this latest discovery while sifting through a box of unsorted documents from the 'King's Remembrancer' records relating to lay and clerical taxation.

"Walton was charged with collecting the taxes of many of his friends and neighbours in his home parish of St Dunstan in the West, around Fleet Street in London," he added.

Shows a photograph of the exterior of Izaak Walton's Cottage in Staffordshire.

Izaak Walton's former home in Staffordshire is now a museum and open to the public. Courtesy Stafford Borough Council.

"However, the document shows some of the problems of the job of that time, as many of the taxpayers had either run away or were unable to pay, and Walton had to account for his failure to the government."

Izaak Walton was born in Stafford in 1593, the son of an alehouse keeper. He left for London to take up an apprenticeship and by 1624 had his own business as a linen draper.

It was while in the capital that Walton began writing. Although he left behind a number of literary works, including a biography of poet John Donne, it is for a well-loved tome about fishing that he is remembered and celebrated.

First published in 1653, The Compleat Angler discussed advanced fishing techniques for its time such as using specific varieties of worms for particular types and size of fish as well as dying horsehair the right shade of green to match the water.

Shows a photograph of a hand-written document with details of tax payments.

Courtesy The National Archives.

But more than just a practical guide to fishing, the book offers a snapshot of country life in the 17th century and remains a hugely popular and influential work to this day.

In around 1655, Walton returned to Staffordshire and bought Halfhead Farm outside the town of his birth.

Despite going on to work as a steward to Bishop George Morley at Worcester and later Winchester, he kept the half-timbered cottage near Stafford for the rest of his life and donated it to the local authority when he died.

Nowadays Izaak Walton’s Cottage is a museum in the care of Stafford Borough Council.

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