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Terry Barnes, Knot Tyer

February 23, 2019
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. February 23, 2019

    The story of Terry’s life really roped me in ! It takes some skill to be able to make a knot as he displays. I should think you would need very strong hands as well as lots of patience

  2. Paul permalink
    February 23, 2019

    Surely he should be living in noting hill or Nottingham ?

  3. February 23, 2019

    Knots are wonderful, and so is Terry.

  4. Bernie permalink
    February 23, 2019

    That rings many bells! I went to Parmiter’s School in Bethnal Green, but Grocer’s was much closer to my home; I don’t know why I went to the further one. In my third or fourth year I discovered Bethnal Green Library as a place to spend lunchtime and there discovered Ashley’s marvellous Book of Knots. My pockets thereafter bulged with hanks of parachute cord (it was wartime) and I would sit in the library trying to make and to learn the easier and more useful of Ashley’s knots. Eventually I bought my own copy, but I am afraid that “difficult” knots like the one Terry holds were never mastered.

  5. Virginia Heaven permalink
    February 23, 2019

    Fascinating story thanks. I purchased the Ashley Book of Knots when I was at Art College for fashion in the 70s and made Monkey Fist buttons for one of my projects. It’s still one of my previous possessions. I gather “rigger” works as a term for knotting but means more than that too. Why not simply a “knotter” as a descriptive term for people who make knots?

  6. February 23, 2019

    Thanks for continuing to shine a light on the Makers! It made me fingertips ache a bit to think of working with that formidable rope — but the outcome was oh-so-elegant. Strange coincidence, I was just coming to the computer to look up some info on Chinese Ball Buttons, and how they are
    made. You might say, Terry is making buttons suitable for giants.

    Well done, sir/s!

  7. Eric F. permalink
    February 23, 2019

    Would love to see / know more about the bronze at Sclater St and Bethnal Green Rd. Will have to pop along and have a look.

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