The Decline of Rope Making

Image: Lowe’s Rope Manufactory, Bewdley in a derelict state in about 1973. Strand separating boards are shown to the left of the picture.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Rope making in Bewdley declined.

  • The market for many of its products fell. The water trade virtually disappeared, the Kidderminster carpet industry declined and the use of adhesive tape reduced the need for twine.
  • Lowe’s Rope Manufactory prided itself on its ability to meet the individual demands of different customers. Its specialised production meant that it could not compete with cheaper items, which were manufactured elsewhere and man-made cordage made from nylon, polythene and polypropylene.

Lowe’s was one of the last ropeworks to produce hand-made products. After it closed in 1972, its premises were demolished, but examples of its equipment and products were relocated and displayed in Bewdley Museum.

Rope: Making: Mechanisation

Image: A room at Lowe’s ropeworks, Bewdley in about 1973, with rope and twine-making machinery. The mechanisms which were used to translate steam power – and later electricity – into energy to operate the machinery are shown at the top of the picture.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Throughout its history, Lowe’s depended on manually operated equipment to manufacture its products. Evidence from the firm’s correspondence books showed that by 1862, the firm was interested in purchasing new equipment, including Todd and Rafferty’s Spinning Machine which could convert fibres into yarn. The business obtained a steam engine to power machinery which operated for 24 hours a day until it was replaced in 1950.

Rope Making: Stretching

Image: This photograph, taken in 1923, shows the ropewalk at Lowe’s ropeworks in Bewdley. Multiple strands of rope stretched are shown stretched along the walk after they were made. The viaduct of the Severn Valley Railway is shown in the background.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Stretching was necessary to maintain the rope’s tension after manufacturing. Subsequently it was coiled before it was sold.

Rope Making: Inserting the Tops

Image: Mr Mills, a former worker at Lowe’s ropeworks, Bewdley demonstrating the use of a top in the spinning process

The top was a conical wooden block, normally with three or four grooves to separate the yarn while it was being twisted. The worker placed it close to the swivelling hook on the jack with a group of yarns in each groove. This stopped the yarns getting tangled when twisting began.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Rope Making: Laying the Rope

Image: The photograph shows a boy at Lowe’s ropeworks, Bewdley in about 1900 with the “jack” or “twister” which is set up for rope making. Boys were employed to crank the jack to turn yarn into rope. A large wooden “top”, which was used to separate the strands of yarn, is lying on the ground.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Rope was made by twisting yarns together. Two pieces of machinery were required to “lay” the rope. These were the “twister” or “jack” and the “traveller” or “wain”.

  • • The roper began by stringing yarn between the three hooks of the twister and one hook on the traveller.
  • • When the twister was cranked the hooks revolved to form three stands.
  • • The three strands were then twisted together by simultaneously cranking the twister and traveller in opposite directions.
  • • The ropemaker’s assistant turned the crank handle of the jack and the hooks revolved at great speed. Each group of yarns twisted into a strand as the assistant turned the handle.
  • • Soon the strands began to shrink because of the twist, pulling on the traveller. The roper pushed the traveller along the ropewalk. When the strands contracted to about a quarter of the length of the walk they were as highly twisted as it is possible without kinking. The rope was created.

Rope Making: Spinning

Image: A group of five male employees at Lowe’s posing at a rope walk in Northwood Lane, Bewdley in 1900. They each have a “head” of hackled hemp round their waist. The fibres are being fed onto the “traveller” which is being twisted by a boy.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

The purpose of spinning is to produce yarn, a continuous series of overlapping fibres which have been twisted together so that they are forced together by friction to make the yarn strong. Yarn can be turned into rope by various methods. Traditionally, it was spun on a spindle whorl. This was a weighted stick which was rotated, often by rolling along the thigh. The spinning wheel was a technological advance which allowed the spinner to keep the yarn twisting continuously. It was also spun into rope in ropewalks where the fibres were wrapped around the waist and then attached to a spinning wheel. A spinner then drew out the fibres to form a yarn as the wheel revolved. By the mid 19th century, machines were used to produce yarn. These were similar to the spinning mules used in the cotton industry.

Rope Making: Dressing or Hackling

Image: Part of a display at Bewdley Museum showing “hackles” and hemp fibre from Lowe’s ropeworks. Hackling or dressing cleaned the fibres before they were turned into yarn. Towards the left is a wooden top used to separate yarn during twisting (see below).

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

The first stage of the manufacturing process involved separating the fibres from the plant. The crop was harvested, soaked in water to rot away the core of pithy material and then beaten to remove the fibre from the stalk. This aspect of the production process was conducted close to where hemp was grown and there is no evidence it was conducted in Bewdley. Instead, the town received raw fibres by river or road. Rope making in the town was a manufacturing process, transforming fibres into a useable product.

The fibres arrived at Lowe’s in bales and were broken into manageable lengths. They were pulled through hackles or a hackling board – a wooden base with iron spikes, which acted like a giant comb to clean the fibres and make sure that they ran in the same direction. Grease or linseed oil was used to speed the process. The gauge of hackles varied from coarse to fine. Different types or cordage required different grades of fibre.  Hackling was similar to the carding process in the woollen industry.

Products and Markets

Image: Twine-making machinery at Lowe’s ropeworks, Bewdley in about 1973, showing multiple strands. Twine is one or more yarns twisted together. It is made of soft hemp, jute, manila or sisal.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Records for the first three decades of Lowe’s existence are limited, but by the mid and late 19th century, the business was producing a diverse range of products which were sold in the West Midlands, elsewhere in Britain and exported to Europe and North America. As well as products for water transport and carpet making, cordage was being produced for hauliers (wagon ropes), local farmers (halters, reins, thatching yarn and matting), brass and tin-plate manufacturers (tarred rope, Gaskin for wrapping round the joints of machines and packing cord). One product in high demand from shopkeepers, traders and small businesses was twine for wrapping goods. Churches required grave ropes and bell ropes. I L Wedley noted that one speciality of the firm was “the beautiful velvet-like portions of the rope held by the ringers being known as “tafting.”

Products and Markets

Image: One of the important products made at Lowe’s ropeworks was cable. Cable is three complete ropes laid together and is used when elasticity is required for towing. Bewdley’s involvement in the river trade along the Severn ensured that towing ropes were an important source of local demand. In the photograph, dating from about 1897, four men at Lowe’s are spinning cable. The older man is supporting a “top” which takes the three strands of rope and one of the others is winding on the “traveller”.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

According to one source, I L Wedley’s, Bewdley and its Surroundings, 1914, Lowe’s was established to provide rope and twine for the needs of the water trade and carpet works at Kidderminster. Water carrying companies needed towing ropes, lashing ropes, sail twine and rigging. At one time Lowe’s had a long rope walk at the Crundalls, close to the railway line, especially for the production of river ropes. The carpet industry was a voracious consumer requiring several varieties of cordage. These included lacing twine to hold together cards used for Jacquard looms, cord to fix the end threads of carpets and thread for packing.

Work and Labour

Image: Three men at Lowe’s ropeworks, Bewdley in about 1900 turning a capstan to wind rope.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

Men and women were employed on a variety of tasks, for instance rope spinning, rope finishing, twine finishing and labouring. Boys cleaned the raw hemp and cranked the “twisters” when yarn was spun into twine. Hours were long, up to 60 hours a week were common, and, as rope making was conducted in the open air, wet or freezing weather could make work difficult, unpleasant or impossible. The flooding of the river, a common event at Bewdley, could halt production, damage products and lead to the laying off of employees. Industrial injuries were possible. The firm’s records are not complete enough to provide evidence for early 19th century accidents, but later sources reveal show that equipment and machines could damage nails and fingers, hair could be caught in belting and workers could injure themselves slipping in icy conditions.

Work and Labour

Image: Mr G Taylor, an employee at Lowe’s Rope and Twine Manufactory, Bewdley, is shown with hemp fibres round his waist for hemp dressing. The photograph was taken in about 1910. To his left (right of picture) are “hackles”, spikes through which raw fibres were drawn to ensure that they were clean and running in the same direction. On his right is a “jack” or “twister” (left of picture). This was used to twist the yarn to form rope. The image also shows strand-separating boards in the background. Yarns were supported by horizontal bars called “skirders” every few yards with vertical pegs to separate the yarns.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

4. Work and Labour (1)

One account of Lowe’s ropeworks in the early 20th century, describes a visit:

“The door into the garden being open they passed inside, and in a moment were carried back a hundred years. Before them walking backwards, was an old man with a stock of hemp wrapped round his waist, holding a long rope which was spinning round and round from one end of the shed to the other. As it turned, so it gathered the hemp from the workers’ hands, and by the simple process of revolution became transformed into a well-made, strong and serviceable rope.”

I L Wedley, Bewdley and its Surroundings, 1914

Wedley’s account oversimplified the production process, but he drew attention to the labour intensive nature of the industry. Although new technology was introduced in the third decade of the 19th century, leading to a reduction in the number of employees, working practices, tools and equipment in the 1900s were often identical to those one-hundred years beforehand. Photographs taken at Lowe’s in the late 19th and 20th centuries show that employees were using tools and equipment that had barely changed since the early years of the business.

Lowe’s Rope and Twine Manufactory

Image: An exterior view of buildings at Lowe’s rope manufactory. Much of the firm’s production took place in the open air. The stretcher board on the left is at Bewdley Museum. The railway viaduct of the Severn Valley Railway is in the background.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

3. Lowe’s Rope and Twine Manufactory (2)

Tradition indicates that that the business was established in 1801, but the first precise reference is in an assignment of leasehold in 1813. In that year Richard Lowe (c.1772-1826) is named as the occupier of a ropewalk in Wribbenhall, which was across the river from the main Bewdley settlement and conveniently next to roads to Kidderminster and Stourbridge. Lowe, a member of Bewdley’s Baptist congregation, also acquired the lease of the property. He established a family firm which survived until its closure in 1972. His sudden death in 1826 left his wife, Mary, to raise a family of eight children. Mary also took charge of the business. Her letter books demonstrate her authoritative command of its needs in a competitive environment. She had to negotiate with suppliers, demand payment from customers, employ workers, ensure quality and deal with the problems caused by bad weather and difficult neighbours. She did not retire until 1845 at the age of 69, when her three sons took over the business.

Lowe’s Rope and Twine Manufactory

Image: A display at Bewdley Museum of items from Lowe’s Rope and Twine Manufactory. The firm was founded in 1801 and closed in 1972.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]

2. Lowe’s Rope and Twine Manufactory (1)

The Accounts and Letter Books of one local business, Lowe’s Rope Manufactory survive and are held at Bewdley Museum. Using these sources, E M Crowther has composed a picture of its experience in the 19th and 20th centuries. The early history, though, is poorly recorded until 1833, when letter books provide an account of commercial transactions.

Rope Making and Bewdley

Image: Print of a mid-19th century Birmingham rope, line and twine works in Dartmouth Street, Birmingham, established in 1770.

Rope manufacturing was a complex process. Most activities were conducted outside where rows of stretching frames for finished rope are shown on both sides of a central building. Workers are engaged in various tasks:
• On the left two men are operating the “traveller” which is twisting yarn. A third holds a top to separate the strands of yarn. Out of the picture a boy would be operating the stationary “twister”, which pulled the traveller forward as rope was formed.
• On the right workers are fixing finished rope to a stretcher board and stretching frames.
• In the middle background workers are turning a capstan to wind rope.
• In the foreground, a customer is looking at a finished product.

[Image from: Original print in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery]

1. Rope Making and Bewdley

Cordage, the collective name for rope products, was made by twisting natural fibres together. Various plants were processed for this purpose, such as flax, cotton, jute, manila and sisal, but the most widely used material was hemp, its coarse texture provided a good grip. Hemp used to be grown in Britain, particularly in Dorset, but its cultivation, possession and sale has been illegal without a permit for many years. Now hemp is more famous as the herb that is turned into the drug, cannabis, than the plant that was made into rope.

In the 20th century products such as nylon, polythene and polypropylene have generally replaced cordage made from plants. They are stronger than natural fibres and completely resistant to rotting from bacterial action. Their disadvantages are that they deteriorate in sunlight, have a low melting temperature, lose their strength when wet and have more stretch than natural fibres. Ecologically, they are derived from finite resources such as coal, oil and tar. Natural fibres still have advantages, with good abrasion resistance, greater strength when wet and the ability to withstand heat and sunlight.

Bewdley was a location for rope and twine making in the 19th century. In 1850 there were four manufactories, according to a local directory. The River Severn and local roads enabled raw materials such as hemp and flax to be transported to the town and finished products to be moved to customers. Proximity to the Severn provided access to Shrewsbury, the Ironbridge Gorge, Worcester, Gloucester and Bristol. Bewdley was next to main roads leading to Kidderminster and Stourbridge, which connected to markets in the Black Country and Birmingham. The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Stourport was a factor in Bewdley’s decline as a port, but it linked the town to Britain’s canal network. The coming of the Severn Valley Railway in 1863 provided additional transport benefits to the industry.

Rope Making

Text: Malcolm Dick

Image: This photograph of about 1897 shows Lowe’s Rope Manufactory, the most important in Bewdley, against a steam train and railway viaduct of the Severn Valley Railway. To the left finished ropes are shown laid up on stretchers. In the yard two men stand in the background with two-wheeled carts in front.

[Image from: Bewdley Museum]


The records of Lowe’s Rope Manufactory provide a detailed picture of one significant Bewdley business. They provide an insight into the experiences of its owners and workers and the nature of its markets and customers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Remarkably, photographs also survive, which present people at work, the tools they used and the machines which turned flax into rope and twine. These varied sources enable more to be written about this local industry than most other manufacturing concerns in the town.