Visit to Mary Rose-query about steering and anchor work

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    Malcolm Lewis

      I enjoyed a visit to the Mary Rose this week. This was my second visit to the new museum which is spectacular. The exhibits of the thousands of artifacts of this unique Tudor time capsule are breathtaking. I was told that in October the large pipes conveying hot air to dry the ship’s timbers will be removed and the wall with small viewing windows will be replaced with a completely clear screen. By next Easter time visitors will be able to have an unobstructed view of 16th century shipbuilding.
      Certain items which have to date not been displayed such as the rudder and the stem post will be in position. The means of steering the ship are currently not recorded in any detail partly because the whipstaff has not been found. Assuming this was the method of steering used hopefully this will be described somehow.
      It would be helpful to have more details of anchor working. A large quantity of anchor cable was recovered in very good condition. It is cable laid and some 20” in circumference. I understand that capstans had not been invented in the 16th century. Weighing the quite massive iron long shank anchors must have been a challenge. I don’t know if vessels such as Mary Rose had a windlass to assist by clapping a tackle onto the cable (Seamanship – Harland P260) or was it hauled in using a voyal?
      The museum guide said the cable was “hand made” – quite a task. Would that have been done in the dockyard? Can anyone say when rope walks were introduced?
      Malcolm Lewis

      Susan M

        Weighing anchors:
        Please see Thomas Hariot’s notes [BL MS 6788] folio 9 in a section dealing with ropes where he describes the ropes used and how they were used to weigh the anchor. He was not a seaman and the notes seem to be his own to understand how different parts of ships functioned in relation to each other. Most of his mathematical notes have very little writing or explanations with them so this is somewhat of a rarity.
        Rope walks:
        In Limehouse, north of Thomas Graves/ Greaves shipyard at what was later called Dick’s wharf was the land of rope maker Margett. This was post 1584 when Graves had the lease of his land, and later the two families intermarried. After 1590 the Graves ship yard expanded due to the money earned by Graves’ apprentice Richard Casey on Cavendish’s circumnavigation 1586-8. Whether Margett’s rope making had a wlk is not proved, though the road now is called such.
        Any further information on this topic would be most welcome. I have documentary references if anyone is interested.
        Sue Maxwell

        Frank Scott

          The term ‘handmade’ is misleading when applied to rope. Ropewalks in their original incarnation in the middle ages were manpower intensive, but they also employed some very simple man-powered machinery. Not until the 1790s did Edmund Cartwright (of power loom fame) develop the basis for a rope-making machine, although it was not until 1805 that it was refined sufficiently to be practical (and profitable). The obvious advantage of machine-made rope was that all the twists and stains applied during manufacture were even, and the result was much stronger.

          Frank Scott

          Malcolm Lewis

            Thank you Frank for the reference to Edmund Cartwright and his “Cordelier” rope making machine invention (1792) of which I have found a picture on-line (see attachment). Interesting how often clergymen developed a technical bent – many reveled in steam trains when they were invented. Considering the enormous quantities of rope required for sailing vessels it is perhaps surprising that more is not recorded of this important industry. Improved machinery such as Cartwright’s was not installed successfully until the early 19th century so semi hand operated machines, as you describe, were used in some form in earlier centuries. Some of these are shown in Ship of the Line Vol 2 – Brian Lavery page 88, which seems to illustrate a form of late 18th century rope-walk.
            In 1665 the Swiftsure (2nd rate) required 9060 fathoms of ¼” – 16” rope. In 1765 Victory (1st rate) required the enormous quantity of 22,880 fathoms of rope or 26 miles (ref Goodwin). This probably did not include anchor and messenger cable of approx. 433 fathoms. The wear and tear on rope for rigging meant regular replacement was required and anchor cable had to be condemned quite regularly. Nelson when in the Mediterranean was seemingly more concerned about supplies of replacement rope than lack of frigates.
            Inspecting the cable-laid anchor cable of the Mary Rose one has to admire the skill of the 16th century rope maker producing such a complex article with little mechanical assistance.
            Malcolm Lewis

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            Frank Scott

              When I started to investigate I was surprised how little that I could find out about the early history of rope-making. All the Mediaeval Guilds were secretive, but for other trades that has not clouded their technical history in mystery.

              In the early 14th century Venice established what was probably the first rope-making factory in Europe. This was part of the Arsenale, and featured a ropewalk. The Venetians were probably the first to use a coloured ‘rogues yarn’ to identify rope as made by a particular factory.

              By the way, my Wife has reminded me that in German Reeperbahn = Ropewalk, although in Hamburg that area has long since lost its connection with that industry!

              Members of the MarHst-L forum provided much information and this is summarised below:

              From Des Pawson:
              There is very little solid stuff. I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the research into cordage on the Swedish warship Vasa (1628) carried out by the late Ole Magnus. I understand that he found that her ropes covered a period of transition from completely handmade to basic rope-walk production.
              The end of the 18th and early 19th centuries saw major developments in industrial rope-making, such as the development of house machines which did not need the length of the walk. The major change was the register plate & forming tube, which is estimated by some to have increased the strength of rope by 50%. Obviously this had a huge impact at sea, one that may be comparable with the introduction of synthetic rope, but very little that has been written about it.
              I am hoping to reprint William Chapman, A Treatise on the progressive Endeavours to improve the manufacture of cordage: with a discussion on the means of causing ships to ride at anchor with greater safety (London, 1808) which details the many patents and developments.
              As far as small stuff is concerned, for shipboard construction see the winches in Darcy Lever. There is also an interesting passage in W. E. Dexter, Rope-yarns Marline-spikes and Tar (London, 1938) pp 52-3 that describes two methods. See also Duhamel du Monceau, Traité de la fabriques des Manoeuvres pour les Vaisseaux, ou L’Art de la Codererie Perfectionné, 2nd edn (Paris, 1769); and the Marine plates in Diderot & d’Alembert (eds), Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers (Paris, 1762-72).
              On land they just used smaller lighter equipment, although some walks had a set up that enabled them to make say three 4-strand or four 3-strand small stuff (such as Cod line) at once.
              When speaking of the various types of rope-making, it started with purely hand twisted rope (just hands – nothing else), then hand twisted with the assistance of a basic tool or twister; then the rope walk powered by hand crank or gear (probably crank came before gears); later powered by steam, and later still by electricity. Finally we have the introduction of ‘House Machines’ that were engineered not need a ‘walk’.

              On this short youtube clip you can see Des demonstrating the basics of rope-making:

              From Paul Benyon:
              Bridport seems to have been an early centre for rope making in England, as shown by these extracts from Luke Over, Bridport: The evolution of a town (Bridport, 1988):
              “The main reason for the industry being centred on Bridport was the availability of the raw materials. A map showing the distribution of hemp and flax fields in 1341 indicates that it was grown all over Dorset …. The soil, climate and conditions of the area around the town were particularly suitable for the crops, and its proximity to the sea ensured easy communication with fishermen and boat-builders.
              Surviving place-names such as Lindune, Flaxcumbes and Lineage are derived from Latin and Saxon words for flax and hemp, and are evidence of the antiquity of these plants.
              The first documentary evidence for rope and net manufacture occurs in the year 1211, when the Sheriff accounted to King John for ‘moneys which he has paid for 3000 weighs of hempen thread, according to Bridport weight, for making ships’ cables …’. … in 1213 he commanded the sheriffs of Dorset and Somerset to seize monies from the abbeys to buy supplies, and ’cause to be made at Bridport, night and day, as many ropes for ships, both large and small, and as many cables as you can, and twisted yarns for cordage and ballistae’.
              In many cases the work was carried out as a family business, and this is why, even today, the back gardens of many of the town houses are very long and narrow from the time when each family had their own rope walk. Similarly rope walks existed in the main and side streets of the town. There was a rough division of labour by which the raw hemp was given out to the ‘combers’ to be combed, and when prepared was spun into yarn by the ‘spinners’, before finally being twisted into the required thickness of rope.”
              For the Bridport Museum see!rope-and-net/c1qxw

              Frank Scott

              Susan Rose

                Bridport was the main source of English made ropes in the Middle Ages but the hemp came from Brittany (Oleron); cordage both white and black (tarred) was also imported from the Baltic via Danzig; there was a large rope walk at Sandwich. Windlasses were a routine part of ships’ equipment being mentioned in many surviving inventories. A very small piece of medieval cordage was found in the remnants of the Newport ship. (c. 1450s) Susan Rose

                Frank Scott

                  Paul Benyon of MarHst-L has passed on to me an extract from Diana Trenchard (Ed) Dorset People involved in the Growing of Hemp & Flax 1782-1793 (Somerset & Dorset Family History Society, 2000), which I have précised below:

                  The first good records of Hemp & Flax production in Dorset comes from the late eighteenth century. In 1781 Parliament brought in a Bounty scheme to encourage hemp and flax cultivation. For each stone (14 lbs = @ 6.4 kg) of ‘dressed’ fibre the Bounty was 3d for hemp and 4d for flax in old money (2.4d = 1p), this being roughly the amount produced from half an acre.
                  Originally for five years, the scheme was extended for a further seven, and many of the records have survived. They enable us to learn the names of the growers, parish of abode, the parishes and fields where the crops were grown, whether they grew hemp or flax, and the amount produced. Some faithfully planted year by year, others only for a year. The majority of growers were agricultural labourers, who rented a small piece of land, and for whom it was a useful side-line.
                  The Bounty was only for ‘dressed fibre prepared ready for market’. The preparation of both types of fibre was the same. First the outer ‘bark’ covering had to be removed by a rotting process known as ‘retting’ – either several weeks exposure in the open air (dew-retting) or by soaking in water. Then the next layer of fibres had to be separated from the woody core by ‘breaking’, literally breaking the stems with a wooden gadget, a very laborious task known locally as ‘scutching’. For the final process the fibres were ‘dressed’ by repeated combing or ‘heckling’. Only then could the product be weighed and the Bounty claimed. Once that was done, the fibre was sold to a local rope, twine, net, or sailcloth maker.
                  Grown during the late spring and summer, the fibres were ‘dressed and prepared for market’ during the winter months, and assessed for Bounty and sold early in the following year. The Clerk to the Quarter Sessions submitted annual Bounty Claims to the Treasury, and it was usually another year before they were paid – two years after the crops had been grown. This was quite a long delay, but the Bounty may have added up to an additional 10% to their income
                  The Bounty Claims were pre-printed forms, and about a third appear to have been filled in and signed by the growers, while the remainder signed with an ‘X’. The Claim Forms were counter-signed by two officials from the growing parish, and a JP. Separate forms were used for each parish, and for both flax and hemp. In a few cases there was a hand-written letter instead, but its wording was similar.
                  Surviving Claim Forms are in the Dorset Records Office (Quarter Sessions, Flax & Hemp, no3).

                  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).

                    Malcolm Lewis

                      The Chatham Dockyard ropery is certainly well worth a visit with excellent daily demonstrations. Much of HMS Victory’s rope is still made here albeit now with black polypropylene. I recall they are not able to supply the 24” cable-laid anchor cable required and this is supplied from Holland.
                      The replica HMS Endeavour in Sydney has authentic tarred hemp although in the summer heat this drips off onto the spotless decks, and probably visitors. This must have been a problem for Nelson’s ships in the tropics and in the Mediterranean.
                      I understood that cable-laid rope was not necessarily stronger than hawser laid but wore better when it was dragged across a rough seabed when the ship was at anchor. I asked about splicing cable laid rope and was shown a large wooden “splicing block” for separating the multi strands. It was suggested that it was unlikely such a complex splice could be done aboard ship so if a lengthened cable was required “on station” it was likely to have been done with loops or bites.
                      Maybe someone could put me right if my memory of my visit is not correct- it was some years ago.
                      Malcolm Lewis

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