On the ropewalk!
Ropemaking can be traced back to early days of seafaring, and became more necessary with the rigging and lashings of sailing ships, which required large quantities of strong, large diameter ropes for shipping together with ropes for haulage, rope drives, lifting cranes, etc.
Not surprisingly, ropeworks were often concentrated around the larger seaports in Britain, Europe and the USA, along with specialist engineering firms that supplied the ropemaking machinery. In Australia, Melbourne became a major centre of ropemaking, when Scotsman James Miller erected his first ropeworks in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) in 1862 in the industrial precinct that is now part of Southbank. Originally between City Rd and Queensbridge St, floods in 1874 caused him to move to Moray St where he set up a plant for weaving corn sacks and wool packs.
The principles of ropemaking were relatively simple and have remained the same for thousands of years. There were three steps – firstly, the heckling, where the fibres of the basic raw material were pulled out and straightened (raw materials included jute, hemp, flax, Manila, cotton, sisal or synthetic and were drawn from countries such as New Zealand, Philippines, China, Java, India, Italy and Russia).
The second was the spinning of the fibres into yarn or thread, which required materials to undergo about a dozen steps in the process. The factory was described as very noisy, as the noise of the looms stunned the ear with the rattle of weaving shuttles, a whirring noise of spindles, the rotating iron rollers, and the constant admonishment by managers to keep up the pace.
The third was making of the yarns into rope where they were processed in a ropewalk – a long piece of land (more than 1000 feet long and 14 feet wide) where bundles of fibres attached to two machines which revolved, and the strands were twisted together into a rope. Workers attending to the ropewalk was a familiar site to those walking around the district.
In 1888 Miller relocated to Yarraville, erecting a new factory, and closed the South Melbourne works soon after. A ropewalk was included among the buildings at Yarraville and ran along the southern boundary of the site (with river frontage) all the way to Whitehall St, a distance of about 350 metres.
Rope was distinguished from other types of cordage (such as cord, twine, string, etc.) by its size, it being generally accepted that rope is an inch (25mm) or more in diameter. While rope generally had an industrial or commercial function, it was also used for recreation purposes, such as tug of war and the game of quoits (still being played by workplace teams in South Melbourne in the 1950s). As the processes for manufacturing rope became automated and electrified, ropewalks disappeared but their memory remains a distinctive part of the industrial heritage of Southbank and a pioneer institution of the district. •