Hawkins & Tipson’s Rope Works

Most Islanders will remember the rope shed which separated one side of Millwall Park from the Mudchute.

The shed housed a rope walk, where long strands of material were laid before being twisted into rope. Wikipedia:

Natural fibres are short in length, and so have to be twisted together so different fibres, starting at different points along the construction, hold each other together. From a single strand, much like wool, which can easily be torn apart, putting several together forms a line, which is far stronger.

Hawkins & Tipson. Photo: Island History Trust

The essence of a ropewalk, where this spinning is achieved, is a drive mechanism at one end of the walk, a “donkey” guide in the middle, which helps the ropemaker bring the strands together, and a fixing point at the far end. One end or the other is mobile, because the twisting shortens the constituent parts of the rope, and the runner in the middle is always mobile, because the rope, when sufficiently twisted, starts to form at one end and the guide then has to run back towards the drive end, guiding the twist into place: this can be a very fast action, once sufficient twist is in place.

Rope Walk

The Isle of Dogs, like other areas of East London close to the Thames and the docks, had a number of ropemakers (a large sailing ship in the 1800s could easily require 3 or 4 miles of rope) . The ropemakers whose ‘Globe Works’ were in East Ferry Road with a rope shed extending almost to Stebondale Street were Hawkins & Tipson.

George Hawkins was a ropemaker from Clapham Common, and Charles Tipson was formerly with a ropemaking firm in Cable Street (a street itself named after the rope walk that was once on its site). In 1881, they acquired an 80-year lease on a piece of land just south of the recently-opened Millwall Docks.

The area of land selected by Hawkins & Tipson for their future rope works (1870 map, two years before the construction of the Millwall Extension Railway and ‘the Arches’).

The main buildings of the works were built in a bend in East Ferry Road. The rope walk was built on a strip of land 1,270ft long and 61ft wide. Survey of London:

The group of buildings erected in the early 1880s comprised a two-storey warehouse and offices, an engine and boiler house, with a 41ft-high chimney, and a long building which contained a spinning mill, tanning house, stables, yarn house and card shed.

Circa 1895

In the early 1900s, the firm extended their premises a little southwards along the side of the newly opened Millwall Football Ground. (The ground’s western embankment formed the boundary with the firm – an embankment which remained in place, covered in blackberry bushes, until Millwall Park was extended westwards to East Ferry Road a few years ago).

Early 1900s

Survey of London:

Some rebuilding was necessary in 1906 because, during a period of heavy rain, the Mudchute became somewhat unstable and began to move on to Hawkins & Tipson’s land, pushing down buildings close to the boundary. It was quickly stabilized and the dock company accepted the responsibility for the cost of replacing the buildings destroyed.

Although most old photos of activities in the Globe Works show only men, the ratio of women to men in the ropemaking industry at the time was 4 to 1. Women were engaged mainly in the preparation, including spinning, of flax and hemp; an unhealthy job due to the risk of lung problems caused by flax and hemp dust.

Hawkins & Tipson c1905. Photo: Island History Trust

Hawkins & Tipson. Photo: Island History Trust

Photo: Island History Trust

In 1920, Hawkins & Tipson bought the land between the arches and East Ferry Road. This did leave them with the problem that their works were separated from the new extension by the arches, but when the railway line closed in 1926, they acquired a section and demolished it. This also gave them the opportunity to rebuild and extend their main works along East Ferry Road.

They chose for a design very typical of the industrial architecture of the time. The new building in East Ferry Road was constructed in the late 1930s.

1920s. (www.britainfromabove.org.uk)

1930s

Hawkins & Tipson’s was damaged at the start of The Blitz, and also more seriously on 29th December 1940 when a very large number of incendiary bombs were dropped along the Thames causing extensive fires—numbering nearly 1,500 in all —in the City and the docks area. The bombing in East Ferry Road which damaged the rope works also led to the deaths of three people:

  • Gladys Crawley, aged 38, of 93 East Ferry Road
  • Robert Thomas Palmer, aged 40, of 396 Manchester Road
  • John William Hill, aged 46, station Office LFB Fire station, died next day in Poplar Hospital

Extensive repairs and rebuilding was required after the war, and by the 1950s, the rope works had a little more order to them, a vast improvement on the higgledy-piggledy collection of buildings resulting from the firm’s piecemeal expansion in its early years.

1950s (www.britainfromabove.org.uk).

Celebrations after WWII. Photo: Pauline Green

A well-known photo from an Island History Trust newsletter

Photo: Island History Trust

The finished product – packed and ready for shipping. Photo: Island History Tryst

It’s not how big it is that counts…. Photo: Hawkins & Tipson

1966 Millwall Park. Star of the East football team, 1966 15040703318

1966. Star of the East football team in Millwall Park, with the rope shed in the background. Photo: George Warren

Mergers and acquisitions were all the rage after WWII and Hawkins & Tipson expanded by acquisition of other companies, companies with works better suited to modern ropemaking than the Globe Works. After close to a century of uninterrupted operation, the works closed in 1971.

1972, Click for full-sized version

The main buildings of the works were – after they had been vacated – badly damaged by a large fire, probably arson. This newspaper report of the incident is factually all over the shop…

1974, Daily Mirror

After the works closed, local kids discovered how much fun was to be had running on the roof of the rope shed. We – I admit it, I also joined in – also discovered how dangerous it was, with kids falling through the roof on more than one occasion.

The roof was made of corrugated iron, interspersed with corrugated plastic sheets intended to provide light inside the shed. Under the roof were hard and sharp objects waiting to be fallen upon, including large rollers embedded with tens of thousands of sharpened metal pins, whose purpose was unknown to me at the time, but which I have since discovered were ‘hackling rollers’ – used to comb hemp or flax to extract and line up their fibres.

Inside the rope shed in the 1970s. Photo: Pat Jarvis

Towards the end of the 1970s, the roof was demolished, and it and the interior were cleared away, leaving just a wall on the park side and a fence on the Mudchute side, with the Newty beyond it.

Photo: Gary O’Keefe

Former rope walk …… and cow. Photo: Mick Lemmerman

1970s Photo montage. Original photos: Peter Wright. Click for full sized version.

The 1980s, when the rope walk was becoming more and more overgrown. Photo courtesy of Jan Hill.

In East Ferry Road, only the lower half of the front walls of the 1930s-built building survived. They were decorated with a large painting representing the Isle of Dogs.

 

Not long later, these walls were also demolished. On the construction of the DLR, the railway line went across the site of the former Globe Works, restoring a railway viaduct where Hawkins & Tipson had themselves demolished a railway viaduct many decades before. The original Mudchute DLR station was also built on the site of the works.

In the 1970s, the site of Globe Works had been sold to the GLC, and was later absorbed into an extended Millwall Park (imagine that happening these days!), including the creation of a new footpath, the Globe Rope Walk.

1980s. An early incarnation of the Globe Rope Walk. Photo: Pat Jarvis

1987. Photo taken during a test run of the DLR overlooking the site of Hawkins & Tipson with the rope walk in the background. Photo: Jan Hill

Plan of Hawkins & Tipson superimposed on satellite photo. This shows also the extent of the rerouting of East Ferry Road to accommodate the DLR tunnel entrance.

Hawkins & Tipson, who had moved their main operations to Hailsham in Surrey, the location of Marlow Ropes, the dominant member of the Hawkins & Tipson group. In 1983, the group was acquired by Evered Holdings who renamed it H&T Marlow and subsequently simply Marlow Ropes Ltd.  The end of the business name, Hawkins & Tipson.

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