1771 - Construction of New Ropehouse
In 1771 the new Rope House was built. In shipbuilding of the last century the prime movers of the dockyard were the Shipwright, Engineering and Electrical; but in 1771 it was the Shipwright, Sail-maker, Rope-maker and Blacksmith who were the prime movers in warships building. The sails and rope were what the engines and boilers or gas turbines are to a modern ship. To give some idea of the importance of the rope-maker it must be remembered that rope had a limited life and so was constantly in demand. Rope was measured by its circumference. In general for the running rigging of a great warship seven circumferences were used each requiring about 10,000 linear feet. The Rope-maker was all-important; without him sails could not be made and the ship would not move. Some of the cables manufactured were so large that it was said 80 men were required to work them and so strenuous was the work that men were not able to continue at it above four hours a day. Heart strain, burst blood vessels and hernias were the most common cause of complaint in this industry.
In building the Great Rope House a new standard was set, for in rope-making the yarn had to go through a number of different processes before the final laying and up until 1771 these had been carried out in different buildings. In the Dockyard where land was at a premium and it was decided to erect a building where a number of these processes could be done under one roof, apprentices on the top floor for the small stuff, spinners on the upper floor and the laying on the ground floor. The building became known as the Double Rope-house and was a pattern for other dockyards. Along with the Rope-house was the Hemp Store where the hemp was stored in bales and adjoining it was the Hatchelling House from where the fibres were teased or straightened before going across the road and into the Double Rope-house, by a brick builtcovered way that spanned the road with three brick archways. (there is absolutely no truth in the story that this was for French prisoners). These buildings all date from 1771.
Adjacent to the Rope-house on the south side is a row of storehouses, the eastern most one was the East Hemphouse, the West Hemphouse, The East Sea Storehouse and the West Sea Storehouse. This building was lost during the German bombing campaign in the early part of the war (1939-45). The Sea Storehouses were where the rope was stored after it had been made and could be drawn for use on ships.
To the north of the building was the Hemp Tarring House and is believed now to be the oldest building in the Dockyard dating from pre-1698 (it is shown on the 1698 plan of the Dockyard) although much altered in its present form and is possibly the oldest ropery building in any of the old Royal Dockyards. It was in this building that the hemp was tarred before going to the spinning house; interestingly an 1857 guidebook describes the process:
“Mr. Parsons, the Master Ropemaker of this dockyard, invented the improved tarring machine, the superiority of which, over the old plan of nippers, has been fully established; while it fully saturates the yarn, and prevents any excess of tar, it does not break a single thread nor in the least impairs any, the consequent saving to the country must therefore be very great in this machine alone; all other machines used in the Dockyard, in the present improved system of rope-making are of his own invention.
To-day although much altered, this group of buildings form one of the largest collection of C.18th and C.17thindustrial buildings in the country.