Ipswich Icons: Have you visited Ipswich’s museum of knots? Find out more about town’s rope-making past

Rope Walk, Ipswich

Rope Walk, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

It shouldn’t take a genius to work out, in a maritime town like Ipswich, that the previous industry of the thoroughfare known as Rope Walk was rope making, writes John Norman of the Ipswich Society.

Ipswich Civic College

Ipswich Civic College - Credit: Archant

In fact in Ipswich there were at least six ropewalks (manufacturing works) and possibly two Rope Lanes (streets).

The present day Rope Walk was previously known as Ropere’s Lane with the rope works (or ropewalk) immediately south of the street (under what is today St Edmund’s House). The current road got its name from the sheds and cottages that were on the northern side of the walk, a back door onto the works, a front door onto what became the present day Rope Walk. The second Rope Lane was off St Peter’s Street but is now lost in history.

Rope is made by walking backwards, first spinning fibre to make a yarn then a number of these yarns are twisted together to make a strand then three or four strands are twisted together to make a rope. The sailing vessels of the day required hundreds of yards of rope in a range of different strengths and thicknesses.

The key to a successful rope making business is the length of rope that the facility can produce, the longer the ropewalk the longer the rope that could be produced. This particular facility could run a rope from near Eagle Street to Milner Street (the corner of the grounds of Hill House, today’s Alexandra Park), close to 1,000 feet.

The other Ipswich ropewalks were situated closer to the quay side, one between Back Hamlet and Fore Hamlet (under what is today Holy Trinity Church), one immediately south of and parallel with Fore Hamlet and another just south of the shipyards on Neptune Quay. There were, according to Ogilby’s map of 1674, three shipyards adjacent to the bend in the river, immediately south of what became Coprolite Street. Another ropewalk was on the level ground at the top of Bishops Hill, close to Alan Road.

The ropewalk close to the river had disappeared from Pennington’s map of 1778 but the Rope Walk facility was still in production and remained so until 1818. The end of the 18th Century saw development of rope production on an industrial scale and with it the demise of small scale rope making.

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The ropewalks were not alone in their decline, the wool trade was no longer king, the river was silting up and Ipswich was in depression. The Dock Commissioners sought to change the town’s fortunes, a steam dredger was purchased, the river was straightened and Ipswich’s industrial revolution began.

Ransome had moved into Ipswich in 1789 and established an engineering industry. Sea-going vessels, increasingly steel rather than timber, were driven by steam not the wind and the local market for hemp ropes collapsed. The very last of the Ipswich ropewalks, Alan Road ceased production at the end of the 19th Century.

One of the requirements of the new engineering industries that were developing on the quaysides was accommodation for the agricultural labour that had come into town. The swathe of east Ipswich between St Helen’s and St Clement’s (known as the Potteries because bricks and roof tiles had been made on the site) became an area of high density (low rise) housing. The property was cheaply and hastily built, a disadvantage as overcrowding and lack of facilities meant they soon became slums.

The area was partially cleared in the 1930s, with the remaining properties swept away immediately after the Second World War. The cleared land was used to build the new Civic College, opened in 1961 and becoming Suffolk College in 1974. St Edmund’s House was built in 1979 for the county council on what had been the college car park; this building is currently undergoing conversion into apartments. The tower block of Suffolk College was demolished in 2010 and a new building constructed closer to Rope Walk (Suffolk New College). The remaining buildings on the south side of the site (adjacent to New Street and Long Street); including the College Library, fell into the ownership of the university.

Did you know that there is a Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropework in Ipswich? As well as the obvious artefacts there are rope makers’ tools and interesting examples of the rope makers’ art. Find more details here