|1811 Map showing the |
Rotherhithe rope walk
Every time I see a particularly long and very straight piece of road set back from the river in a former shipbuilding area I suspect it of having been a former rope walk. These were the Roman roads of the maritime world.
Rope walks were long alleys where rope was manufactured, and they could be open or sheltered. The materials used to make the rope had to be laid the full length of the walk, so whatever the desired length of the finished rope, that was the the length that the ropewalk had to be. There were various rope walks in the area. If you look at the Cutty Sark next time you're in Greenwich you will see not just how many ropes she has, but how long many of them needed to be. She was re-rigged in 2012 and the company that were responsible, TS Rigging and Heritage Marine, provided the following statistics:
The Cutty Sark’s rigging extended 11 miles long, her original sail area was 32,000 sq. ft. (2,976 sq.m.), and her main mast stood at 152ft (47m). Fair trade winds gave her the famous parametric of over 17 knots which would have been achieved with most of her 32 sails set. So famous for her speed at sea, it was deemed she would under-go a full restoration and be granted full public access as part of the Maritime Museum Greenwich, London. Jim and a team of young tall ships crew and engineers immersed themselves in the huge task of stripping down and re-rigging the Cutty Sark. Andy Hodder-Smith, the project manager on the job orchestrated work undertaken on 2.5 km of wire standing rigging, 14km rope for running rigging, 400 wooden blocks, 700 shackles, 41 spars, 9 mast sections, 17 yards, including one as spare for the Cutty Sark.
Photography by Clem Rutter. CC-BY-2.5
|The same Rotherhithe |
ropewalk in 1868
(click to enlarge)
Another two ropewalks can be seen on the borders of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, where two ropewalks marked as "Patent Rope Manufactory" are shown on the 1872 Ordnance Survey map of Bermondsey. They are shown on the 1843 Davies map where it is clear that there are several ropewalks but unclear how many there area (see the maps at the end of the post). Comparing the 1843 and 1872 maps, it is possible that some of the other radiating streets in that cluster were ropewalks in a previous life due to their length and uncompromising straightness and the fact that, like the Rope Manufactorys, they run towards the Thames and terminate in wet and dry docks. Another possibility, of course, is that one or more were always terraced streets, their trajectory confined by the presence of the ropewalks.
Between them, the Rotherhithe and Bermondsey ropewalks were feeding the never-ending demand for rope for Naval and commercial ships in one of the busiest ship-building and repairing stretches along the Thames.
|Prisoners picking oakum for caulking at the |
Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell
After the ship building industry collapsed along the Thames, and the ropewalks had closed, ship breaking continued to be profitable and even when rope was old and spent and was removed from ships being broken up (or from ships being repaired and their old ropes being replaced by new ropes) old rope still had a value. Rope that had deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be used as rope was sold to prisons and workhouses where it was dismantled into its original fibres and reconstituted into a new material. This product was known as "oakum," which was tarred and used as "caulking," to seal the gaps in joints of ships' planking, both in the hull and on deck, to make them watertight. The payment for the redundant rope gave rise to the phrase "money for old rope."
The ropewalks are commemorated in a modern Rotherhithe street name: "Ropemaker Road," although it is sadly nowhere near to where the old ropewalk actually ran.
|The orange sections are ropewalks marked on the 1872 Ordnance Survey |
map of Bermondsey. Those in blue were possibly ropewalks from
a previous period turned into terraced housing by this time
(click to enlarge)
- Godfrey Old Ordnance Survey Maps of Rotherhithe 1868 and 1914
- Godfrey Old Ordnance Survey Maps of Bermondsey and Wapping 1872 and 1914
- B.R. Davis map of London 1843
- Victorian Ropery, Chatham Dockyard http://www.thedockyard.co.uk/plan/plan-your-day/victorian-ropery/
- Master Ropemakers, Chatham http://www.master-ropemakers.co.uk/process-i-31.html
- Video: Making Rope - Medieval to Edwardian technique https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=By8K5mKSwDA
- Video: How Rope Was Made on a Rope Walk by Ken Howarth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaHQUvG8jzA
- Video: Chatham Rope Walk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2M5mo2I2c0Q