Reply To: Visit to Mary Rose-query about steering and anchor work

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Alastair Wilson

    Although it doesn’t go back to Mediaeval times, if any of those interested haven’t been to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham, it is worth-while going to see the rope-house there. They demonstrate making rope both with modern machinery and materials and also the old machinery and natural fibre. In the first place, their old machinery is based on Joseph Huddart’s design, produced (according to them) in 1799 – the earliest machinery they have is a ‘travelling carriage’. with a maker’s plate for Maudslay, and date 1811. The travelling carriage now in use for making natural fibre rope is dated 1852. The Royal Dockyards had a continuous system for rope-making, the fibres passing from the ‘Hatchelling House’ (where it was, in effect, combed) to the spinning room, where the fibres were spun into yarns. These went to the ‘White Yarn House’ through the Tarring Pot, to the ‘Black Yarn House’ and thence to the Ropery itself, where the yarns were spun into strands and the strands into ropes.
    The length of a Dockyard ropery (I cannot speak for others) was related to the standard length of a coil of rope – 120 fathoms, or 720 feet. Before the strands were spun into a rope, they were about 900 feet long, so the building had to be that long, plus space at the ends for the steam engine which provided the power and the Master Ropemaker’s office. As a result, Chatham ropery is 1190 feet long – nearly a quarter of a mile – and Portsmouth 1144 feet. Such buildings were. frankly, frightening as a fire risk, being like a chimney laid flat – it is said that when the Malta ropery caught fire in the 1890s, the flames went from end-to end in 90 seconds. In 1984, when I was managing the Historic Dockyard, just taken over from the MoD, and before we opened to the public, I got a real fright one evening. The ropery was then in use by a commercial firm, a well-known ropemaker, applying (supposedly) the same strict rules with regard to smoking as the former Royal Dockyard had. One of the first things which I instituted was regular rounds by the security guards, and one evening when I was woking late, the senior man came to me and said, “I’ve found smoke coming up between the floor boards in the ropery” – we called the fire brigade and rushed (I ‘did’ rushing in those days) to the ropery, and sure enough there was a wisp of smoke coming up – the wooden ropery floor was laid over brick arches, on which lay decades-worth of highly combustible rope fibre dust. The fire brigade arrived promptly – they knew the risks of a fire in the ropery – and produced a chain saw to saw through the floorboards to get to the seat of the fire (at last we’re coming to the point), but the boards (oak) were iron hard, and stalled the saw five times before making the first cut- each time it stalled I was having kittens – until finally we were able to get through to find a smouldering cigarette end and a small, but growing, area of charred rope dust. A narrow squeak!
    Two other points of interest (I hope) – the Dockyard roperies (originally one in each of the major yards) were the subject of an early example of rationalisation – with the coming of steam, and a lessening of the requirement for rope, the Portsmouth ropery was closed in 1837 (don’t know when the Devonport Yard closed) leaving Chatham as the only yard to continue to make rope. And the power from the steam engine to the travelling carriage was transmitted by a continuous rope, some 1500 fathoms long (it had to go out and back the length of the rope-walk).