Friday 18 November 2016

History of the Charlton Ropeworks

History of the Charlton Ropeworks
By John Yeardley

Frost Brothers Ltd.
According to a catalogue of 1906, this business was established in 1790 with a factory in Commercial Road. At that time there were many ropewalks in East London as can be seen from the old maps of the area. Plans at Tower Hamlets Library show the existence in 1703 of a ropewalk on what was to be the Frost site at Sun Tavern Fields in the parish of St. Georges in the East, between Swan Street (now Cable Street) and White Horse Lane, running into Hangman’s Acre (now Commercial Road)

A later map of 1791 clearly shows a wider rope walk on the same site between King David’s Lane (now Cable Street) and White Horse Lane running into Dorans Row (now Commercial Road) Street plans for this date show the existence of the Frost family house at the King David’s Lane end of this ropewalk. (The family later moved to a house on Bromley common in Kent.) The surrounding area was being rapidly developed as can be seen from the map of the same site in 1819 andaround 1836 the Blackwall Railway Company built a viaduct over the factory. The factory was destroyed by fire in 1860 and rebuilt on the same site the following year.

Before the 1860 fire
In 1874 the company, using a machine to Chapman’s patent design of 1797, created a world record by supplying a 10,000 fathom (over 11 miles) continuous length of 61/2 inch circumference rope to Siemens Brothers.



Before the1860 fire


In 1892 the company was producing 40 tonnes of rope per week but by 1906 the output had risen to 120 tonnes using fibres such as manila, Russian, Italian and Indian hemp, coir and sisal.

A limited amount of electric power was introduced into the factory in 1900 but it was soon realised that in order to expand the business further, it would be necessary to move to a new site. The existing steam and gas engines, although trouble free, were designed to be used with multi-storey buildings, and involved not only a great deal of line shafting but also the employment of extra lift operators and additional indirect labour. The factory covered 7 acres and consumed 600 HP.

The move to Charlton
Faced with the prospect of substantial new business from the North German Lloyd Shipping Line James Frost found the ideal green field site for expansion in Anchor and Hope Lane, Charlton in 1913 comprising 17 acres of land complete with wharfage which he purchased for £20,000 and sub-let to the newly formed Charlton Rope Works Ltd.

original plans 1914

The new factory was equipped with latest fibre processing machinery and new ropewalk layouts and was designed to produce 9000 tonnes of rope and 3000 tonnes of twine per annum – more than double the output of Frost Brothers old factory. In the event only one third of the planned ropewalks were ever installed.

When war broke out in 1914 the Frost Brothers output was put at the disposal of the government and much commercial business was lost.

The Charlton foundation stone was laid on the 9th November 1914 and the mill started production in 1915. There was a delay in the delivery of the ropewalk plant and in 1915 the War Office commandeered this building and used it to store aircraft parts until 1920 but the mill continued to rope spin yarn both for Frost brothers and other London ropemakers

Charlton Factory 1960
After the war with business declining in the 1920s the company looked to combine with others to seek economies of scale and eventually in 1925, joined a group of mainly wire rope companies called British Ropes Limited.

Shortly afterwards the small London factory of J.T. Davis and the Falmouth plant of John Stevens were closed and the work transferred to Charlton. The site subsequently absorbed several other factories as production was consolidated there most notably from the old Edinburgh Roperie and Sailcloth Company factory in Leith in 1960, the London Spinning Company in 1967 and the offshore oil business of the Samson Cordage Company of Boston Massachusetts in 1988.

Bales of raw material, primarily sisal from East Africa and manila from The Philippines, were unloaded from the company jetty on the Thames and transported via the company railway to the hemp store. From there the bales would be moved as required into the mill for the fibre to be combed and spun into rope yarn. The bobbins of yarn would be transferred to the ropewalk to be formed into strands and then rope which would be wound into coils on an overhead coiling bank before being moved into the rope store for splicing and packing. The finished product would then leave the premises through the main gate into Anchor and Hope Lane.

Over the years the production process changed with advances in materials, machinery and markets.
The railway engines from the jetty to the rope store were at some point replaced by motor tractors, then in the 1970’s the jetty fell into disuse as it became cheaper to receive and tranship the raw fibre in the North East of England and transport to Charlton by road than to use the London docks.

A rigging shop was constructed to facilitate cutting and splicing of wire ropes.  Many more buildings were added over the years as the site expanded

Modern, highly efficient, and compact rope making machines gradually replaced the ropewalk which eventually closed altogether in 1980.

The advent of synthetic fibres brought about many changes. Machine to make fine braids were installed and skilled operators from local cable manufacturers were recruited to run them.Ropes and braids in a variety of colours, not least khaki for the army and royal blue for the royal yacht Britannia, were required and so a dye house was added.

Mechanical testing became more and more important and physical and chemical laboratories were established.

Reductions in crew numbers on sea going vessels led to the development of large diameter plaited ropes and machines to make these were installed in the 1960’s followed by huge Braiding machines capable of producing ropes up to 240mm in diameter with breaking strengths up to 1200 tonnes to meet the requirements of the worldwide offshore oil industry.

Nylon fibre became available during the Second World War and British Ropes used it to make parachute cords and sophisticated high strength ropes such as the glider tow ropes used in the Arnhem landings and the ropes incorporating communication cables for the submarine attacks in the Norwegian fjords. They also made the huge nets used as emergency arrester gear to allow damaged aircraft to land on airfields and aircraft carriers.

These technologies led after the war to the development of a multitude of new products from mountaineering ropes to industrial webbing slings.

The site was not only involved in manufacturing and testing but housed the sales offices for industrial, marine and offshore oil products. At its height over 450 people were employed. To cater for these employees the site had a canteen complex with several dining rooms and changing facilities for sporting activities. It had tennis and netball courts, football and cricket pitches and a very active sports and social club.

The workforce was generally drawn from the local area but the various amalgamations brought with them employees from other companies and parts of the country such as Edinburgh, Cardiff, Birmingham, Doncaster and Newcastle. As the local population changed so did the mix of people with a growing number of employees from the Indian sub-continent.

As developments accelerated in raw materials, manufacturing processes and markets in the second half of the 20th century the Charlton site remained at the forefront of the fibre rope industry. It was the site of the company’s technical centre and export sales department, pioneering new materials such as Kevlar and Dyneema, extruding sophisticated polymers and installing the largest rope machines in the industry. Its employees played a major role in developing international standards and developing new applications, particularly for the Offshore Oil industry.

Unfortunately the value of the freehold land in London close to the proposed millennium dome in Greenwich became too tempting a prize for the parent company and the site ceased operations in 1996 leaving behind a small wire rope sales operation in Erith. The site is now called “Thames Gateway” and comprises a number of small business units. The last reminder of the illustrious ropemaking history of Anchor & Hope Lane in Charlton can be seen on the wall of Macro’s car park at the junction of Anchor & Hope Lane with the Woolwich Road.

Natural fibre spinning

Synthetic fibre spinning

Eight strand rope machine

The ropewalk about 1960

Small braiding machines

The largest braiding machine in the world

Technical Centre


Anonymous said...

There was a ropeworks in Charlton before 1817. See London Metropolitan Archives reference E/MW/C/075/7.

Unknown said...

my nan lily (lil) carter/mcConville worked here from age of 14 to 40 during the war years she is still here nearly 101

Anonymous said...

i work on the 'Ropery business park' off anchor and hope lane... our factory unit was part of the original complex and still has markings on one outside wall where other buildings were attached. where some of the road surface on the estate has erroded, you can still see the buried railway track.