A rope usually consists of a number of strands of natural or artificial fibre that are twisted or braided together into a larger and stronger form. The natural fibre used most is hemp and the modern artificial alternative is nylon. The twist of the strands in a twisted or braided rope serves not only to keep a rope together but also enables the rope to more evenly distribute tension among the individual strands. Without any twist in the rope, the shortest strands would always be supporting a much higher proportion of the total load. Another type of rope used in rock climbing is Kernmantel or braided rope, where there are a number of long strands contained by a woven sheath.
Ropes have been made since prehistoric times and these were probably made originally of naturally occurring lengths of plant fibre, such as vines. It was soon found that twisting and braiding these strands together made a much stronger rope. The ancient Egyptians had developed special tools to make rope out of water reed fibres by 4,000 BP (before present). Hemp rope was being made in China from around 2,800 BP and the technology for this spread to Europe.
By the 13th Century in Britain, the ropewalk was being used. Some of these were in long buildings but others were uncovered. The ropewalk was as long as the length of rope being made. Ropes made for ships were usually a cable length, ie one tenth of a nautical mile which was about 608ft. Ropes for other uses such as in mines might be shorter and thus the ropewalks were not as long. The strands were knotted at one end and then laid out together for the whole length.
Ropewalk in a Building
A worker would then twist them together using a tool called a Whimble, walking backwards until they reached the far end. The hook of the Whimble was inserted below the knot and wound round using the handle to form the twisted rope.
By the late 18th Century, a number of rope making machines were being built and patented. These took over the job of twisting the fibres and were self-propelled along rails. The rope workers must have walked many miles a day following the machine up and down the ropewalk.
Although some rope is still made from natural fibre such as sisal, most ropes since the 1950s are now made of artificial fibre such as nylon and polypropylene. A Laid Rope (aka Twisted Rope) consists of three strands and is normally right-laid, or given a final right-handed twist. A Braided Rope consists of a number of long thin strands of fibre surrounded by a braided (tubular) jacket.
Gazetteer of Sites
Bayston Hill – Lyth Hill Ropewalk (SJ47250688)
Constructed in 1835 by John Carter to supply the many mines, farms and barge owners in the district. It was shown on the 1840 tithe map and an 1851 directory entry shows “Carter John, rope maker, Lyth”. It closed in 1893. There was a windmill constructed to work machinery that prepared the hemp fibres for twisting into rope. Around 1920, the owner Mr Hayway removed the machinery from the windmill and it has subsequently lost its sails and top part. However, the lower part still exists.
Lyth Hill Windmill
Bridgnorth - Ropewalk Dingle (SO718934)
Ropewalk Cottage is shown on the 1884 and 1903 OS maps but no mention of a ropewalk itself. However, there are long buildings just to the south that may once have been the rope works. It must have ceased working before 1884.
Bridgnorth – High Town Ropewalk (SO71429331)
The ropewalk does not appear on the 1840 tithe map so was presumably constructed after this date. In the mid-19th Century, it was being operated by a Mr Brown and consisted of a covered walkway, aligned southwest-northeast, with its south-eastern side open. It is shown as working on the 1884 and 1903 OS maps, together with buildings at either side and a large tank. It had been demolished by 1924.
Cardington – New Inn Ropewalk (SO506952)
The New Inn, which is now a private house, used to have a hemp yard where rope making was carried out. The old OS maps do not identify it as such.
Coalbrookdale – Darby Road Ropewalk (SJ66500532)
The Rope Walk is shown on the 1849 tithe map as a straight pathway leading from Darby Road in a north-west direction. Modern maps show Rope Walk as being along the valley but it was at right angles to this. It is believed to have been in operation from the late 18th Century but the 1883 OS map shows it as having ceased.
Coalport – Ladywood Ropewalk (SJ67730316)
James Harrington operated a rope and sail making business until his death in 1848, serving local collieries and boats plying the Severn. John Burroughs took over the rope walk under the title of John Burroughs Ladywood Ropery and carried on a rope making business until his death in 1895, when the business ceased to trade. By this time chains had largely superseded ropes in the collieries. The rope walk was associated with a dwelling to the east which remains today as Ladywood House. A small terrace of four cottages is also shown in 1883 to the south of the ropewalk. While remaining on the 1902 OS map, this had disappeared by 1927, by which time a group of buildings is recorded immediately to the north of the ropewalk (to itself disappear by 1963).
Hemp was grown in this area for rope making between 1750-1850 and the hemp fields were called “hemp butts”. There is also a gate into the churchyard called Hempport.
Fenn’s Moss (SJ489369)
Pollen studies undertaken on the peat of Fenn's Moss show that hemp was once grown there around the beginning of the 18th Century. Although it is just over the border in Wales, the hemp was probably used by Shropshire rope makers.
Llanymynech – Old Ropewalk (SJ268214)
The old ropewalk was in operation in the early 19th Century and ran from the road in a south-east direction towards the canal. It was owned by Joseph Powell of Chester, who made rope and twine there. When the Llanfyllin Railway was constructed in 1863, it cut off the lower end of the ropewalk and caused it to close.
The line of the ropewalk is shown on the 1875 OS map but it was disused. A more detailed description of this ropewalk is HERE.
Llanymynech – New Ropewalk (SJ266211)
Constructed around 1863 when the Llanfyllin Railway was built over the old ropewalk. The new ropewalk was just south of the station and occupied the land that is now the playing fields. It was owned by Joseph Powell of Chester, who made rope and twine there. It is not marked as such on the 1875 OS map but there is a linear feature running north from the road that could be it. It is not known when it ceased operations. A more detailed description of this ropewalk is HERE.
Much Wenlock – Hospital Street Ropewalk (SO623999)
The Market Hall on High Street (once called Hospital Street) is now the library and next to it is the George & Dragon Inn. It has some triangular windows and these are thought to have been fashioned for rope-making.
In the mid-19th Century, the residents included a rope maker but the location of his ropewalk is unknown. It is not shown on OS maps.
Newport – Cooke’s Ropewalk (SJ74621922)
The ropewalk stretches between St Mary’s Street and Watery Lane. It was operated by the Cooke family before 1882, since it is shown on that year’s OS map. It is also shown as working on the 1902 OS map but had ceased by the following year. The ropewalk can still be seen today, albeit a bit overgrown.
Oswestry – Beatrice Street Ropewalk (SJ29182993)
The ropewalk was shown on the 1838 tithe map so must have been working before then. In the mid-19th century, it was operated by Mr Thomas McKiernin of Bailey Street. Industrial housing was built on either side of the rope walk in the 1860s, suggesting that it may have ceased by then. It ran in a north-west direction from Beatrice Street but that street and the whole area was demolished in 1960s to make way for Castlefields Housing Estate. Part of its length still exists between the houses on the modern Albert Road.
There is reference to a ropewalk in Pant but it location is not given and it is not shown on OS maps.
Shifnal - Aston Street Ropewalk (SJ74950766)
A ropewalk is shown on the south side of Aston Street on the 1840 tithe map. It must have been in operation before that date but was destroyed in 1849 by the building of the railway station.
Shrewsbury - Mountfield Ropewalk (SJ49021294)
Not shown on OS map of 1887 so constructed sometime between then and 1902 when it appears. It had closed by 1938. Nearby at SJ48761291 is a modern building called Ropewalk Court. It is not known if it is named after the Mountfield ropewalk or another on site but nothing is shown on OS maps.
Shrewsbury – Smithfield Ropewalk (SJ49141275)
Messrs Porter and Eldrid produced rope during the 19th Century from a ropewalk at Smithfield. They also had a shop in the town centre to sell it. The ropewalk appears to be covered over and is located between the ironworks and cattle market. It is shown on the 1882 OS map so was in existence before that. The long building is shown on subsequent maps but not identified as a ropewalk. The site may have been producing rope for a long time since quays were constructed at Mardol in 1606 and Frankwell in 1608. Downstream cargoes in the barges included rope.
Telford - Ketley Ropewalk (SJ67501108)
Wellington – Water Lane Ropeworks (SJ650113)
Rope had been made in Wellington since the 16th Century and it was noted in 1688 that there was more than one rope maker in Wellington manor. John Barney started making rope in the 1820s and Edward Barney succeeded him, his shop being in New Street and his ropewalk on Water Lane (the stretch of road from the Queen's Hotel to Foundry Road used to be Water Lane but is now called Wrekin Road). By 1842, Thomas Heywood had taken over the business and his family continued rope making until the 1900s.
Wellington – Glebe Street Ropewalk (SJ65341123)
The Wellington Rope Spinning, Saddlery & Harness Company were rope makers in Glebe Street from the 1900s to the 1920s. It is not shown on the 1902 OS map but appears on the one for 1927.
Whitchurch – Green End Ropewalk (SJ54444162)
Shown on 1880 OS Map as a long building to the south-east of the cattle market.