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Terry Barns, Knot Tyer

April 5, 2024
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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Annie S permalink
    April 5, 2024

    Wow, what an interesting career – and such an interesting array of knots!

  2. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 5, 2024

    As a child, I was both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, and one of the things we had to learn there was to ‘tie knots’. I confess that decades later, I can still tie a reef knot with my eyes closed, but as for the rest, well they’re a distant memory….

  3. Liz Aitken permalink
    April 5, 2024

    I love this! When I was about five, my father – a keen fly fisherman – taught me how to do a reef knot and I have used it ever since.

  4. Cherub permalink
    April 5, 2024

    I really enjoyed reading this as my husband is a fan of tying knots in things. Even the bags you get for fruit and veg in the supermarket are tied into something by him, exasperating for me as I have to get him to undo them all lol

  5. Lionel permalink
    April 5, 2024

    Wonderful story, thank you.

  6. April 5, 2024

    Planets align! I’m heading off to give a workshop (mixed media art) about the wide-ranging topic of water. As I looked through all my archives, I came across many visuals about this vast subject, including pirates, sailors, whaling ledgers with imprints, poems, lore, etc. Love the chart of the knots — ah, don’t they look so EASY to do? (wry smile)

    The beauty of that baronial-sized knot, in the last photo!? — Better than jewelry, methinks.

    Thank you, GA. Waiting for the eclipse here.

  7. Robin permalink
    April 6, 2024

    What an extraordinary talent! And I love the way in which Terry’s awe-inspiring skill opens up a whole world of maritime history.

  8. Jennifer Blain permalink
    April 6, 2024

    Oh, how I wish Terry had a decent knot for boot laces. Easy to tie; never fall apart by themselves and easy for the weary walker – or gardener – to undo.

    Thank you GA for the hours of pleasure you’ve given over the years.

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