Rope has been made on this site since 1618 when the first Rope Yard buildings were completed. Originally there were two long timber single-storey buildings – one used for spinning, the other for rope forming and closing. The present building is a Double Ropehouse where spinning took place on upper floors with the Rope Walk, where the rope was made, on the ground floor.
Rope was an essential commodity in the age of sail with a first rate ship of the line needing around 31 miles of it – over 20 for its rigging alone. The Rope Yard operated as a separate business unit within the dockyard, run by the Clerk of the Ropeyard, with its own workforce recorded separately by the Navy Board to that of the rest of the dockyard.
Today the Ropery is unique –a traditional naval ropery, complete with its original Georgian and Victorian equipment – that still makes rope commercially.
Built as part of the rebuilding of the Rope Yard in the late 18th century, the Hatchelling House was where the ropemaking process began.
Hatchellers, semi-skilled artisans combed the raw hemp fibre across hatchels, boards with long iron pins to straighten out the fibres before they were spun into yarn. Whale oil, known as ‘train oil’ was used to lubricate the fibres. This was very hard manual work that took great strength. In 1803 19 hatchellers worked in this building.
In 1864 the hatchelling operation was mechanised and incorporated in the new Spinning Room built above the Hemp Houses. The hatchellers’ role was passed over to women to work as machine minders following the pattern set in northern textile mills.
The earliest surviving buildings of the Ropeyard are the Hemp Houses, the northern most part (closest to Commissioners House) dating from 1729.Originally a single storey structure the hemp houses were extended in length three times and doubled in width.
They were used to store raw hemp fibre grown in southern Russia and imported through Baltic ports such as Riga. As a result the hemp was often known as Riga hemp and the Baltic became an important supply route for key raw materials of shipbuilding in the age of sail such as hemp and fir logs to be made into ships’ masts and spars.
In 1812 , during the Napoleonic Wars, a second storey was added to double the space available to store the hemp. In 1864 the upper storey was rebuilt to take mechanical hatchelling and spinning machinery. A new workforce of women were recruited as ‘machine minders’ to operate the new equipment and other parts of the ropeyard altered to provide facilities and separate access for the new female workforce
The Historic Dockyard Chatham is now open to visitors.
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