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In Search Of The Ropemakers Of Stepney

May 26, 2024
by the gentle author

Click for tickets for The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields on Saturday 1st June


Rope makers of Stepney

In Stepney, there has always been an answer to the question, “How long is a piece of string?” It is as long as the distance between St Dunstan’s Church and Commercial Rd, which is the extent of the former Frost Brothers’ Rope Factory.

Let me explain how I came upon this arcane piece of knowledge. I published a series of photographs from a copy of Frost Brothers’ Album in the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute produced around 1900, illustrating the process of rope making and yarn spinning. As a consequence, a reader of Spitalfields Life walked into the Institute and donated a series of four group portraits of rope makers at Frost Brothers which I publish here.

I find these pictures even more interesting than the ones I first showed because, while the photos in the Album illustrate the work of the factory, in these newly-revealed photos the subject is the rope makers themselves.

There are two pairs of pictures. Photographed on the same day, the first pair taken – in my estimation – around 1900, show a gang of men looking rather proud of themselves. There is a clear hierarchy among them and, in the first photo, they brandish tankards suggesting some celebratory occasion. The men in bowler hats assume authority and allow themselves more swagger while those in caps withhold their emotions. Yet although all these men are deliberately presenting themselves to the camera, there is relaxed quality and swagger in these pictures which communicates a vivid sense of the personality and presence of the subjects.

The other two photographs show larger groups and I believe were taken as much as a decade earlier. I wonder if the tall man in the bowler hat with a moustache in the centre of the back row in the first of these is the same as the man in the bowler hat in the later photographs? In these earlier photographs, the subjects have been corralled for the camera and many regard us with a weary implacable gaze.

The last of the photographs is the most elaborately staged and detailed. It repays attention for the diverse variety of expressions among its subjects, ranging from blank incomprehension of some to the tenderness of the young couple with the young man’s hands upon the young woman’s shoulders – a fleeting gesture of tenderness recorded for eternity.

I was so fascinated by these photographs I wanted to go and find the rope works for myself and, on an old map, I discovered the ropery stretching from Commercial Rd to St Dunstan’s, but – alas – I could discern nothing on the ground to indicate it was ever there. The Commercial Rd end of the factory is now occupied by the Tower Hamlets car pound, while the long extent of the ropery has been replaced by a terrace of house called Lighterman’s Court that, in its length and extent, follows the pattern of the earlier building quite closely. At the northern end, there is now a park where the factory reached the road facing St Dunstan’s. Yet the terraces of nineteenth century housing in Bromley St and Belgrave St remain on either side and, in Bromley St, the British Prince where the rope makers once quenched their thirsts still stands.

After the disappointment of my quest to find the rope works, I cherish these photographs of the rope makers of Stepney even more as the best record we have of their existence.

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

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may like to read the original post

Frost Bros, Rope Makers & Yarn Spinners

6 Responses leave one →
  1. May 26, 2024

    Great Pictures.

  2. Hylary Kingham permalink
    May 26, 2024

    My great grandmother, Louisa Cable, 1860-1947, worked at the rope factory when she was 12.
    On marrying Joseph Utting in 1879, they set up house in Commercial Road. They had 13 children.
    There were a large number of Uttings living in this area. My father, son of Louisa’s youngest daughter, was born in Commercial Road, and reckoned he had 47 cousins.
    Thanks for sharing this – and especially providing the answer to ‘How long is a piece of string?’!

  3. Milo permalink
    May 26, 2024

    Great pictures. I don’t think there’s any question the chap with the moustache is the same one in both pictures. He’d barely changed expression.

  4. Catherine permalink
    May 26, 2024

    What great photos – so much personality, particularly in the 1st one!
    I assume they made rope there for the dockyards?

  5. May 26, 2024

    Thank you for supplying these photos, with enlargements! I love this series. I am speculating that two of the young women were sisters — their expressions are almost identical. I couldn’t avoid noticing their restrictive clothing — you can detect the corsets underneath the structured dresses.
    A bonnet on one of them. A man’s hands on the other’s shoulders – holding her in place, or displaying his ownership? I loved the jaunty angle of the bowler — that fellow in the center. He looks roguish, confident, supremely cock-of-the-walk. The company braggart. And notice the facial hair on the men – quite varied, from chin whiskers to moustaches. I have made up a story about the gent in the lower right corner, front row. I propose that he is not part of this staff — but rather from a neighboring work place, down the lane. He’s just stopped in, during the photographic hub bub, and inserted himself right down FRONT, hoping the ladies will enjoy his swagger. Take a look at those eyes.

    How wonderful that these photos have survived! Thank you, GA.

  6. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 26, 2024

    Fascinating history of the Ropemakers. There has been a Ropemaker in Wensleydale for many decades. First based at Hawes in the Upper Dale, but after the last remaining owner wanted to retire a couple of years ago, sold the business and machines to one of his workers, which is now based in a village 4 miles away. We often watched ropes being made while on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, and it was mesmerising process.

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