The Rope Works of Berwick

This piece is from the talk I gave recently as part of the Great Performing Rope art project, the last event of Berwick 900.

The use of ropes for hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting, and climbing dates back to prehistoric times. It is likely that the earliest “ropes” were naturally occurring lengths of plant fibre, such as vines, followed soon by the first attempts at twisting and braiding these strands together to form the first proper ropes in the modern sense of the word.

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Impressions of cordage found on fired clay provide evidence of string and rope-making technology in Europe dating back 28,000 years.  Fossilised fragments of two-ply laid rope were found in one of the caves at Lascaux, dating to approximately 15,000 BC.

The ancient Egyptians were probably the first civilisation to develop special tools to make rope. Egyptian rope dates back to 4000 to 3500 B.C. and was generally made of water reed fibres.

Rope has hundreds of uses in fields as diverse as construction, seafaring, sports, theatre and the arts.

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The uses of rope are many and varied.

Types of material

Hemp

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Hemp plants grow up to 15 feet tall and rope is made from fibres in the tall, upright stems of the plants. It is very strong but it has to be dipped in tar to make the ropes waterproof and needed subsequent re-coating.  Hemp plants do not need a hot climate. Rope makers used hemp from Lincolnshire, Russia and Italy.

Manila

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Abaca, also called Manila hemp comes from the leaves of the abaca plant, a type of wild banana, grown in countries with a tropical climate, particularly the Philippines, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. It is waterproof so the yarns did not need tarring but not as strong as hemp.  Manila was the premier material for marine ropes where its strength, lightness and water-resistance were appreciated.

Coir 

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Coir fibre comes from the shells of coconuts. Palm trees grow in countries with tropical climates like India. The rope is good for making fishing nets as it doesn’t rot in salt water but is the weakest of the natural fibres.

Sisal

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Sisal comes from the fibrous leaves of an agave plant. The plant is grown in areas with a tropical climate. It is grown in Mexico, Florida, the Carribean and Eastern Africa.. It is not as strong as hemp or manila but it stretches slightly making it good for mooring ropes.

Rope manufacture

There are essentially 3 stages to rope making, though in truth it can be very complex.

Hatchelling

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The first stage is rather like that in traditional spinning.  Hatchelling is the straightening or combing out of the raw fibres on a hatchet.

Spinning

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These fibres are then taken by the Spinner who would wrap a bundle round his or her waist, twist some onto a rotating hook and then feeding them in walking backwards, would spin up to 1000 feet of yarn in 12 minutes. Almost the full length of the ropewalk.  This yarn would then be wound onto bobbins and taken over to the ropewalk.

Closing

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The final stage of rope making is the closing of the rope. This is carried out by using the closing machines, one at each end of the ropewalk.  One, with three or four rotating hooks, is the standing machine and the other, with one rotating hook, is the traveller. This is so named as it has to be able to move, because, as the lines are closed into rope, the rope shortens on itself.  

The line of yarn is tied on to the traveller hook, wound around the first of the standing machine hooks, back to the traveller and so forth.
The standing machine is then started, winding each of the double lines of yarn into three thicker, single lines.

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These are kept separate by a piece of wood called a top, traditionally, a conical shaped piece of wood with three grooves, one for each strand
The traveller handle is then turned and the closing of the rope behind the top, pushes the top all the way to the end of the ropewalk.

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Finally, the ends are cut and bound and the rope sealed with tar if need be.  This would have to be repeated in time, which may be why sailors are known as Jack Tars.

The rope making process can be seen in this short film from the BBC programme, The Edwardian Farm.

Rope making in Berwick

Much of the information about Berwick rope making comes from a paper written in 1990 for the Berwickshire Naturalists Club by the late Jack Bainbridge.

Salmon fishing and shipping have been at the heart of Berwick trade since the beginning of the town’s origins.

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Detail of Berwick town centre, c1570.

The layout of many medieval towns worked well for family rope or twine walks because of their long, narrow alleys, which stretch back from the main streets. A man would make twine and small ropes in the alleys off the main street, with the help of, perhaps, his son turning the hooks.

In common with most trades in Berwick, many of the rope makers were Freemen or apprenticed to Freemen and in turn became Freemen themselves.  Apprentices started when 14 or 15 years old.  By the mid-19th century, there seemed to have been a wide age range of workers, the younger men coming up through the ranks.  Rope makers could be quite old—George Bogue was working the Low Ropery till he was 81, Robert Davidson of Castlegate was 67 and Matthew Middlemiss, 62 when they retired.  For instance, James How, born in 1832, was apprenticed to the Bogues at the Low Ropery.  In 1917 he had become the senior (oldest) Freeman and retired from the rope making business ten years later at the age of 75.  He died, aged 91, in 1923.  His son, Robert, followed him into the trade becoming Freemen also.

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Detail from print showing ships in Berwick port, 1746.

By the middle of the 18th century, after the Act of Union and wars in Europe, Berwick was beginning to get its second burst of economic prosperity.  This engraving by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck published in 1746 shows a bustling port with large ships.  With large ships comes a lot of rigging and that means a lot of rope.  A first rate ship of war needed 78.5 tons which equates to 43 miles!

In the “modern” era, ship building started in Berwick in 1751 by Arthur Byram in Berwick.
This soon led to a ropery being established.  George Loch, a rope maker from Newcastle acquired a lease in 1752 on the stretch of land behind the old medieval walls “…from the old Scotch Gate along by the Bell Tower, towards the Gate in the Back Greens that leads to the Maudlin Fields”.  The Berwick Ropery Company was swiftly formed with many prominent Freemen being founder members.

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Detail of John Wood’s map of the town from 1822, showing Loch’s ropery below the medieval walls near the Bell Tower.

By the end of the 18th century, three other roperies had been established though their locations are uncertain.  One is thought to be the Low Ropery outside the present day infirmary, also shown on the 1822 map.

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The Low Ropery, 1822.

This was also the last operational ropery on the north side of the Tweed.  In 1929, the ropery was being managed by Mrs Jane Wilson who gave it up in favour of running a china shop in Castlegate.

The rope manufactured was not always for shipping like Loch’s had been.  Berry, Gillie and Co. were engaged in making “cord and small ropes” for the fisheries.  This may have been on the Avenue which is known later as the Old Twine Walk.

In Tweedmouth, the Messrs Dryden worked making ropes and sheep nets (for fencing sheep within turnip fields to graze).  This was to the north of what is now the Asda car park.  By the mid-19th century, this area was a hive of industry with a salmon fishery shiel, an iron foundry and boilermakers factory nearby.

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Detail from 1852 OS map.  The ropery is to the south of Church Road.  Note Lee’s boatyard top right.

An interesting ropery is situated on the Lions House allotments.  The site is interesting for many reasons; we can see a bowling green for one.  The 1822 map shows the Berwick Ropeworks, in common with many of the others, as having an extensive long shed.

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Inside a rope works.

The inside of a rope works must have been extremely dusty and also dangerous.  The Castlegate Ropery, run by the Davidsons, illustrates this.  It was situated behind no 5 Castlegate.  What with all the dry fibre and tar within the premises, they were dangerous places and fire broke out at Castlegate in 1879.  Once the alarm was raised plenty of assistance was available, the hose was put into operation and speedily subdued the fire, but not until £150 worth of damage was done.  The cause of the accident was a spark, from the pipe of one of the workmen, landing on some hemp.

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The boundary wall to the north of the 5 Castlegate site.  The vertical lines of brick set into the stonework occur at regular intervals for the length of the wall suggesting partitions of some sort possibly.

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Remains of a brick outbuilding at the west end of the Castlegate site that may (or may not) be related to the rope works.

Sixteen years earlier, fire also broke out at a Tweedmouth ropery by the railway embankment.  There were in fact two rope walks by the embankment.  The north end of one was to the south of the Ord Road, and the other, to its south.

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The north and south Embankment Roperies can just be made out in this photo.

The North Ropery was still being operated in the 20th century by Edwin Caisley and his father.  They were often to be seen in the Corn Exchange on Sandgate plying their trade in twine, rope and sheep nets to the farming community.  
Changes in agricultural practice and the death of Mr Caisley Snr led to Edwin giving up the business in 1956 at the age of 44.  He became a cinema commissionaire and petrol pump attendant.  He, and with him, the Berwick tradition of rope making died in 1978.

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