The thread about the history of “The Roperie”, when Leith made the finest ropes and sails for the world for two centuries

Today’s auction house artefact is this measuring and conversion gauge for ropes and wires issued by the Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co., Leith.

Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Company measuring and conversion guage
Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Company measuring and conversion guage

Ropemaking was an established craft in North Leith and Newhaven, having been established in the latter village in the early 16th century in conjunction with King James IV’s naval expansion plans. Flodden may have killed the King and his nautical dreams in 1513 but ropemaking was a necessary and useful trade and persisted. Needing room to expand beyond the confines of those settlements, it had made the shift across the river to the Links of South Leith in 1710 when John Gilmour and Thomas Mayo took a site near the present day Salamander Street. This was the beginning of the industrial expansion of Leith beyond its medieval confines, with the glass works also expanding along the foreshore. Ropemaking in Leith and Newhaven was then consolidated under the ownership of a Captain David Deas or Daies before he and partners reconstituted the firm in 1742, changing its name to the Leith Roperie Company in 1750.

Wood's 1777 Town Plan of Leith, showing the rope works. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Wood’s 1777 Town Plan of Leith, showing the rope works. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland and the Signet Library

Within months, the adjoining plot to the south was occupied by a competitor, the Edinburgh New Roperie Company. At least three other rope makers joined them and rope-making became the principle industry of South Leith after seafaring in the middle of the 18th century. In 1793 the rope and sail products of Leith were described as “among the best produced in Britain” by George Robertson. The principal customer of these ropeworks was the Leith whaling fleet, and when the Greenland whaling was wound down and abandoned the businesses faltered. The Leith Roperie had borrowed heavily and was wound up due to a lack of capital in 1848 leaving what was by now the Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Company as the principal rope and sail maker in Leith.

Kirkwood’s Town Plan of Edinburgh & Leith, 1817, showing the names of the various ropework owners

The site of the Leith Roperie would be swallowed up by the railway not long after it closed, and the Edinburgh Roperie came to acquire the sites of its adjacent neighbours in the 19th century.

The Roperie, from a company brochure of 1906, via Edinburgh Collected
The Roperie, from a company brochure of 1906, via Edinburgh Collected

Until the mid-Victorian period, Leith was always critically short of clean water (despite the river running through it), and its public water supply from Lochend was always insufficient. The company therefore established a mill at Malleny in 1805, south of Balerno on the upper reaches of the Water of Leith, where the water was clean and plentiful, to undertake the initial processing and bleaching of fibres. The coming of plentiful water from the Edinburgh & District Water Trust made the Malleny site surplus to requirements and it was disposed of in the latter part of the 19th century.

The below advert gives you an idea of the sort of things that the company were making in Leith.

1921 advert for the Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co., from a "Industrial Edinburgh"
1921 advert for the Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co., from a “Industrial Edinburgh”

The business survived into the age of steam on account of its reputation for quality products. Indeed such was the esteem with which Leith ropes and canvas were held that the company had to fight off the threat of poor quality imitations and take out newspaper adverts to this effect.

Liverpool General Advertiser, 1838
Liverpool General Advertiser, 1838

It was possibly for this reason that the Roperie adopted a distinctive trademark. The list of offices around Britain and beyond gives an indication of the company’s success and reach at this time.

Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected
Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected

At the time of this publication in 1906, the company advertised itself as having the “sixth longest rope walk in the world“, these rope walks were where the individual cords that made up the rope were gathered and twisted together in a technique that hadn’t evolved much over the centuries.

The Leith rope walk, a mid 20th century photo from British Ropes promotional material, via Edinburgh Collected
The Leith rope walk, a mid 20th century photo from British Ropes promotional material, via Edinburgh Collected

A 1958 advertisement used the words of the poet Henry Longfellow to convey “some of the atmosphere of our ancient craft, which has existed since the world was young“:

In that building, long and low,
With its windows all a-row,
Like the port-holes of a hulk,
Human spiders spin and spin,
Backward down their threads so thin
Dropping, each a hempen bulk.

The Ropewalk, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1858

The company carried out most of the stages of rope and cloth making for itself, from processing the raw ingredients through to spinning, weaving, binding and packaging of the end product. This included the bleaching, dying and waterproofing of fibres and it had an enormous drying green on the site. The fertiliser works on Salamander Street can be seen in the background.

Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected
The drying green. Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected

It was not just maritime ropes and sails that were produced, general waterproofed natural fabrics known as “duck” were made for any sort of purpose;

The spinning mill. Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected

And ropes for power transmission and winding;

The steam engine of the rope spinning department.  Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected
The steam engine of the rope spinning department. Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected

Through to agricultural binder twine. Here the company’s steam lorry is seen heading out of the works with a full load of 5lb balls of twine.

The steam lorry. Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected
The steam lorry. Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected

At its peak it employed over 1,000 people in Leith, including a lot of women (as spinning and weaving mills often did). It was heavy and dangerous work, with unguarded, rapidly spinning, cable-powered machinery everywhere and the ever-present silent danger of a work atmosphere laden with fibres.

The largely female workforce (apart from the overseer) in the weaving factory. Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected
The largely female workforce (apart from the overseer) in the weaving factory. Edinburgh Roperie & Sailcloth Co. brochure from 1906 via Edinburgh Collected
"Rope Hackling Machine" at the Edinburgh Roperie,  from a 1919 book "Cordage and Cordage Hemp"
“Rope Hackling Machine” with woman worker at the Edinburgh Roperie, from a 1919 book “Cordage and Cordage Hemp”

The Roperie became part of the British Ropes conglomerate in 1925, which was formed with the purpose of consolidating the British industry into a larger, more efficient concern following a huge loss of business during and after WW1. It continued to trade under its own name as part of this parent organisation.

On Saturday 25th April 1936, the Leith works suffered a disastrous fire which engulfed most of the site, the Dundee Courier reporting that there was a “quarter mile of flames” and that it was “one of the most disastrous which had occurred in that city for many years“. The fire broke out at the western end of the works and was fanned by the wind, quickly consuming the whole length within a period of just 20 minutes. Around £75,000 of damage (c. £6 million in 2022) was done to the works, but within days the company had 100 of its 500 strong workforce back on site. Its survival after this critical episode was attributed to it being part of the larger conglomerate. The management vowed to rebuild and the Minister of Labour opened the reconstructed works on November 16th 1937; this time the factory was entirely fireproof. It was now “the most up to date ropeworks in Scotland” and “one of the most important factories” in the British Ropes group.

200th Anniversary social evening advert for the Roperie, via Edinburgh Collected
200th Anniversary social evening advert for the Roperie, via Edinburgh Collected

The company moved into production of synthetic ropes and celebrated its bicentennial in Leith in 1950 with the opening of a plant for the production of nylon sailcloth. However, this was not enough to guarantee the long term survival of the works, which still depended on jute and soft fibre-based production for much of its business. On Friday November 18th 1960, British Ropes announced it was simultaneously closing its Leith works and exiting the soft fibre and jute business altogether. Synthetic rope and cloth production was transferred to company sites in Tyneside and South Wales. Of the 400 workers in Leith, 60% were women and there would be redundancy of between £17,000 and £20,000 paid out in total. The works finally closed 9 months later after a winding down process.

The site was then taken over by the company of Macdonald & Muir, whisky bottlers and blenders known for their Highland Queen bonded warehouse along Commercial Street, blends such as Baillie Nicol Jarvie and their ownership of John Crabbie & Co.’s green ginger wine business in Leith. They are probably best known as the parent company of the Glenmorangie Distillery, which they bought in 1918. Bath Road, by now known as Salamander Place, became the HQ, bottling and distribution plant for the company now known simply as Glenmorangie. They left in stages between 1993 and 1996, headed for Livingston where they are still going as part of the the Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton empire.

These monogrammed Macdonald & Muir boardroom chairs came up for sale in October 2020.
These monogrammed Macdonald & Muir boardroom chairs came up for sale in October 2020.

The site lay vacant before being snapped up by property speculators who demolished everything and then went bust in 2008 during the financial crisis. It then took the best part of another 10 years for things to get moving again and the final phase of redevelopment is imminently coming to a conclusion.

The Roperie site in 2008
The Roperie site in 2008
The Roperie site in 2014
The Roperie site in 2014
The Roperie site in 2019
The Roperie site in 2019

You will notice that one of the developers has branded its block The Ropeworks (a name under which it never traded) and the street names include the Ropemaker Street, Sailmaker Road and Chandler Crescent. Fans of the film Trainspotting T2 may recognise Sailmaker Road…

Dalton's long-established scrapyard on Salamander Street
Dalton’s long-established scrapyard on Salamander Street

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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