Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ropewalks in Rotherhithe and Bermondsey in the 1800s.

1811 Map showing the
Rotherhithe rope walk
I have always been fascinated by rope walks so it's surprising that it has taken me so long to sit down and write something about the ones I noticed a long time ago on Rotherhithe and Bermondsey maps of the 19th Century.  There were several of them in Rotherhithe and Bermondsey.  Rope making was an essential part of British naval and commercial ship building activities between the 15th and 19th Centuries.  Ropes were also essential to maritime commerce, particularly for the great full-rigged tea clippers.  The standard length for a naval rope, for example, was 1000ft.  Even when steam was very first introduced for sea-going vessels, most ships still retained masts and sails to enable them to save on fuel when there was sufficient wind to travel under sail. The bigger the ship, the more rope was required for rigging. Warships and tea clippers were major consumers of rope.  The longer the rope required, the longer the rope-making premises (ropewalk) required.
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.

Chatham ropewalk
Photography by Clem Rutter. CC-BY-2.5
Fortunately we don't have to use our imaginations to know how the rope walks looked and worked because a small number of rope walks have been thankfully preserved, and some are even still operational, with a particularly good Victorian example dating to 1790 forming part of the museum at the Historic Dockyard at Chatham (see http://www.thedockyard.co.uk/plan/plan-your-day/victorian-ropery/). It is 1135ft long and when it was built it was the longest in Europe. The basic procedure begins with converting hemp, sisal, coir, manila or manila-hemp, and a range of other natural fibres, into something that can be turned into rope.  First it is "hatchelled" or combed into manageable strands, and then it is converted into yarn by spinning it. Next, the spun strands of yarn are are fed through a plate with holes in it, a "register plate" and compressed through a "die."  Finally the rope is "closed" as follows.  Attached to a moving a moving trolley, and laid along the ropewalk the prepared strands are organized into pairs into pairs of three, separated by a pine-cone shaped wooden block with ridges in it, a bobbin.  They are kept off the ground by being laid over hurdles all along the ropewalk and are fastened to hooks at the other end of the walk.  The hooks are either hand or machine operated and turn the pairs to form twisted stands and as  the length of the rope shortens due to the strands being combined, the trolley moves along.  These pairs are in turn combined by the same technique to form a single length of rope. When the rope has been formed it is coiled, either manually or by machine, ready for transportation. Have a look at the You Tube video Making Rope - Medieval to Edwardian technique to see a manually operated ropewalk in operation, describing and demonstrating parts of the process in detail.  Two other videos are shown in Sources at the end of the post.

The same Rotherhithe
ropewalk in 1868
(click to enlarge)
The longest ropewalk in Rotherhithe was at Downtown, set back from Rotherhithe Street, where it ran behind the terraced houses alongside Acorn Yard.  I have picked it out in pink on the 1811 map at the top of the post, where it is marked as "Rope Walk" and on the 1868 Ordnance Survey (Godfrey Edition) map to the left, where it is marked as "Ropery,"  it is easy to see how long it was on the 1868 map - each of the little rectangles bordering it was a terraced house and its yard.  It extended all the way from the rear of the Trinity Church churchyard to beyond Nelson Dockyard to its north.  The Downtown rope walk is shown on maps dating to 1811 and 1868, but it had been removed by 1914.

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
The rope walk in Rotherhithe had been removed by 1914, and seems to have been converted to a walkway along the side of Acorn Pond, connecting the Upper Acorn Yard with the vast Acorn Yard running along Lady Dock to the south.  Similarly, the Bermondsey ropewalks had been converted into roads and housing by 1914.  The ropewalk on the 1872 map to the west became a Peabody Building and the one marked to the east was built over with more terraced housing and yards. If the 1843 map is anything go to by, earlier ropewalks had already become streets by 1872.  This makes a lot of sense because although the docks were in full swing, this was now the age of steam, the last big sailing ship to be built on Rotherhithe, Lothair, having been launched in 1870, a year after the launch of the comparable Cutty Sark in Blackwall.  Today the area has been transformed so much that it is impossible to see exactly where this intriguing fan of roads was located, but it is clear that Bevington Street and Farncombe Streets are survivors of this cluster of Bermondsey ropewalks.   

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)

Principal sources:

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