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In Search Of The Rope Makers Of Stepney

April 16, 2015
by the gentle author

Rope makers of Stepney

In Stepney, there has always been an answer to the question, “How long is a piece of string?” It is as long as the distance between St Dunstan’s Church and Commercial Rd, which is the extent of the former Frost Brothers’ Rope Factory.

Let me explain how I came upon this arcane piece of knowledge. Earlier in the year, I published a series of photographs from a copy of Frost Brothers’ Album in the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute produced around 1900, illustrating the process of rope making and yarn spinning. As a consequence, a reader of Spitalfields Life walked into the Institute and donated a series of four group portraits of rope makers at Frost Brothers which I publish here today for the first time.

I find these pictures even more interesting than the ones I first showed because, while the photos in the Album illustrate the work of the factory, in these newly-revealed photos the subject is the rope makers themselves.

There are two pairs of pictures. Photographed on the same day, the first pair taken – in my estimation – around 1900, show a gang of men looking rather proud of themselves. There is a clear hierarchy among them and, in the first photo, they brandish tankards suggesting some celebratory occasion. The men in bowler hats assume authority and allow themselves more swagger while those in caps withhold their emotions. Yet although all these men are deliberately presenting themselves to the camera, there is relaxed quality and swagger in these pictures which communicates a vivid sense of the personality and presence of the subjects.

The other two photographs show larger groups and I believe were taken as much as a decade earlier. I wonder if the tall man in the bowler hat with a moustache in the centre of the back row in the first of these is the same as the man in the bowler hat in the later photographs? In these earlier photographs, the subjects have been corralled for the camera and many regard us with a weary implacable gaze.

The last of the photographs is the most elaborately staged and detailed. It repays attention for the diverse variety of expressions among its subjects, ranging from blank incomprehension of some to the tenderness of the young couple with the young man’s hands upon the young woman’s shoulders – a fleeting gesture of tenderness recorded for eternity.

I was so fascinated by these photographs I wanted to go and find the rope works for myself and, on an old map, I discovered the ropery stretching from Commercial Rd to St Dunstan’s, but – alas – I could discern nothing on the ground to indicate it was ever there. The Commercial Rd end of the factory is now occupied by the Tower Hamlets Car Pound, while the long extent of the ropery has been replaced by a terrace of house called Lighterman’s Court that, in its length and extent, follows the pattern of the earlier building quite closely. At the northern end, there is now a park where the factory reached the road facing St Dunstan’s. Yet the terraces of nineteenth century housing in Bromley St and Belgrave St remain on either side and, in Bromley St, the British Prince where the rope makers once quenched their thirsts still stands.

After the disappointment of my quest to find the rope works, I cherish these photographs of the rope makers of Stepney even more as the best record we have of their existence.

Gang of rope makers at Frost Brothers (You can click to enlarge this image)

Rope makers with a bale of fibre and reels of twine (You can click to enlarge this image )

Rope makers including women and boys with coils of rope (You can click to enlarge this image)

Frost Brothers Ropery stretched from Commercial St to St Dunstan’s Churchyard in Stepney

In Bromley St

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to read the original post

Frost Bros, Rope Makers & Yarn Spinners

21 Responses leave one →
  1. April 16, 2015

    I enjoyed reading the post today, I had digs on Belgrave Street back in the sixties! Valerie

  2. michelle newell permalink
    April 16, 2015

    The style of the womens’ clothes suggests that the last two photographs may be even earlier. They are wearing the tight sleeves, short bodices, knotted kerchiefs and rows of decorative buttons current in the 1870s.

  3. Stephen Schwarz permalink
    April 16, 2015

    Fascinating, but how long IS a piece of string and how long was the ropery? How does it compare with the Chatham ropery which is 346m and well worth visiting.

  4. Veronica permalink
    April 16, 2015

    Thanks so much for today’s posting about the Stepney ropery which reminded me that in the 1911 census for Stebondale St Poplar I had found my grandmother as a 17 year old employed as a ropemaker. I found it amazing that women would be involved in this industry and did some research at the time about which factory she might have worked at. Lots of ropeworks in the area so got no further forward with that but I did find a link for Warwick University Library which have a small holding of documents regarding a strike by the women ropemakers of Frost Brothers in 1890/91. Your 2nd set of photographs may well have been taken around this time and it would be lovely to think that the leader of the strike, Amie Hicks, is one of the women shown.

    http://dscalm.warwick.ac.uk/DServe/dserve.exe?dsqIni=Dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqDb=Catalog&dsqCmd=show.tcl&dsqSearch=(RefNo==%27ELR%27)

  5. April 16, 2015

    Pictures such as these ones, made a century ago, are fantastic. Ok, they’re black and white, they’re old but when you look at those men and women, it looks like they’re alive, like you’re transposed into those times.

  6. Graham Bould permalink
    April 16, 2015

    Fascinating and really beautifully detailed photographs of working men in the nineteenth century. My attention was seized by the second of the earlier photographs (the one with the women and young boys) because the chap in the second row from the back, third from the left, bears an uncanny likeness to myself and to one of my sons! It is extremely unlikely that there is a familial link, as my origins are from two other areas of the UK, but it certainly made me look closely at him.
    Thank you GA, for yet another glimpse of the East End that has now vanished.
    Graham B.

  7. Vicky permalink
    April 16, 2015

    Fabulous photographs and clicking on them really springs them into life. Thank you to the reader who donated them to the Bishopsgate Institute!

  8. Chris F permalink
    April 16, 2015

    I love these old black & white photos… Please keep posting… Thank heavens that there were people out there taking photographs of these activities and recording the lives of ordinary workers.

  9. April 17, 2015

    A Wonderful addition to the photos from the old album .Before Frosts there were many ropemakers across the eastern part of London , for example before it was a cemetery part of Bow Cemetery was a rope walk.J T Davis Ltd operated between 1874 ans 1925
    I have postcard from a photo taken by Saunders of 104 Grove road
    Des Pawson Museum of Knots & Sailors’s Ropework Ipswich

  10. Dave Green permalink
    April 19, 2015

    Great photos, I was surprised by the quality and sharpness of the first one as I collect old photos and it is really a striking picture but the one of the last group including the women workers is of great beauty I think. Keep ‘em coming GA.

  11. Julia permalink
    April 24, 2015

    Really interesting story and wonderful photos. In answer to Stephen Schwarz, by my reckoning the works would have been a fraction over 350m long.

  12. Jean Folkard permalink
    September 23, 2015

    My grandmother was a rope spinner along with her father and two sisters. I think they may have worked at Frosts. I have a photo taken in 1890 when my grandmother was 15. How can I attach it. I would also like to know if she worked at Frosts.

  13. Dave Hill permalink
    November 13, 2015

    Just reread “Lord” George Sangers book “70 years a Showman” 1905, he owned a circus, he relates how the circus people helped to put out a huge fire at a ropeworks beside Stepney Green whilst attending Stepney Fair in 1848, was it this one?

  14. John Hannay permalink
    February 7, 2016

    My grandfather Ernest James Hannay was employed by Frosts rope works and was killed in a boiler explosion in February 1908, he died three days later from scolds.

  15. Dawn beaver permalink
    March 13, 2016

    My maternal great grandfather’s family, the Charltons, were rope makers in Brook Street,which is now part of Cable Street. They had dealings with Frosts in Sutton Street and until the Catholic school was built at the junction of Sutton Street and Commercial Road, a stone in part of the wall bore my great great grandfathers initials PWC for Peter Withers Charlton.

  16. Judith Martin permalink
    June 15, 2016

    Wonderful, thank you. Re. the 1848 fire, some of the materials were notoriously combustible (linseed will combust spontaneously), so the process had to be handled cautiously. And the bowler hats: I was told about ten years ago by a twine maker who’d worked at Dawe’s in West Coker, Somerset (which closed in 1968), that the foremen wore bowler hats and you could distinguish them (from anyone else in a bowler hat, presumably) because they were shiny from the size used in finishing the twine. Twine not rope that is, but the process is the same, and the twisting is surprisingly difficult to master.

  17. Heather Cryan permalink
    August 17, 2016

    Thank you so much for this posting, the map and photographs regarding the Ropery. My maternal ancestors lived and worked in this area as Ropemakers. Their surname was Slowley,
    and their parish church was St Dunstans Stepney. They could well be in the photos – have to look for a likeness.

  18. Paul Coulter permalink
    August 24, 2016

    My wife’s ancestors were rope makers and twine spinners in Stepney, most of them baptised in St Georges. They were the Petts family, but some used Pitts as their surname. I have researched back to William born 1804. I haven’t discovered wether they worked for others or were self employed selling their own ropes. They all had large families. Having just visited the Chatham rope works, conditions must have been very grim both at work and at home in those days with even the young children working in squalor.
    The pictures are very good and could possibly include members of the Petts families.

  19. Mick Lemmmerman permalink
    August 31, 2016

    Message to Veronica about rope works. She might not see this, so I’d be grateful of the admin can send it on to her. There was only one rope works on the Island, and that was Hawkins & Tipson’s Globe Works in East Ferry Rd. It is unlikely your grandmother left the Island every day to work elsewhere – virtually nobody worked far from their abode (or vice versa). In the case of the Island that was especially so.

  20. December 5, 2016

    Hi, what a lovely find, I have been researching my father’s ancestors for a few years now, and find that they were all rope makers. My Mum and Dad and all near family lived in the East End of London, until they lost their home in the Blitz. I had never really talked much to my Dad (Arthur James Gibson) about his side of the family, but felt sure he said they had come from up north somewhere. Cousins laughed at this memory and said they’d always lived in London. But when i started tracing back, i was surprised to see they were mainly based in Wisbech. My great granddad James Gibson seemed to travel to many places for work, Lincoln, Yorkshire, but eventually marrying a Norfolk farmers daughter, and moving to London. The photo’s on here are breathtaking, one can only imagine how our ancestors may have looked, but here we have a positive understanding of their lives. Thank you for your wonderful research!

  21. Christine Bodle permalink
    February 6, 2017

    My 4th gt grandfather was Edward James Blandford, secretary to the Committee of 200 back in 1819, and it was said that his 5 sons were trained as Rope makers but only know that they were under 18 years old in 1819 and that their last name was Blandford, and they lived at 54 Margret street in Hackney. Can anyone help me with an more information? Thanks Chris Bode

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