Going to great lengths07 October 2019

The Historic Dockyard Chatham, situated on the River Medway in Kent, has been handed funding for conservation and repair works to machinery within its working Victorian Ropery. OE’s deputy editor made his way along the ropewalk to find out how the rope making process works, what maintenance issues have occured, and how the funding will be used

Just 35 miles from London and sitting alongside Medway River in the Medway towns in Kent stands The Historic Dockyard Chatham – a place that is rife with over 400 years of history (see box). Up until 1984, it supported the Royal Navy by building, repairing and maintaining its warships, while today, the dockyard is divided into three sections. The easternmost basin is a commercial port, while another slice contains a mixture of commercial, residential and leisure developments. The final section, comprising the 18th century core of the site, is run by a charity called the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.

A popular location for local events such as ‘The Festival of Steam & Transport’ and ‘Salute to the 40s’, as well as filming (Call the Midwife, Sherlock Holmes, and Les Misérables), the site is a busy attraction whereby visitors can get up close with HM Ocelot, HMS Cavalier, HMS Gannet, exhibitions, an RNLI Historic Lifeboats Collection, and The Victorian Ropery. The latter is the only one of the original four Royal Navy Ropeyards to remain in operation.


Rope has been made at The Historic Dockyard Chatham for almost 400 years – originally to rig vessels. When built between 1786 and 1791, the building was equipped with a range of ropemaking equipment, including kit patented by both Joseph Huddart and John Daniel Belfour. In 1809-1811, Navy Board mechanist Simon Goodrich and Henry Maudslay introduced pioneering mechanical forming machines to improve the quality of the manufacture of rope strands.

In 1854, new sets of closing machines were installed, enabling the rope closing process to become steam powered. Both these and the earlier Maudslay forming machines have remained in use to the present day, acting as demonstration devices for visitors and producing rope on a commercial basis – for theatres, ships and boats, as well as quirky products, such as dog leads, keyrings and door stoppers.

Claire Thomson is a tour guide and the fourth generation of her family to work at the Dockyard. Dressed as a Victorian widow “who is looking for a new husband”, she explained that the ropewalk is “the largest indoor ropewalk in the world” at 1,128-feet (343.8 metres). It is, in fact so long, that the ropery’s five ropemakers – including Leanne Clark (pictured, left), the first female ropemaker, ever – use bicycles to get from one end to the other.

The process of making rope is quite simple. Yarn – either coir, hemp or manila – is threaded through a register plate in order to keep the strands separate. They then pass to the strand tube and are kept tight. The tube is subsequently attached to a hook on a forming machine and a twist is put into the strand as it is pulled down the walk.

Chris Jones, head of ship keeping and heritage engineering, explained that the machine is no longer powered by steam, but is driven by an 50hp electric motor. As the motor is run and the machinery makes its way down the ropewalk, the strands are twisted tighter together, creating the rope, which is subsequently wrapped and packed by the ropemakers. He added that the ropery also carries out its own break strength testing, with every one in ten placed within the jaws of a pressure machine. Here, the rope can be pulled “at up to 50 tonnes” to test its strength and durability.


Using original equipment is a part of the ropery’s charm and one of the many reasons that tourists flock to the factory and products are so popular. However, as many in industry will know, old kit does not come without problems. Jones often helps to sort machine maintenance, repairs and rebuilding.

He explained that one of the ropemaking machines on ‘the large side’ from 1854 has recently been refurbished after the shaft cracked. It had to be remade and bearings also needed to be replaced. “It was a six-month project and we used local companies,” he said.

Now, the Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA) has awarded the Dockyard a restoration grant of £17,200 towards the cost of restoring its 1854 ropemaking machinery, which is used for the majority of ropemaking demonstrations on the ropewalk.

Inspection of the closing machines has shown that on both standing and travelling machines, the original drive wheel, draft gears and clutch shaft bevel gears are badly worn and now loose on their shafts. The Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust will, therefore, have the centre bores to all trued by boring out. It will also replace three drive shafts with newly manufactured parts to fit the bored-out centres of the original drive wheels and gears. It has determined that, due to the age and material of the drive shafts, it would not be appropriate to build these up with new metal.

Paul Barnard, director of communications and development (assistant chief executive) at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, said: “The Victorian Ropery is one of our most important assets and enabling the machinery to continue operating ensures the long-term sustainability of this national treasure.”

The project is due to commence this month and will be completed by early 2020. The works will mostly be delivered in-house and led by the head of Heritage Engineering, while external support will be brought in as required to engineer new parts. The grant will not cover the total cost of the repairs (c.£21,000), but the trust will fund the shortfall.

BOX OUT: The Historic Dockyard Chatham through time

Established in 1567 as a Royal Navy Dockyard, The Historic Dockyard Chatham came into existence at a time when, following the Reformation – when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church – relations with European Catholic countries worsened, leading to a requirement for additional defences.

The site was developed in 1572, under the supervision of Tudor shipwright Mathew Baker, to include sawpits, workshops, and a wharf with a crane. The first dry dock opened in 1581 and the first ship to be built and launched in 1586 was HMS Sunne. In 1613, the dockyard moved from its original location (now the gun wharf) to its present site. Two new mast ponds were added, and additional land was granted for a dock, storehouse, and brick and lime kilns.

By the late 17th century, Chatham was the largest refitting dockyard, which proved very important during the Dutch wars. However, it was superseded in the following century by Portsmouth and Plymouth because European conflicts were now being fought in the New World and the Medway had begun to silt up, making navigation more difficult. Despite being superseded, a decision was taken to invest further in Chatham Dockyard, and so it was developed into a building yard rather than a refitting base. Among the many vessels built were HMS Victory, which launched in 1765 and is now preserved at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

By the year 1770, the establishment stretched a mile in length, and included an area of in excess of 95 acres. The officers and men employed at the yard also increased, and by 1798 the employment number stood at 1,664, including officers, clerks, shipwrights, blockmakers, caulkers, pitch-heaters, and blacksmiths, as well as joiners, carpenters, sail makers, riggers, ropemakers, bricklayers, and labourers.

The yard underwent another large building programme between 1862 and 1885, as the Admiralty adjusted to the new technology of steam-powered ships with metal hulls.

Then, with the 20th century, came the submarine. HMS C17 was launched in 1908, and 12 submarines were built during World War I. However, uncompleted boats were scrapped when hostilities ceased, and five years would pass before another ship launch.

In the interwar years, eight “S” class submarines were built, but this was a period of decline. There were 1,360 refits and 16 launchings during World War II, and the final boats constructed were Oberon class submarines. The last vessel built for the Royal Navy was HM Ocelot, and the final vessel put together by Chatham was HMCS Okanagan, which was built for the Royal Canadian Navy and launched in September 1966. The Dockyard was more than 600 acres when it closed in 1984 before being separated into its three sections; The Historic Dockyard Chatham is 80 acres of that site.

Adam Offord

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