William Billinghurst*, born February 10, 1807 in Brighton Township, New York, started his career sometime around 1823 when he located to Rochester, NY and apprenticed under NY gunsmith Joseph Medbury. Sometime before 1830, he started working under James and John Millar of Rochester, NY, also gunsmiths, who had the distinction of holding the 1829 patent for the cylinder rifle. It was thought that of all the apprentices working for the Millars, W. Billinghurst produced the highest quality work. Records show that in 1841, William Billinghurst bought out James Millar, and according to press releases during that year, the Billinghurst repeating rifle made quite a name for itself. As reported in the "Rochester Gem and Ladies' Amulet, July 24, 1841", the Emperor of Brazil commissioned Billinghurst to make a repeating rifle, for the tidy sum of $400 (remember folks, this was 1841!!!). Other dignitaries also sought rifles produced by Billinghurst, as recorded in various press releases between 1841 and 1852. It wasn't until 1859 that Billinghurst became famous for something other than his gun making activities. On August 9th, 1859, Billinghurst was awarded patent #24,987 for his (improved) Fishing Reel. In his patent, Billinghurst points out the "improvements" of his design; line drying capabilities (remember, cotton and silk lines of the day needed to be removed and dried from conventional reels to avoid rot), weight reduction and cost reduction. Also, he points out that his design allows for "convenient carriage in the pocket" as well as the speed at which his reel retrieved line versus conventional reels that relied on gearing to multiply the retrieve ratio. Interesting to note there is no mention specifically of a folding handle, and a study of the patent drawings shows no allowance for a folding handle, as many believe. Early reels produced by Billinghurst have a "fixed" handle, however it was not long after his initial invention was introduced that he built reels with the folding handle most collectors are familiar with today. Despite his reputation as perhaps the finest gunsmith New York had to offer, his fame was not instantly transferred to his reel work. A press release in the October 8th, 1859 issue of Scientific American announced the arrival of the William Rillinghurst reel. Sadly, misspellings of his name would not end there, as I found a copy of Genio Scott’s 1869 “Fishing in American Waters”, where Mr. Billinghurst once again had his last name misspelled, this time “Billinghast”. A check of all the Rochester City Directories from 1841 through 1880, the year William Billinghurst died (A listing in the 1880 Rochester City Directory shows he passed away March 4th, 1880) did not show a listing that points to reel making or any fishing tackle production at all – nothing but his gunsmith business. We now know, thanks to an article published in the Reel Newsą (July 2004, vol XIV, #4) by Jim Wheeler, that Billinghurst may have been involved in lure making as well, with the discovery of 3 fishing spoon dies that were sold as part of his estate. Billinghurst’s invention certainly had an influence on other New York reel makers, though it seems that circle of influence only encompassed the upstate New York region. Tackle makers located in the major cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia never seemed to embrace the side-mount design, keeping with the traditional casting and fly reels mounted upright on the rod. However, the reels produced by these upstate makers are now highly sought by collectors, as much for their eye appeal as for the quality and craftsmanship that went into their production.
*Many thanks to Frank Graves for his help in providing much of the history provided here.
Beautiful Billinghurst Target rifle from the collection of Dick Littlefield - photo by Arron Littlefield
The ad below comes from a Rochester City directory, dated 1859. I am unaware of any ads that mention Billinghurst as a maker of fishing reels - all information relates to his primary interest, gunsmithing.
I'm always interested in adding reels to my collection. If you have a reel you'd like to discuss, trade or sell please feel free to e-mail me at Jim@sidemountreels.com