More light on the Bluebell enigma

Former Hastings Observer news editor and award winning member of Hastings Writer's Group Sandra Daniels has shared a piece she researched and wrote about record breaking angler and musical composer Bluebell Klean.

Monday, 6th November 2017, 11:37 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 10:12 pm
BLuebel, fishing SUS-170611-085912001

Former Hastings Observer news editor and award winning member of Hastings Writer’s Group Sandra Daniels has shared a piece she researched and wrote about record breaking angler and musical composer Bluebell Klean.

Here is an extract from her piece - A Bluebell Among Thorns - a woman in a man’s world:

As she’d fought with the monster conger eel, rod bending and line straining while her long skirt flapped in the breeze in her little row boat, Miss Bluebell Klean must have looked quite a sight.

As were probably the faces of the men she beat that day with her record-breaking catch in the 1922 Hastings and St Leonards Sea Angling Festival which had attracted nearly a thousand competitors.

Weighing in at a staggering 63lbs 3oz and 7ft 7in long, the conger was the heaviest caught with a rod and line in British waters.

Further investigation into Bluebell’s past reveals a completely different story.

Those same fingers which tied hooks on fishing lines had previously played the piano for Royal audiences in London and penned her own concert music.

For Bluebell had already enjoyed attention in another predominantly male world as a musician and composer of classical music.

Born in London in 1875, she was named Isabel Maude by her parents Simeon Klean and Leonora de Fries. Her father was a German Jewish watch-maker and manufacturer and they lived in a prestigious address in Russell Square, Bloomsbury. She later changed her name to Bluebell and studied music at Trinity College.

In 1897 she performed with her sister in a concert to help raise money for what was then called The Prince of Wales Hospital Fund in aid of London voluntary hospitals for the poor.

It appears she was something of an enigma.

She had played before the Princes of Wales and Queen Mary (when Princess of Wales). The Queen accepted from her the only piece of music ever dedicated to the Prince of Wales named “La Divina”. The piece was reproduced on records, proceeds going to a fund for ex-servicemen. Another song composed by her was “The Water Sprite” - an apt description of Bluebell herself!

During the war Bluebell played and taught piano to blinded ex-soldiers at St Dunstan’s and then seems to have switched from chasing her musical dreams to chasing fish. She became a force to be reckoned with in the sea fishing world.

She walked away with countless prizes including medals, trophies, clocks, fountain pens, numerous sets of spoons, claret jugs and fruit dishes. One major prize was a solid silver rose bowl worth £100 - a lot of money back in the 20s.

A lady of means, she owned her own flat at 2 Rodney Court, London, but set up a temporary home at 14 Undercliff, St Leonards, directly opposite the beach. The property still stands today, looking much the same as it would have done when Bluebell used to make her way off at 5am to row miles out to sea for a day’s fishing in all weathers.

When she hit the headlines with the 63 pound conger, she’d patiently fished for three days, catching nothing on the first two, but scooped the monster on the third.

An Observer report stated: “Some idea of the strength of the fish may be obtained by the fact that a conger of half the size can bite an oar in half; and this fish was 32 inches in circumference.”

Said Bluebell: “If you want good sport, good health, and unbounded pleasure, go in for fishing.”

Bluebell was also roaring ahead of her time as a keen motorcyclist and owner of a powerful Indian motorcycle and side-car. A billiard and bridge player, attending billiards championship matches was another of her interests, as well as continuing to play the piano at events such as festival prize-givings.

The report ends: “Miss Klean shows she is very human and ‘tomboyish’ in that she likes to go bird nesting” - not such a “human” hobby in today’s world.

Commenting on Bluebell’s conger triumph, Ken Johnson of the British Conger Club, said: “When Bluebell caught the conger it would have been an outstanding achievement for any angler, let alone a woman of that era.”

The current record conger catch for a boat is 133lbs. But today’s anglers had the benefit of high tech state of the art rods and reels, explained Mr Johnson.

“The conger eel is a formidable adversary of any dedicated angler and deserves the recognition accordingly,” he said.

Bluebell’s enlightening 1924 Observer interview followed her recent success in that year’s Hastings Angling Festival, catching the greatest number of sizeable fish out of 300 competitors, including a “number” of women - so she was certainly not the only female angler around.

The intrepid woman was soon after bigger fish to fry, with her eyes set on hunting a shark!

The catching of a shark off Hastings gave her a new ambition - to land a shark with rod and line - and she hoped to go to Looe where sharks were plentiful.

“I would give anything and go to any inconvenience to catch a real, live shark,” she told the Hastings Observer. “The excitement would be well worth the trouble.

“I get tired of small fish. When I catch a big fellow which needs playing I am happy.

“I have set my heart on catching a shark and I am determined that nothing will appease me until I do get one.”

Whether the great fish hunter realised her dream is unknown, but the following year in November 1925 she secured the heaviest aggregate weight and also the heaviest one day catch at Folkestone festival where “Lady Angler Catches Most Fish” was the headline in the local paper. The figures being 69lbs 6.5oz and 55lbs 8.5 respectively.

Bluebell, a good sailor and a strong swimmer, had fearlessly gone out to sea during the Folkestone festival with a married couple in two small boats while the other competitors stayed in the safety of the harbour.

“The small craft were tossed about unmercifully, and the spectators on the parade watched with anxiety them battling with the waves,” reported the Portsmouth Evening News (November 3rd 1925).

However, she returned safely with her prize-winning haul and was toasted at the festival’s celebratory dinner.

In July 1930 she tried her hand at fishing in a tope festival for the first time and just months later, in February 1931, won the prize for the heaviest bag with two tope weighing a total of 50lbs 12ozs.

Bluebell’s name disappears from the angling headlines by the mid-30s. The Second World War and perhaps her age (she was now into her late 50s) seem to have brought a halt to her noteworthy fishing adventures.

However, she was still involved with the sport and was appointed vice-president of the East Hastings Sea Angling Association in 1939. She also donated the renowned 63lb conger to the club - it still held the record at that time for being the largest recorded conger eel caught with rod and line in British waters. The Association displayed it in their clubhouse for many years before it moved to the Fishermen’s Museum.

Hastings appeared to have become Bluebell’s permanent base where she also owned and rented out at least one property. A news item in the Hastings Observer revealed that in October 1941 a female tenant was charged with stealing a piano, dressing table and other furniture from a flat in Carisbrooke Road, St Leonards, belonging to Isabel Maude Klean.

Miss Klean, the report says, went with police officers to identify and reclaim the furniture from local dealers.

A private ad in 1946 in the paper was also likely placed by her.

It was for “a fur coat, seal musquash, excellent condition, length 33, bust 40…Klean, 10 White Rock, Hastings”. Unsurprisingly, another address opposite the beach.

Hastings and the sea certainly seemed to have stolen her heart and she died in the town in 1950, aged 74.

Something of her personality can perhaps be gleaned from her motto when talking about trying to land big fish - “Keep cool”.

A woman, way ahead of her time, pushing the boundaries of the largely men’s worlds in the early 1900s.

One day this fascinating individual might be at sea covered in fish guts and blood, pulling a hook out of a flailing fish, and yet another day playing piano for an audience, or perhaps sashaying around London in her fur coat, or even roaring round corners parping her horn on her Indian motorcycle.

Truly a bluebell among thorns.