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At Frost Brothers Ltd, Rope Makers

May 17, 2018
by the gentle author

Founded by John James Frost in 1790, Frost Brothers Ltd of 340/342 Commercial Rd was managed by his grandson – also John James Frost – in 1905, when these photographs were taken. In 1926, the company was amalgamated to become part of British Ropes and now only this modest publication on the shelf in the Bishopsgate Institute bears testimony to the long-lost industry of rope making and yarn spinning in the East End, from which Cable St takes its name.

First Prize London Cart Parade – Manila Hemp as we receive it from the Philippines

Hand Dressing

The Old-Fashioned Method of Hand Spinning

The First Process in Spinning Manila – The women are shown feeding Hemp up to the spreading machines, taken from the bales as they come from the Philippines. These three machines are capable of manipulating one hundred and twenty bales a day.

Manila-Finishing Drawing Machines

Russian & Italian Hemp Preparing Room

Manila Spinning

Binder Twine & Trawl Twine Spinning – This floor contains one hundred and fifty six spindles

Russian & Italian Hemp Spinning

Carding Room

Tow Drawing Room

Tow Spinning & Spun Yarn Twisting Room

Tarred Yarn Store – This contains one hundred and fifty tons of Yarn

Tarred Yarn Winding Room

Upper End of Main Rope Ground – There are six ground four hundred yards long, capable of making eighteen tons of rope per ten and a half hour day

Rope-Making Machines – This pair of large machines are capable of making rope up to forty-eight centimetres in circumference

House Machines – This view shows part of the Upper Rope Ground and a couple of small Rope-Making Machines

Number 4 House Machine Room

The middle section of a machine capable of making rope from  three inches up to seven inches in circumference, any length without a splice. It is thirty-two feet in height and driven by an electric motor.

Number 4 Rope Store

Boiler House

120 BHP. Sisson Engine Direct Coupled to Clarke-Chapman Dynamo

One of our Motors by Crompton 40 BHP – These Manila Ropes have been running eight years and are still in first class condition.

Engineers’ Shop with Smiths’ Shop adjoining

Carpenters’ Store & Store for Spare Gear

Exhibit at Earl’s Court Naval & Shipping Exhibition, 1905

View of the Factory before the Fire in 1860

View of the Factory as it is now in 1905 – extending from Commercial St

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 today

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. Judi Jones permalink
    May 17, 2018

    Once again thank you Gentle Author for bringing things back to life.

  2. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    May 17, 2018

    I can smell the place. Great pictures and something I really never really looked at. I used to sail quite a bit, no hemp line though-> dacron, polyester and so on. I still have a rigging knife, I was by no means a rigger.
    Thanks, Ron
    in San Diego, CA

  3. Libby permalink
    May 17, 2018

    Wonderful group portraits of the rope makers! I spent ages looking at each face.

  4. May 17, 2018

    Powerfully evocative of the ingenuity and industry of the time, and great photographs too

  5. May 17, 2018

    I was absolutely fascinated to see this piece, especially the map, as I discovered Lady Mico’s almshouses only last weekend! Remarkable that such an enormous factory was functioning in the midst of these residential streets.

  6. Juliet permalink
    May 17, 2018

    The perspective shows an elevated railway crossing the factory site. There seems to be no remnant of it on the OS map. When did it disappear?

  7. John Barrett permalink
    May 17, 2018

    Lets face it – this was a very important industry no sailing ship could sail without rope rigging. I liked the first pic showing a group of rope makers/posers with their pewter mugs. Hemp and tar smell could linger on board ships such as HMS Victory. This is a very good piece today by GA. Poet John the Poetry Soc & Bus pass poets

  8. May 17, 2018

    You’ve done it again. You’ve bundled us up, and taken us back to a lost world. And we’re immersed. Hands calloused, eyes burning with the granular air, backs sore from toil, the momentary relief of a swig from a tankard, maybe a quick joke or story with a colleague to break the monotony, and then…..back to it. Intrepid, diligent workers – wonderfully captured in these amazing, descriptive photos. True grit and more.

    More than a blog post — This was a total excavation of a hidden world. Wonderful.

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    May 17, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great overview of an important industry in London showing the process of rope making at Frost Brothers, Ltd. Also provides another glimpse into the world of work more than a century ago. The workers seem proud of their trade too …

  10. Gordon Heyes permalink
    May 17, 2018

    I worked the area around St Dunstans for 12 years in the 1960/1970, I had no idea that Frost Brothers existed. In the 1960, was no evidence of the railway line that crossed the area, any ideas?
    I knew that Cable St was so named for rope manufacturing, but once again, I had no idea that it came from Frost Brothers.
    Another gem from Spitalfield Life.

  11. andyinsdca permalink
    May 17, 2018

    There’s a show called “How It’s Made” that did a segment on “traditional ropes” that was filmed at a ropemaker in in Kent, that uses the same process.

  12. gkbowood permalink
    May 17, 2018

    I loved this piece and was constantly finding safety issues in the photos! I enjoyed the wonderful detail and the quality of the photos- Thanks as ever for posting this gem.
    My maternal Great grand father was named Frost but he had a sawmill in Virginia…still you never know, he may have been related to these Frosts…

  13. Pimlico Pete permalink
    May 18, 2018

    Oh it’s so good when the top-quality finds of our Gentle Author lead us to follow-up research and a bonus.

    It seems that the two aerial drawings are showing a different ropery from the one indicated in the accompanying OS map. Indeed there are three different roperies marked on a full 1896 OS map of the district so any confusion is understandable.

    “View of the Factory as it is now in 1905” has Shadwell Station marked on the left, allowing us to locate the “correct” ropery as running parallel to Sutton Street East on the 1896 full map. The station and the overhead railway are still in existence as DLR plus the Fenchurch Street line.

    And yes those faces in the group photographs, we can’t help wondering how their lives were lived. The men clutching tankards (of ale?) appear to be contented.

    Thank you so much GA.

  14. Jan Perry permalink
    May 18, 2018


  15. July 21, 2020

    Wonderfully evocative piece. Thank you. My 5 x great grandfather was a ropemaker named Thomas Matthews of Eastfield St Limehouse. Born C1792. Can you direct me to where I might find employment records please?
    Kind regards

  16. George Dailey permalink
    March 5, 2023

    I do enjoy your work and like you, am no stranger to the Bishopsgate Institute. I am trying to track down Londons most interesting (or quirkiest) individual Artisans. Can you suggest a few names that are still in business? George

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