Skip to content

Terry Barns, Knot Tyer

March 20, 2016
by the gentle author

‘There isn’t really a word for it in English,’ admitted Terry Barns, ‘in French, they call it ‘matelotage’ meaning ‘sailors’ knot-making.’

Terry did not become a serious knot tyer until his fifties, yet it was a tendency that revealed itself in childhood. Celebrating the Queen’s Coronation in 1952, when Terry was just nine years old, his mother made him a guardsman’s outfit from red and black crepe paper with a busby fashioned from the shoulders cut out of an old fur coat. Terry’s contribution was to make the chin strap. ‘We got some gold string and I tied reef knots over a core, making what I now know is known as a ‘Pilgrim’s Sennet’ or a ‘Soloman’s Bar,’ he explained to me in wonder at his former precocious self, ‘but I never thought anything about it at the time.’

This is how Terry tells the story of the intervening years –

‘My early life was in the Queensbridge Rd but I was born in Hertfordshire because Hitler was trying to blow up the East End in 1944. My mum was a dress machinist and my dad was a wood machinist, he used to drill the holes in bagatelles and I still have one he made at home. In 1950, when I was six, we got a Council House in Clapton with a bathroom and an inside toilet – it was wonderful.

Somehow,  I passed the 11-plus and ended up at Grocers’ Company School in Hackney Downs. When I left school at fourteen, being a prudent person, I joined the General Post Office as a telephone engineer, running around Mare St and Dalston. Nobody told me I could have stayed on at school and I soon realised that if I didn’t leave the GPO, I’d never know anything else. So I became a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ and went off to Australia in 1966.

I met my wife Carol in Pedro St in Hackney at that time and she followed me to Australia shortly after. I was a very quick learner and I had a very good job in Sydney working for a Japanese telephone company, Hitachi, but we had no intention of staying and came back in 1968. Then we got married in 1969, had three children and bought a house, so that occupied me for the next twenty years! I went back to the GPO which became BT and, when I was fifty, they asked if I would like to take some money and not go back again. So I have been living on my BT pension for the past twenty years and that has been the story of my life.’

Yet, all this time that Terry had been working with telephone cables, his tendency with string and rope had been merely in abeyance. ‘In the seventies, my wife bought me a copy of The Ashley Book of Knots,’ he revealed, bringing out a pristine hardback copy of the knotter’s bible containing nearly four thousand configurations. At a stall outside the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Terry came across the International Guild of Knot Tyers which led to a four day course with legendary knot tyer, Des Pawson in 1994. ‘He’s got a museum of rope work in his back garden,’ Terry confided in awe.

‘I’m an engineer, but Des – he’s artistic,’ Terry informed me, ‘he educated me how to see things, he showed me when things look right.’ For over ten years, Terry has been on the Council of the Guild of Tyers, accompanying Des as his bag man, demonstrating knot work at festivals of matelotage in France – ‘My kind of holiday,’ he describes it enthusiastically.

When a sculptor cast a rope in bronze to symbolise the identity of the East End, it was Terry who wound the strands – and you can see the result at the junction of Sclater St and Bethnal Green Rd today. The largest pieces of rope you ever saw are placed as features in Terry’s front garden in Woodford. Inside the house, walls are hung with nautical paintings and shelves are lined with volumes of maritime history. They tell the story of one man’s lifetime entanglement with cable, rope and string, and remind of us of how the East End was built upon the docks, of which the ancient and ingenious culture of rope work was a major thread, still kept alive by enthusiasts like Terry Barns.

Terry with one he tied earlier

You might like to find out more at International Guild of Knot Tyers

You may also like to read about

Frost Brothers, Ropemakers & Yarn Spinners

The Ropemakers of Stepney

At Arthur Beale

7 Responses leave one →
  1. March 20, 2016

    Oh lovely! I’m a knot enthusiast too, I used to make up ways to make bracelets for my friends when I was little, so satisfying.
    I didn’t know there was a club – I’ll look out for you and Des 🙂

  2. March 20, 2016

    What an interesting hobby! Valerie

  3. Richard permalink
    March 20, 2016

    An interesting read. I had problems with the clovehitch and sheep shank in the scouts but managed the simple surgical knots necessary when sewing up the nether regions of ladies after childbirth as a medical student. I’m sure that doesn’t happen now though.

  4. pauline taylor permalink
    March 20, 2016

    Now some of us need instructions as to how to untie a knot!!!

  5. Chris Ryan permalink
    March 20, 2016

    Another gem, life seems far more interesting reading these daily blogs Thank you from a cockney languishing in Somerset.

  6. March 20, 2016

    My favorite knot is the trilene knot. I know, you are surprised that I have a favorite knot 😉

  7. Terry Barns permalink
    March 22, 2016

    For you aficionados out there the tying of reef/square knots over a former is referred to as
    Portuguese Sennet’ or a ‘Solomon’s Bar

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS