On Thursday 24 March we officially ‘cut the rope’ and opened our new Ropery Gallery which ties together the amazing stories of the people whose lives are intertwined with the production of rope at Chatham.
Dignitaries, friends of the Trust, and staff mingled with ropemakers whose work and life are also featured within the new gallery like Fred and Jan Cordier who met, married and worked at the Ropery for 50 years. Fred and Jan’s story is told in the new gallery space so it was fitting that they were chosen to cut the rope and officially open the space.
Image: Fred and Jan Cordier cutting the rope to officially open the new Ropery Gallery.
Also present at the opening was Des Pawson MBE whose vast collection of rope and rope-making tools were acquired by the Trust and transferred to the site from Des’s (now closed) Museum of Knots & Sailor’s Ropework in Ipswich.
Des Pawson explains the importance of rope: “Rope and the associated knots (cordage in its more general term) are in fact the building blocks of civilisation. It’s said that before the Stone Age there was a ‘string’ or ‘cordage age’ and this has so far been overlooked.”
“I have spent 40 years pulling together my collection which includes both decorative and practical rope work and I’m so pleased that Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust is going to look after it for future generations.”
Image: Des Pawson MBE
Thanks to funding from DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvements Fund and the Garfield Weston Foundation Culture Fund visitors will be able to see history brought to life in the immersive exhibition then take part in rope making in the gallery space above before exiting on to the incredible Rope Walk which at 1/4 mile in length (the length of 33 London buses) is a real wow factor.
Nick Ball, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust Collections, Galleries and Interpretation Manager says “Last night was a fantastic celebration of the combined efforts of everyone involved in this project and it was wonderful to see so many people whose lives have been intertwined by rope come together to view the new Ropery Gallery.
“In doubling capacity of the Ropery tours alone we will be able to increase the regularity of tours for visitors to The Historic Dockyard Chatham as well as allowing for growth over the next 10 years.”
Image: Nick Ball
More photographs from the Private View:
HISTORY BROUGHT TO LIFE
Rope has been made at the Dockyard for four centuries, the iconic buildings (the finest integrated group of 18th century manufacturing buildings in Britain), are home to machinery designed and made in the 1800s during the industrial revolution.
The new gallery will double capacity at the Dockyard and tie even more people to the story as well as sharing one of the finest collections of rope and rope tools in the world.
In the place where Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar Victory was made in the mid18th century and 31 miles of rope were created for her, rope is now constructed for sailing ships, gymnasiums and some of the most exciting cinema releases of the last few decades like James Bond and Harry Potter.
THE STORY OF FRED AND JAN
The story of Fred and Jan Cordier from Chatham is featured within the exhibition and the couple, who still live opposite the Dockyard gates today will open the exhibition to the public. Fred was awarded with an MBE for his 50 years of service at the Dockyard and his wife Jan worked in the spinning room for 41 years, retiring at the age of 71. They met and married at the Dockyard – and were the last couple to do so. When they met, there were strict rules at the Dockyard keeping men and women apart.
Image: Fred and Jan Cordier
Despite being kept apart, many of the men and women found ways of meeting up and lots went on to find their life partners at the Dockyard.
Jan explains: “They tried to keep us apart, the men downstairs and the women upstairs, but we got into secret places to see each other! During the MOD days it was doubly secret, and we were told that we mustn’t mix, but on a Friday we used to go to the fish shop in Brompton High Street at the top of Chatham – that’s where we really got together.”
Jan, who turns 80 this year says: “I still think about my time at the Dockyard, meeting Fred, the laughs we had in the spinning room – it was good and we had fun.”
Nick Ball, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust Collections, Galleries and Interpretation Manager adds: “We are so pleased that Fred and Jan opened the new Ropery Gallery for us; their lives have been an important part of the fabric of the Dockyard and it’s the stories of the people who worked here, met and fell in love, preserved the unique trade and pass this knowledge on to the next generation that make the place so special.”
THE NEW GALLERY
The new Ropery Gallery features a unique screen made of rope onto which photographs of the Ropery through time are projected as an audio soundscape plays giving a sense of the sounds heard in the working Ropery, produced by Brona Martin and Aki Pasoulas of the University of Kent and Andrew Knight-Hill from the University of Greenwich.
WHAT WILL PEOPLE BE ABLE TO SEE
The new exhibition experience will house one of the best collections of rope in the world thanks to the acquisition of Des Pawson MBE’s vast collection of rope-making and rope related objects from his (now closed) Museum of Knots & Sailor’s Ropework in Ipswich including The Giant Fid – the biggest fid in the world.
The new gallery’s collection also includes the oldest piece of rope in the new Gallery which comes from HMS Stirling Castle, wrecked on the Goodwin Sands in 1703. Just before the ship sank in 1699, she was fitted with all new ropes, made at the Ropery in Chatham.
Image: Conservator Karoline Sofie Hennum
THE ROPERY TODAY
The Ropery is still in operation today and produces rope for multiple sectors through Master Ropemakers Ltd – it had to diversify in lockdown and began producing multiple rope products from dog leads to large ropes for film sets like James Bond or Game of Thrones.
Alex Rowling, General Manager of Master Ropemakers Ltd manages a team of four ropemakers who keep the trade alive.
Alex says: “The team manufacture ropes for industry as well as supplying rope products for other retailers and our shops on site.”
Number just four today, the team is made up of Andy Elliott as foreman, Leanne Clark as the UK’s only professional female ropemaker, Dave Cheer (longest serving rope maker) and Stuart Green. They provide popular daily demonstrations at 12:10 so that the public can view the machinery in practice – some of which dates back over 200 years.
Dave Cheer was 20 when he first joined the Dockyard 22 years ago: “I was supposed to leave after three months and 22 years later, I’m still here. I love what goes into the job, making rope is easy, but for the splicing you need to use your brain and it’s more intricate.”
Image: Dave Cheer and Leanne Clark on the Ropewalk
Working the 1/4 mile Rope Walk (the only one in production in the UK), Leanne Clark was the first ever female apprentice ten years ago.
Leanne Clark says: “You come in the morning and know you’re ropemaking but you don’t know exactly what you’ll be making. For example, Dave made a rope swing for Prince George that was presented to HRH Prince of Wales when Prince George was first born.” Traditionally, once they’ve learned the ropes at Chatham, ropemakers tend to stay at the Dockyard. Leanne adds: “I think I’m going to be here for as long as I physically can be – I’ve never found a job that I’m so happy in. There’s something magical about keeping the trade alive as well as educating people – it’s almost its own world and its own realm.”
Image: Leanne Clark on the Ropewalk