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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Making Enough Rope

We recently enjoyed a very interesting visit to the Ropery at Chatham Historic Dockyard. Although it's now called the 'Victorian Ropery', rope has been made on this site since the early 17th century, and the Ropery itself dates back to the late 18th century.

The Royal Navy required lots of rope to equip its ships; a vessel like Nelson's flagship, the HMS Victory, (which is celebrating its 250th birthday this year) needed at least 20 miles of rope just for the rigging for its sails.

Laying a rope, and construction of a rope.
Ropes were usually made from Russian hemp. But first, the hempen fibres needed to be cleaned and straightened.
A man 'heckled' or 'hatchelled' the hemp strands by whacking them against a spiked semicircular wooden apparatus.

The cleaned fibres were far too short to make a rope, so they were spun into yarn - this was a highly skilled job. A trained spinner could make a thousand feet of yarn in 12 minutes.

The spun yarns were then treated with tar (so they didn't rot at sea), then twisted again ('registered') into strands. The strands were taken to the 'laying-walk' and 'laid' to make a rope. Three strands twisted together made a 'hawser' rope, and three hawsers twisted together made a 'cable'.

The strands were fastened to hooks attached to a rotating wheel at one end of a long room (the rope-walk), and then fastened to one hook, also attached to a wheel, at the far end of the room. The strands were threaded through a wooden block or 'top' to ensure that the rope was evenly tensioned when the two wheels were turned (in opposite directions). Turning the wheels twisted the strands together to make the rope. All this work was human-powered until Captain Huddart introduced steam machinery in the early 19th century (at Limehouse). I had a go at turning the wheel and I can tell you that it is hard work!

Although young children worked in ropewalks in the West of England and other places in the early 1840s, they do not seem to have been employed at Chatham at that date. In the 1860s hatchelling and spinning machinery, which could be operated by women (who were paid less than the men) was introduced at Chatham.
The women had their own entrance to the works - to stop them getting up to mischief with the male workers!
The Ropewalk, Chatham.
Women workers' entrance.

 Rope is still made by traditional methods at the Ropery at Chatham, although several different materials are used nowadays. 

All author photos © Sue Wilkes, and photo of me by Nigel Wilkes. All engravings from Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts, Vol. I, c.1862.
Video copyright Nigel Wilkes.

Here's one I made earlier; the rope I made is on the left. 

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