In three and a half years of magnet fishing, Phil Styles tells me he has pulled over 80 knives, 40 guns and two live hand grenades from waterways across the UK.
He adds that he has also pulled up over a hundred safes, a hospital bed and close to 30 tonnes of scrap metal - roughly the weight of two double decker buses. Styles is one of thousands of people across the UK who have taken up magnet fishing, a hobby that is uncovering the mysterious depths of the UK’s rivers and canals.
YouTube first inspired Styles to invest in a length of rope, gloves and a neodymium magnet. He soon set up the magnet fishing YouTube channel Brummies Outdoors, which now has 27.8k subscribers. The channel’s most popular video has 2.2 million views.
“Every time you throw the magnet in you have no idea what’s going to come out of that water,” Styles says.
It’s a sentiment shared by William Nixon, founder of the family-orientated magnet fishing group Leeds Magneters. Nixon runs the YouTube channel of the same name and is a regular on the canals with his young sons Leo, five, and Riley, seven.
Nixon says it’s the “excitement” and “adrenaline” that has got him and his family hooked on the hobby. “Anything that you can realistically think of that’s made of metal, we’ve had out,” he says.
When I go to meet Nixon on a stretch of canal in Manchester, Leo casts his magnet and pulls a pink vibrator out of the canal. The three of them have barely been there 30 minutes, and a laptop, two burner phones, a machete, two discarded safes (cracked, empty) and a full CCTV equipment setup already sit neatly stacked on the towpath beside them.
Ten minutes later Riley reels in his magnet with a Nokia 3310 and a kitchen knife attached. Nixon has brought a selection of his best finds to show me, which include a pre-WWII fireman’s axe, two WWII knives (one British, one German) and a cannonball which dates back to the 1700s.
Many of the magnet fishing “hotspots” correspond, as one might expect, to areas previously home to heavy industry, munitions sites and densely populated areas. The fishers tend to stick to canals rather than rivers because they are safer and easier to fish in and access. On top of that, the canal network is, in national terms, concentrated and offers more spots to explore with less overall travel.
Items that Nixon had found but was unable to bring with him included an artillery shell, a grenade and an arsenal of guns ranging from pistols and WWII machine guns to pre-war hunting rifles. The police, with the help of the bomb squad, have either destroyed or confiscated those. Found firearms or explosives must be reported to the police, and while there’s a law stating that technically pre-1910 guns for which ammunition can’t be sourced can be returned – assuming the finder is willing to pay for decommissioning – everyone I spoke to told me it’s extremely rare for the police to give any gun back.
The origins of magnet fishing in the UK go back roughly six years. A select few took on the hobby and YouTube channels popped up documenting their finds. A video of magnet fishing YouTuber Drasticg pulling out a Honda motorbike from a canal in Manchester currently has 4.6 million views, which offers some idea of the magnet fishing world’s booming audience.
Magnet fishing is legal, but an associated British Waterways byelaw – rarely, if ever, enforced – prohibits removing “articles” from the canal. In spite of its legality, the activity does have its detractors. The Canal & River Trust does not encourage it, citing the potential dangers of found scrap metal, let alone explosives, being left on the nation’s 2000-odd miles of canal towpath. The trust encourages people to take part in organised clean-up days instead.
When asked for comment, a Thames Valley Police spokesperson said: “Magnet fishing is legal but if anyone finds anything suspicious, they should call 999.”
Whilst Styles and Nixon both acknowledge irresponsible magnet fishers are an issue, they claim to take it upon themselves to leave fishing spots as they find them. Styles, who is licensed to do so, takes all of the scrap with him and sells it.
All of the magnet fishers I speak to make a point of clearing up after themselves. I see Nixon do it first-hand: a rubble sack for plastic waste, a rubble sack for the metal-flecked sludge that is scraped off the magnet after each throw and boxes for the salvaged items.
Rust is washed off the canal side and any litter within reach is stuffed into bags and taken away. If he’s unable to carry the scrap, he uses the Dippers & Scrappers Facebook group to organise for a professional to come pick it up. Canal boaters are grateful for the reduced risk of expensive damage from submerged debris while fishermen notice fish in waterways that were previously void of life – at least, according to the magnet fishers.
There’s an emphasis on safety among the fishers I spend time with. Nixon’s sons are each clad in protective boots, waterproof overalls and a lifejacket. When they take off their heavy-duty protective gloves, there’s a pair of surgical gloves underneath. Anything pulled from the canal they don’t recognise, the boys call their dad over immediately. (The vibrator is a prime example.)
That’s not to say magnet fishing can’t be dangerous. When I call Nigel Lamford, the man behind Northants Magnet Fishing, the biggest active magnet fishing YouTube channel in the UK (32,700 subscribers), he’s just found an explosive device for the fourth week in a row.
In this instance it’s an 18lb artillery shell from the Boer War. Whilst the rifle grenade from a previous week might take out the room of a house, Lamford tells me that said artillery shell, if detonated, would flatten a house. Two weeks prior Lamford pulled out five different types of grenade in one day. The week before that it was an anti-tank round. He calls it “the Northants curse”.
“It’s not something to be proud of,” Lamford says. “I hate the bloody things. The police have to come out, roads are shut down. It’s a bloody nightmare.”
The Ministry of Defence echo statements given by the police. “If you choose to partake in magnet fishing and discover any item that might be an explosive device, you should leave it as it is and not interact with it further even if the magnet’s still attached,” advises Colonel Brian Howard, the commander of the 29 Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Search (EOD&S). “Call the police immediately.”
In 2021, EOD teams responded to around 150 call-outs to devices discovered by magnet fishing. That’s an average of around three call-outs a week, with summer seeing more of these calls. Magnet fishing is the cause of over 6 percent of what are termed Conventional Munition Disposal tasks (CMDs) in the UK.
The unavoidable question when it comes to magnet fishing is: How does this dangerous stuff get into the water in the first place?
As Scot Hurst, curator at the Royal Armouries in Leeds points out, there are many ways. Medieval blades might be a result of “sacrificial deposition”, otherwise known as the ancient ritual practice of throwing blades into rivers and lakes. Others might be a result of accidental loss – guns falling off barges on the way to the smelter, for instance. Mostly, Hurst cites “intentional deposition”; in other words, people are lobbing shit in canals and rivers.
“The example I always use to explain this is the final scene from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), where the gang try to dispose of the stolen shotguns. The Thames in particular has long served as London's waste disposal system,” Hurst says.
As has the UK’s canal network. Nixon has pulled two guns from canals that were associated with crimes, which the police later commended him for. (One misfired when a response officer was later deactivating it, but luckily nobody was hurt.)
When a friend of Lamford’s pulled a MAC-10 machine gun from a waterway in London, the police advised him not to post video of the discovery to YouTube. “The sort of people who own machine guns shouldn’t be messed with” is a rule of thumb Lamford abides by.
Lamford tells me that he knows magnet fishers who have received death threats after posting videos to YouTube showing the uncovering of recently discarded firearms. “I think a lot of criminals have learned that now; before the canal was their dumping ground. Now I think they’re thinking twice about it.”
Despite the risks, the magnet fishing community shows no sign of slowing down. As magnets are produced in increasing strengths and larger sizes and as new hotspots are uncovered, Nixon’s magnet fishing motto, like many others in the community, will persist: “Better out than in.”