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Frost Brothers, Rope Makers & Yarn Spinners

April 19, 2021
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 Rd

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 Rd to St Dunstan’s Churchyard in Stepney

In Bromley St today

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. Pamela Traves permalink
    April 19, 2021

    Amazingly Hard Work for the People of the Vintage time. They make us look lazy compared to them!??????

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 19, 2021

    Fascinating stuff – the engineering and manufacturing ingenuity of the Victorians is always so impressive.

    I’d also love to know what it smelt like!

  3. Paddy Kerr permalink
    April 19, 2021

    Fantastic photos – really enjoyed looking at them and remembering that life has improved massively for most of us – despite Covid!

  4. Richard Smith permalink
    April 19, 2021

    Both fascinating and amazing pictures here today. The machinery displays ingenuity and inventiveness but notice the exposed drive belts and moving parts – no doubt a moment’s carelessness could result in a painful and life changing injury. Today Health and Safety is the butt of many a joke but who’d want to work in conditions like these? The workers stare back at the camera in their photographs what stories they could tell! Thank you GA.

  5. Bernie permalink
    April 19, 2021

    It amazes me that, despite having been brought up with family connections in Commercial St and thereabouts (lasting until after 1945), I had never before heard of this ropeworks nor of the reason for the name of Cable Street.

  6. Ros permalink
    April 19, 2021

    so many things this post causes one to think about – several readers have mentioned the dangerous working conditions, and the processing of hemp must have been a health hazard in itself – all those fibres constantly flying in the air would surely be carcinogenic and I bet many cancers developed as a result, especially lung cancers. As hemp comes from the same plant as cannabis one wonders if there was a soothing high to make working there more of a pleasure but maybe also a danger in itself with so many large machines needing to be treated with caution and awareness. Yes, there’s much to be said for health and safety regulations. Then there’s the origin of the phrase ‘spinning a yarn’ meaning telling a long and possibly exaggerated story, though maybe it comes from the world of sailing where a good proportion of rope would have been destined for.

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    April 19, 2021

    I’ve been to a 19th c. cotton mill factory and the sound made by the one machine they use during the tour was so loud one shudders to think of the sound of 100+ machines howling at once.

    I found this 3-minute video that shows how the cable is made.
    After the video, I went through the photos again and saw even more in them.
    Thanks, GA!

  8. April 19, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what an important slice of industrial history in this account of the Frost Brothers Rope Works. Much of their production must have supplied the vast British Navy. The complexity of the machinery suggests several hazards for their workers too.

    Great pics…

  9. Eric Forward permalink
    April 19, 2021

    Another amazing post. Such ingenuity & innovation for something we now take for granted. Like Bernie this is also new knowledge about the naming of Cable street. I lived minutes away from this site and wasn’t completely ignorant to the relevance of rope-making in the area, but that was more due to recent redevelopments such as Ropemakers Yard in Stepney Green. However, I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the industry in the area, absolutely incredible.

  10. sara midda permalink
    April 19, 2021

    Thank you
    Best, Sara

  11. Paul permalink
    April 20, 2021

    Only Fools and Horses? I’m sure that’s Del-boy Trotter second at the back on the first photo!

  12. May 2, 2021

    I love the map, showing the ropeworks at the heart of the community

  13. MARY Mills permalink
    March 3, 2022

    Greenwich Industrial History Soc has been sent a photo copy booklet ‘A History of Frost Brothers and the Charlton Rope Works’ – the first section is about the Shadwell Works. I wondered if you had encountered this booklet in writing your article above???? It is by a D.R.Frost and we might want to contact him/her/children – again – any info? Clearly we are interested in Charlton – Bridon – which closed a few years ago although the works football team is still active!

  14. MARY Mills permalink
    March 3, 2022

    Oh – and also if I can do a bit of self promotion here. When I started looking at the Frost ropeworks in Shadwell I thought it might be connected to the gas works which was – sadly – the next block along.
    I think it very likely that some of the earliest gas works in London were connected to east end ropeworks – and at least one of them in Sun Taver Fields. talk about it in my book:

    Mary Mills. The Early East London Gas Industry. How it began and how it helped London Industry to Grow


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