Felbridge Rope Walk

Felbridge Rope Walk

The road called Rowplatt Lane in Felbridge takes its name from the local occupation of plaiting ropes, ‘Rope Plait’, the road being known as ‘Row Platt Lane’ as late as 1948. This sets out to determine when the manufacture of rope was being carried out and by whom to have survived in a road name and when the rope making ceased. This handout also discusses the method of rope making and its uses within Felbridge at that period.

The first indication that rope was being made in Felbridge can be found in a ninety-nine year lease dated 20th August 1676, for a house on Hedgecourt Heath. The lease was granted to George Colman, a cordwinder, and his sons George and John at the cost of 8/- per year. The lease refers to ‘a cottage where George Colman now dwells, orchard and gardens being on Hedgecourt Heath in Horne, with several closes of land taken in or enclosed out of the said common containing by estimation 3 acres’. A cordwinder is another name for a person who makes rope, indicating that George Colman was making rope somewhere on Hedgecourt Heath in 1676. As the lease refers to George already occupying the cottage and ‘several closes of land taken in or inclosed’ from the common implies that he was already making rope by 1676 and may have been doing so for some time.

There is little information about George Colman, although we know that he was married and that he and his wife Joan had at least three children, George born in December 1650, John born in December 1652 and Anne born in May 1655. All three children were born in Horne so it is possible that George Colman senior may have been on Hedgecourt Heath from at least 1650 and could have been making rope there from that date, or even before the date. Unfortunately, there is no evidence at present to determine how long George Colman senior was in business or whether any of his sons continued the rope making industry after his death in 1682, and his wife Joan’s death in 1687. George Colman junior died in 1728, aged seventy-eight.

Confirmation of the location of the rope yard can be found on a map and survey commissioned by Sir Kenrick Clayton entitled ‘Examination of all the cottages on the Common’ that was completed in 1761. The ‘Examination’ records all the cottages on Hedgecourt Common owned by Sir Kenrick Clayton and the names of the tenants, and although the rope yard is clearly marked on land owned by Clayton, no tenant is named for the property. From the map the site of the rope yard can be determined as adjacent to the land owned by James Evelyn of Felbridge, at the extreme southern end of Hedgecourt Common owned by Sir Kenrick Clayton, lying beside the parish boundary between the properties of the two men. This, when compared with a current map, places the rope yard on the site of what is now Lyric Cottage and numbers 2 to 4a on the west side of Rowplatt Lane at the junction with the Crawley Down Road. It has not yet been determined whether the property now situated at Lyric Cottage dates from the time of the rope yard or whether it was built at a later date, but it was built by 1841.

There is further evidence for the rope yard in 1762, with an entry in the Lagham Court Book that states: ‘Joel Borer is presented for an encroachment on the Lord’s waste by enclosing part of the common called Hedgecourt Common within this manor a parcell thereof now used for a rope yard and unless he throws out the same by the 25th day of December next, the homage do amerce him the sum of 20s’. This entry confirms that the rope yard continued after the death of George Colman junior in 1728 and that it was in the hands of Joel Borer by 1762 when he appeared in the Lagham Court Book for encroachment. The encroachment could have been a slight straying of his rope making operation onto the land owned under the manor of Walkhamsted and Lagham, or it may have been more substantial. What is known it that there is evidence that the ropeyard continued past 1762, so one can only assume that either Joel Borer gave back the encroached land or paid his fine of 20 shillings and continued operating.

Again like George Colman, little is known about Joel Borer. There are no references to Borer’s in the Felbridge area prior to the association with the rope yard suggesting that Joel Borer moved to the area at the time of taking over the rope making industry or shortly before. From the Poor Law Records there are two possible contenders, in 1757 a Joel Borer relocated to the parish of Godstone from Bletchingley, along with his wife Mary and three daughters, and the second contender relocated to the parish of Worth from Betchworth in Surrey in 1728, along with his wife and family, unfortunately no names given for his wife and family. The maps associated with the enclosure of the common land in Horne record that by 1810 the rope yard site was occupied by ‘Patney’. Patney is not a name that appears in any local records, however, he could be John Pattenden, as John is the bidder for the field in which the old rope yard enclosure stands, although the actual buyer is the Lord of the manor of Felbridge, Hon. Charles Cecil Cope Jenkinson. Other enclosures purchased on his behalf in Horne are done so by the current leaseholder of the adjoining property. John Pattenden is listed as a farmer in the 1841 census, still living at the old rope yard. It seems likely that the rope yard had gone out of production by 1810 as the other enclosures being sold cross the old rope walk. The old rope yard has also decreased in size to about 1 acre, the loss of 2 acres could be accounted for by the loss of the enclosed rope walk once it fell out of use, the enclosure shown on the 1810 map only encompasses the area of the rope yard, not the walk.

In the tithe of 1841, Joel Borer son of Joel Borer, was living and farming ten acres of Hedgecourt Common along the southern edge of Hedgecourt Lake on the site of what is now called Lake Cottage to the north of Little Hedgecourt Farm, now called Hedgecourt House, off Copthorne Road. By 1841 the old rope yard enclosure was owned by William Pattenden but occupied by George Pattenden a lath renderer, and the tithe map shows that the rope yard enclosure had been divided as plot nos. 805 and 806. Plot 805 amounted to 2 rood 22 perch and consisted of a cottage and garden, and plot 806 amounted to 1 rood 14 perch and consisted of 2 cottages and gardens, the site of Lyric cottage being on plot 806.

The site of the rope yard was at the southern end of the Rowplatt Lane, abutting the Crawley Down Road, was at one end of the rope walk, which extended down to what is now the Copthorne Road, Rowplatt Lane being a quarter of a mile long, the traditional length of a rope walk. The need for a rope yard in Felbridge may not at first be obvious. Felbridge at this time was a gentleman’s country estate, the bulk of the land being agricultural. True there would have been a need for some rope in everyday living and for agricultural purposes, for example where would today’s farmer be without his binder twine? Perhaps the most obvious use for rope in the 18th century was for the rigging of ships, but Felbridge is a long way from the sea, and rope is heavy, thus rope for rigging would have been made closer to the docks or sea. What is perhaps overlooked is the amount of rope required in the process of casting cannon, and the iron industry was buoyant in this area from the mid 1500’s. The nearest furnace, Warren furnace, was located in Furnace Wood and here they cast iron and later, bronze cannon. Rope was not only used with pulleys to haul the heavy cannon around, but large quantities of rope, generally made of straw, (in particular rye straw), was required in constructing the mould for the barrel. This then may answer the question of why there was a rope yard in Felbridge.

Traditionally, rope was made from hemp, Cannabis sativa, a native plant of Asia, having stems that yield a coarse fibre, the centre of the hemp cultivation being around Bridport in Dorset until the mid 19th century when cheaper imports from Italy and the Baltic displaced it. The plant grows to a height of 15ft/ 5m and it is the supporting fibres under the skin of the stalk, known as ‘bast’, which are used. The stalks are soaked in water until the pithy core rots away; these are then beaten to separate out the ‘bast’. The rope it makes is hard, smooth and straw-coloured, tough and long lasting. Apart from hemp, fibres from other plants were also commonly used, including, jute, sisal, cotton, coir, abaca, flax and straw.

Jute, Corchorus capsularis and Corchorus olitorius, are two plants originating from Asia, the fibres being obtained for rope making in a similar fashion to that of hemp. Sisal, Agave sisalana, is a native plant of Mexico, the fibres being obtained from the leaves, making a hairy-looking rope, not as strong as hemp but cheaper. Cotton, Gossypium, originating from India, the downy fibres attached to the seeds being used for rope making. Coir, the name derived form the Malaysian word kãyar meaning cord. The fibres are obtained from the husk of the coconut, which makes the weakest of the natural-fibre ropes but which floats on water, being light and springy and often used as mooring rope, sometimes known as ‘grass line’. Abaca, Musa textilis, a kind of wild banana which is native to the Philippines, the fibres are obtained from the leaves, producing what is called Manila rope that is notably strong and quite resilient. Flax, Linum, a native plant, the fibres for rope coming from the stalks. Finally there is straw, the spent stalks of cereal crops that were twisted together, particularly used in the construction of the barrel moulds in cannon casting. Unfortunately, there is no surviving evidence as to which fibres were used in the rope making process at the Felbridge rope yard; one can only speculate on whether the plants were grown locally or not. Flax could have been grown locally or, with a buoyant iron industry, straw may have been used.

Rope making starts with the preparation of the fibres, by pulling them through a bed of pointed nails or rods, a process called ‘hackling’. This process gets the fibres to lay in the same direction. The coarse fibres are then twisted or spun in a similar manner to that of spinning wool, with all of the processes taking place on the rope walk.

The spinning process required a spinning wheel located at the upper end of the rope walk, where Lyric Cottage now stands, with a person to turn the wheel. A second man – the spinner, formed the string or rope from a bundle of dressed fibres weighing about 40 lbs/18kg carried round his waist. From the bundle, he would draw out two or more ends and fasten them to a hook, the wheel would then be turned and the threads would be twisted, and as the spinner walked backwards along the quarter of a mile rope walk, the rope or more accurately the rope yarn was lengthened. The already twisted part would draw more fibres out of the bundle, and the spinner would have given assistance to it with his fingers, supplying fibres in the correct proportion as he walked away from the wheel. Care would have been taken to ensure that the fibres came out equally from both sides of the bundle and that they always entered with their ends and not at the middle, which would double them. The arrangement of the fibres and the degree of twisting depended upon the skill and dexterity of the spinner. The degree of twist would also depend on the rate of the wheel’s motion, combined with the retrograde motion of the spinner. Along the length of the rope walk would have been a number of upright posts with long fixed pegs in them at right angles. The pegs would have been used by the spinners to throw the rope yarn onto as they proceeded along the rope walk to prevent the rope from sagging into the mud. When the spinner had arrived at the lower end of the rope walk, the Copthorne Road end, the yarn would have be detached from the hook on the wheel and attached to the reel, the yarn was then wound onto the reel and prevented from untwisting. Further yarns could be added end on end to the reel to make the required length.

The next stage in the production of rope was to twist a number of yarns together to form a strand. This was done by using a revolving hook, the number of yarns used depending on the thickness of the strand required. In the same way that many fibres were made into one yarn, many yarns would have been made into one strand, and then into one rope according to the size and strength required. Three or four strands would have been twisted together or ‘laid’ together to form the rope itself, which would have been made in a standard length of 120 fathoms or 240yds/221m. It is in this process of ‘laying’ that rope acquires a solidity and hardness that render it less penetrable by water and therefore less prone to rot. To make a standard length of rope required a rope walk of 440yds/406m, giving you a rope walk of a quarter of a mile. This length of the rope walk is required because the length of the yarn must be very much longer than the strand into which they are twisted because the yarn loses about one-third of its length in the process. The strands are also shortened as they are in turn ‘laid’ into rope, so a quarter of a mile was once the normal length of a rope walk, matching the length of Rowplatt Lane.

To make the usual three-stranded rope, the ends of three lengths of twine would have been fixed to three revolving hooks on a simple mechanism called a ‘jack’ at one end of the rope walk. These hooks all revolved together, driven by gearing or a pulley-belt from a large wheel that would have been turned by hand. At the other end of the rope walk, all three strands would have been fixed to a single hook on another simple machine called a ‘traveller’. This single hook was free to revolve, and the ‘traveller’, usually mounted on a weighted trolley, would move forward as the twisting process shortened the strands. A ‘top’ was inserted between the strands at the traveller end to prevent the strands from intertwining before the rope maker judged that the tension was just right. This ‘top’ was usually made of apple wood, and was rounded, pointed at the tail end and cut with three deep grooves one for each strand to slot into. When the tension was judged to be correct, the jack would be stopped and the hook on the traveller turned instead, the rope maker would have walked slowly towards the ‘jack’, pushing the top before him and the rope would form itself behind the ‘top’. The name given to ropes made by this process is ‘hawser laid’ rope, and for very thick ropes consisting of three ‘hawser laid’ ropes twisted together the rope was called ‘cable laid’ rope.

The rope makers of the 18th century were self-employed, often working with members of their own family. If running a small-scale business, the rope maker was often a farmer working in a spare field or paddock, whilst others made rope as a secondary income. From the available evidence, the rope making industry in Felbridge must have been operating on a fairly substantial scale as it was referred to as a ‘rope yard’ in the Lagham Court Book in 1762, when under the occupation of Joel Borer, implying that he was not just a farmer who made rope in his spare time as a secondary income. Writing about rope making in the early 19th century, it was said that a journeyman rope maker could ‘earn with ease from a guinea to a guinea and a half a week, or even more if he be sober and industrious’.

The heyday of rope making in Felbridge would have coincided with that of the local iron industry, which started up in 1567, declined around 1660, was revived in the 1750’s and was wound up in 1776 when Wright and Prickett ceased working Warren furnace. It is not known when the rope yard on Hedgecourt Common referred to in the lease of 1676 and the Lagham Court book in 1762 started operating in Felbridge, although with Warren furnace in operation since 1567 and it would seem highly likely that the rope requirements of the furnace would have been made locally. Unfortunately, a rope yard and rope walk leave little evidence, their existence and location generally only inferred by the name of an area or road. The only surviving inference of a rope yard in Felbridge is in the name ‘Rowplatt Lane’, which is fortunately backed up by documentary evidence. What can be said with some certainty is that by the end of the 18th century there would have been no demand for large quantities of rope in the Felbridge area and as such it is likely that the rope yard went out of operation shortly after the closure of the furnace. The resulting closure of the rope yard led to the redevelopment of the Crawley Down Road end of the rope walk, creating a dwelling house, now called Lyric Cottage and, either at the time or shortly after, a row of three cottages which have since been demolished. The redundant rope walk would have also left a well-worn track across Hedgecourt Common, which has now become the line of Rowplatt Lane.

It has been calculated that an average rope maker making rope by hand would have walked a total of 36,000 miles during his working life, that’s 144,000 trips backwards and forwards along the length of the rope walk, so spare a thought for the rope makers of Felbridge next time you travel along Rowplatt Lane.

Lease for cottage on Hedgecourt Heath, Ref. K60/3/184, SHC
Examination of all the cottages on the Common, Clayton papers, K61/3/2, SHC
Lagham Court Book, P25/21/12, SHC
Parish Registers for Horne and Godstone, FHA
Lease – Gage/Colman, 1673, Ref. SAS/G43/56, ESRO
Mid Sussex Poor Law Records 1601-1835 SRS V83
Horne Tithe and apportionment, 1841, 7659/1-2 SHC
Census 1841
Felbridge Parish & People, The Millennium Edition, FHA
Felbridge Then & Now, FHA
The Art of Gunfounding by Carel de Beer
Book of Trades or Library of useful arts, edited by B Hurley
Traditional Crafts in Britain by Readers Digest
Dictionary of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations, by C Waters
Warren Furnace, Fact Sheet, SJC 01/00, FHA
SJC 02/05