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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

40 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.

  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

  22. leslie mansbridge permalink
    May 31, 2017

    family History
    Robert mansbridge birth 1621 farther was Henry and Jane
    London Tower hamlets
    St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney
    address was 2 brook street
    rope maker

  23. Katya Epstein permalink
    January 7, 2018

    If Frost Bros. was at 340 Commercial as you say in the last post, then it was actually south of Commercial extending to Cable St. just east of Sutton, seen in this map from 1897: That’s the Blackwall Railway running over it in the bird’s eye views; Shadwell Station is labelled at the left of the second image from 1906. It can also be seen on this map from 1801, when Sutton was called Church Lane:

  24. Katya Epstein permalink
    January 7, 2018

    Wait, I take back the part about the 1801 map. That rope walk is further West.

  25. Valerie nee Pales permalink
    December 24, 2018

    Have just stumbled across this wonderful information and the amazing photos.

    My great great Grandfather William Pales b 1801 was living in Regent Road, Stepney in 1861. Occupation Ropemaker. On 26th September 1870 he died “ suddenly in Rope Grounds”, Mile End Old Town

    I have searched old maps and none mention Rope Grounds. I thought perhaps the death certificate should have read “Rope Walk” but I notice at least four Rope Walks in different locations in Mile End Old Town! Can anyone throw light on this?

  26. Sarah Frost permalink
    April 7, 2019

    I would be fascinated to learn more about the Frost’s as i’m a direct descendent. Any suggestions?

  27. Aaron permalink
    December 13, 2019

    Thanks so much for this interesting write up. My ancestors Richard Bill & sons Thomas, Frederick & Richard were Rope makers of Ratcliff on the banks of the Thames from 1800-1850’s.

  28. Donna permalink
    April 26, 2020


    These photos are fantastic!

    I’m desperately trying to find my gt grandfather who stated he was a rope maker turn of the century.

    I cannot find him on genealogy sites…….I wonder if he’s pictured here?

    Do you know if they kept records of their workers, and if so, where can I locate them?

    I have such limited information on him, my searching over the years always comes to a dead-end.

    Thanks for sharing these amazing photos.

  29. Barbara Wager permalink
    June 5, 2020

    I remember as a child in the late 1950″s and early 60’s My uncle worked in a rope making firm in Wapping Lane E.1. he was aan office clerk and his office was above the factory I remember going with him to work and sitting at his desk playing with an old style adding machine . I have looked on line for any information about the place but cannot find anything on it l do remember going down to the work area and the smell of the ropes. Would anyone be able to help me find information about this please.

  30. Donna permalink
    July 10, 2020

    I’m still trying to find gt gt grandfather, Charles Henry Morrisson (Morrison), who was a rope maker and was 17th battalion London regiment rifleman too. His 1911 census highlights his occupation, and he lives in James Place Ratcliff, was 5’2” according to his war records, so I do wonder if he is the shorter guy in the first photo as he does have big resemblance to my grandmothers uncle Joe.

    If anyone has literally any information, or a photo which would also be wonderful, I’m all ears.

    Does anyone know if their work records were kept despite being predominantly casuals?

    I wonder if the Island History Trust holds anything?

    Let’s all club together and find our amazing ancestors who deserve recognition for their hard lives making a crust, or not. True survivors.

  31. Helen Ireland permalink
    December 14, 2020

    I think the Ropery (the long rope-walk strip) shown on the map is the stretch of land that lies behind the gardens of the Bromley Street houses. You may know this already, but that strip exists to this day and is ‘common land’ shared and used by all the residents and their families. I do know someone who lives there, if that would be a helpful introduction?
    In the 1970s, at the southern (Commercial Road) end where the strip converges with the end of Belgrave Street, there was a large vehicle factory/workshop run by the Zenith company. Later, in the early ’90s, this was demolished and a smart car showroom was built by Renault; this is now the TH Car Pound. However, north of that, on Belgrave Street beyond the junction with Troon Street and on the site of Lighterman Mews and the new-build houses that follow on up towards St Dunstan’s, there was an extensive piece of ground that remained rough, overgrown, abandoned and undeveloped for years. I presume that this was the site of the Ropery factory. In the 70s, the story locally was that the site was contaminated. It tallies exactly with that section of the map north of Troon Street, opposite which you can see the X which marks the entrance that gives access to the Ropery yard. It’s interesting that the houses (that is, if they are houses) that back on to the Ropery beyond that X, don’t have the back extension common to all the others in the area. I am wondering why.
    Aside from all this, the photographs and all the correspondence they have provoked, are absolutely wonderful! Thank you.

  32. Donna permalink
    February 1, 2021


    Does anyone know how I can find the names of those in the first 2 photographs please?

    I’m convinced one of them is the relative I’ve been looking for for years now.

    I just need their names to know for sure.

    I’ve emailed Bishopsgate Institute but covid-19 may affect a response or ability to check in the file on site.

    Thanks in advance.

  33. Niki Salfranc permalink
    April 27, 2021

    This is fascinating! I have been looking for more information about ropemakers as I have one in my family tree from the early 1800s in the Cornhill area in London, 2 miles from Stepney. He went on to make rope fire escapes, his son went into the trade and thence evolved into a cablemaker for the nascent telecommunications industry. Wonderful to put some faces into the frame. And I know all about dead ends – try looking for birth, marriage and death records for Henry Rogers if you have lots of spare money!! Thank you for this, I am now a convert to your site.

  34. Niki Salfranc permalink
    April 27, 2021

    I have found in the British newspaper Archives a report on the Stepney Fair conflagration of 1847 (not 1848). The text from Morning Advertiser – Thursday 27 May 1847 is as follows.

    EXTENSIVE FIRE AT STEPNEY FAIR. Yesterday afternoon, soon after one o’clock, a fire broke out in the rope and twine factory of Mr. William Marnes, in Fairfield-place, Stepney, and adjoining the large field behind the Prince of Wales Tavern, in which number of booths, swings, and merry-go-rounds, forming part of Stepney Fair, is held. Mr. Marnes’s factory is separated by a dwarf fence, and is partially under the same roofs and sheds as the adjoining rope-ground of Mr. H. T. Gray, on the east. The field where the fair is held adjoins it on the west, and two drinking and dancing booths, each about 80 feet in length, and 30 feet in width, belonging to Mr. John Gerhold, of the Prince of Orange, in Fieldgate-street, Whitechapel, and Mr. Waller, of the King’s Head, appeared in imminent danger of being destroyed, the backs of them being close upon Mr. Marnes’s sheds, and no time was lost in commencing their removal; but the flames extended with such fearful rapidity, in a direction from south to north, that the booths were torn down. Several swings were at the same time removed. There were as many as 20,000 persons in the fair, and an indescribable scene of confusion took place. The greater portion of the shows and booths were at once closed ; the wreck of the King’s Head and Prince of Orange booths, with the seats, tables, wines, liquors, and barrels of beer, were strewn about in all directions, and the clowns, harlequins, pantaloons, and others, in their grotesque costumes, who had just been amusing the people with their drolleries, and the more serious characters of the penny theatres, changed their occupations in an instant, and lent their assistance to save property, and subdue the fire. In a few minutes an enormous quantity of hemp, flax, tar, ropes, mats, and other combustible materials, were on fire, which extended from shed to shed, consuming everything as it progressed. The workmen and show people endeavoured to arrest the progress of the Hames, but in vain. The wind was blowing rather fresh from the south, and there appeared no chance of saving any portion of the buildings. The fire length extended to Mr. Marnes’s dwelling-house and shop, about feet from the end of the factory, where it first commenced. Fortunately the greater portion of the stock, consisting of rope, twine, mats, and hemp, had been removed, together with a large portion of the furniture, but the interior of the house was gutted. It was not till the two factories of Mr. Marnes and Mr. Gray, and the dwelling-house, presented one immense mass of fire that the engines arrived. At three o’clock the efforts of the firemen had so far got the fire under to prevent any danger of its further extension, and soon afterwards they began to cool the ruins of the sheds and workshops, which were at that time blazing like a furnace. The destruction of the two factories is complete. From two o’clock till four, the timbers which supported the warehouses and other erections were burnt through, the roofs were continually falling in. At five o’clock the fire was completely got under, and the business of the fair, which had been suspended by this untoward event, recommenced. The loss sustained by Mr. Marnes, a most industrious man, is estimated at £3,000, and he is not insured for any portion thereof. Mr. Gray is loser to about half that amount. Mr. Gerhold, Mr. Waller, Mr. Butler, Mr. Moore, and others, have also sustained great losses. In the evening the fair was densely crowded, and the ruins were the most attractive spot in it.

  35. Jacqui permalink
    January 21, 2022

    What a fabulous insight…my gt gt gt grandfather was a rope maker in the 1850s. Lived in Bale st St Dunstans area of Stepney. If only we had names to the photograph.

  36. CAROLE HARVEY permalink
    April 7, 2022

    Wow my 3x great grandfather William Arthur Marns is the ropemaker in the newspaper report .He went bankrupt in 1836 and his wife Jemima Craigie took over the company’s name. He left the firm to his wife on his death and then to his son George Thomas. His wife’s father was James Craigie who also was a ropemaker employing 6 people. I can’t find out any more on him only that he married Mary someone and later Elizabeth Macey.

  37. August 28, 2022

    My Grandfather was born in 421 Cable Street. Shadwell, 1889. His name William Winn. Later went on to be a Rope Maker. Fought in WW1. Would love to know more of his history if possible.

  38. Grant Muckart permalink
    June 10, 2023

    I just stumbled across this website and those are some fascinating photographs They make me feel that I have been transported back in time to the Victorian era ! The expressions on each man’s face are interesting to explore. Presently I am engaged in a research project documenting the history and practice of ropemaking in Perth, Scotland during the Victorian era. My research has uncovered an Andrew Buik, a Dundonian who arrives in Perth sometime in the early 1820’s and sets up shop here. He was a successful businessman and when he died left the equivalent of £115,00 in todays money in trust for his family. He had seven boys and six survived into adulthood. They all became Ropemakers and several founded their own distinct Ropemaking businesses. Some were better at business than others, and one went down to London to try his hand at ropemaking down there. His name was William Henry Buik. I need to have a search for him in the English Census returns. He eventually returns to Dundee when he retrired.

  39. Rebecca Hutton permalink
    November 12, 2023

    My great Grandad, George Bogust, from East London, worked in a rope making shop in Monument (or somewhere in near this area). We have a photo of him outside the shop but can’t locate the name of the road it would have been on. Would be incredible to find the address, the name of the shop was W.Good & Son. I can see the number 46 in the photo but can’t find any other information online. If anyone can help I’d be extremely grateful for information.

  40. patrick cooney permalink
    February 8, 2024

    My grand mother Mary Kate Clarke worked at Frosts. A memory was working in the open in the winter. A man would walk around the women who worked there with a can of very hot water which they could dip their fingers into to, no pun intended, defrost

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