BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 17th June 1996 (p.unknown), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THE ROPE MAKERS

Until quite recent times, and within living memory in the Peak, many villages had a resident rope maker. Their craft was ages old but their equipment was simple and owed little to progress.

The skills of rope and cord making are lost in the mists of time. Reeds, rushes and roots, as well as animal hair and strips of hide have all been twisted to make cord. The Egyptians learned to make strong ropes out of papyrus, the aquatic plant from which they also produced paper. The most useful materials available to later rope-makers were hemp and flax. Real hemp was grown in great quantities in Italy, Russia and the USA. Strong and workable, it was much used for ships' rigging in the old days. The so-called Manila hemp did long service though it was not really hemp at all but the fibre of the wild banana plant native to the Philippines. Sisal was another important material, obtained from the leaves of a cactus-like plant, originally mainly from Mexico but later grown for the purpose in large plantations in Java and East Africa. Sisal was rough and neither very pliable nor hard-wearing but cheap enough to be almost disposable, being ideal for binder twine in reaping where it was used only once.

All rope starts out as bundles of fibres, made up into threads and strands then into string or twine. Thick string is called cord. Rope is made by twisting a number of strings or cords around one another in such a way that they will not untwine.

When ropes were made by hand, the maker would walk backwards from his spinning wheel with a bundle of loose fibres attached to his waist, spinning them into a cord as he went. In this manner he went up an down the 'ropewalk' turning out his product, often in the open air but sometimes inside long, low-roofed buildings.

A typical one-man business operated at Tansley until about fifty years ago. Rope maker John Barber supplied local needs all his working life, from plough lines, cart ropes and rope halters to clothes lines and skipping ropes. Although he had a wooden shed at the top of Green Lane, Mr Barber was usually to be found working outside without the restriction of walls.

The sites of ropewalks in other villages have been recorded lest they be forgotten. Bakewell boasted two, one near Endcliffe Quarry and another (Matleys) beside the present A6 on the south side of town. A ropewalk on the Meadows at Wirksworth ceased work some time after 1833. Rope making also ended at Monyash in the 19th century, the ropewalk being on the west side of the lane leading north from Cross Lanes. A rope or hessian works is said to have been run by two brothers inside the extensive cellars of Taddington Hall, one brother manufacturing the goods and the other acting as a travelling salesman. Ropeswalks also formerly existed at Elton and Upper Hulme.

SIGNS OF LIFE

The oldest link with rope making in the Peak still shows signs of occasional life, when demonstrations take place on the historic ropewalks inside the vast month of Peak Cavern, Castleton.

Peak Cavern claims a history of rope making which goes back more than 500 years. Tradition has it that the Duke of Devonshire - as lessee under the Duchy of Lancaster, owner of Peak Cavern - allowed rope makers to occupy the cavern rent-free 'whilst ever there was a master or his apprentice working there'.

This was a valuable concession, for not only did the rope makers work in his gloomy sunless place, they lived there too - up to 40 families in the early 19th century. Two rows of cottages 'built of stone or clay... and thatched like little styes' once stood against the walls - the soot from their chimneys can still be seen. There were also stables, an inn and three small shops. The last of the buildings was pulled down in the 1860s, although in 1935 an item in the High Peak News referred to Mrs. Hannah Drinkwater, nee Hadfield, who had been born on the Peak Cavern Walk around 1864.

The ropewalks occupied a flight of terraces cut into the floor of the cavern, each operated by one family or 'firm' commonly working in pairs, often father and son or sometimes mother and daughter. This underground industry became one of the Peak's earliest tourist attractions and achieved wide fame through the writings of travellers. Charles Cotton, in Wonders of the Peake (1682) wrote:

‘Now to the Cave we come, wherein is found
A new strange thing, a village under Ground;
Houses and Barns for Men and Beasts Behoof,
With Walls distinct, under one solid Roof’.

And exactly 100 years later, from Moritz's Travels: I perceived to the right, in the hollow of the Cavern, a whole subterranean village, where the inhabitants, on account of it being Sunday, were resting from their work, and with happy and cheerful looks were sitting at the doors of their huts along with their children'.

In the same year William Bray described how two old women, Betty Blowitt and Sal Waugh, came out of their houses to beg from visitors. Younger residents always had a useful sideline as guides, speedily appearing with a lantern or candles to conduct visitors on a tour of the extensive cavern.

Females began to learn their craft at an early age, starting with light work. A visitor of around 1812 described how 'on one side were the young girls belonging to the inkle manufactory, turning their wheels, winding thread, and amusing their companies with cheerful songs; whilst the ropemakers opposite to them were spinning cords and twisting cables, forming them into coils'. Inkle was flax, plaited into a thin braid and widely used as candle wick. Flax, jute and cotton all found a use here, with Italian hemp being the major raw material by the mid-19th century.

Over the generations, Castleton rope makers adapted to the changing demands of agriculture and industry, from the needs of lead mines and breweries to tow ropes for barge horses, as well as washing lines, window sashes, bell ropes and the occasional hangman's rope.

CASTLETON GARLAND

Family links are seen in parish records which refer to residents of 'Peakes Hole', occasionally adding that they were twine spinners by profession. Families named Hall, Whittingham, Dakin, Walker, Eyre and Hadfield were all engaged in this trade. The last rope maker, Herbert Marrison, retired in 1975 aged 91. He had worked in the cavern since the age of 12, following his father, Joseph, and grandfather, Abraham, into the 'firm'. One of the highlights of his career was completing an order from a north-east shipping company for an 8-mile length of string, which when checked by the pernickety customer had a 7-yard 'bonus'.

Until the end of this working life, Bert Marrison turned out a steady supply of clothes lines, always on sale in the Peak Cavern but also maintaining the custom of providing one for every new bride in Castleton.

Other old local customs depended on the cavern rope makers. In Castleton Museum a balance sheet for the Garland ceremony of 1926 shows the expenditure of one shilling for a maypole rope, purchased from Joseph Marrison. He, and later his son, also upheld the long-standing tradition of producing two essential items for the Castleton Garland; string to tie bunches of flowers onto the Garland and rope to haul it onto the church tower.

In line with Bert Marrison's last wishes, his ashes were laid to rest inside the cavern. His old skills have been kept alive by part-time rope makers with an interest in the craft, using contraptions which are all more than a century old.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 17th June 1996.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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