Not surprisingly, the High Street has always been connected with the sea-faring trades, many of which were carried out over the centuries in workshops and yards behind the High Street properties. I wanted to get a better picture of what was involved in these trades and this is a very basic guide to what I found out.
Top of the tree were the merchants who owned and sometimes built ships, set up trading adventures, employed sailors, agents and others and reaped the profits. These profits were often turned into fine houses such as the Tudor mansions in lower High Street (Nos. 10, 12, 14 etc.). The 18th century saw other splendid merchant’s houses being built, like No. 87/9 (Ginalis / rear of Yates’ Wine Lodge) which was home to William Barfoot in the mid 1700s, No. 109-113, John Masters’ house (Volcano, Quicksilver & Thompson Travel) and of course Beech Hurst, built by Samuel Rolles. At the end of the 18th century, John Masters’ former house was occupied by the leading merchant, George Garland head of the Lester / Garland family of Newfoundland traders. John Rolles, Samuel’s brother, lived at No. 127/9, now Bon Marché and Christopher Jolliffe also lived nearby. Another vital trade was supplying or victualling of ships. As a corn factor, George Garland’s brother Joseph played a part in this trade. He lived at No. 125, a mansion house later the entrance to the Amity Hall and then the site of Woolworth’s.
After the decline of the Newfoundland trade, the merchants mainly moved away or went out of business. One man to buck the trend was Thomas Wanhill, shipowner, shipbuilder and clay merchant. He lived in central High Street but I haven’t been able to work out just where. Wanhill was a major employer and also served on the town council, being Mayor in 1843 and 1848. He also was in business with his brother building racing yachts, three of which took part in the first America’s Cup in 1851. Many Wanhill yachts went on to be trophy winners.
Other craftsmen, like sailmakers, coopers, blockmakers and ropemakers carried out their trades actually in High Street. The trade of the cooper or barrel maker was a highly skilled one. The wooden staves which made up the barrels had to be cut very accurately, tapered at either end and with a bevelled edge so that they would fit tightly. The staves were soaked so they would bend into shape and secured with iron hoops, driven down around the staves. Barrels were vital for holding not only liquids like wine, beer and oil but also fish, meat, corn, salt and lots of other goods. They could be rolled, stacked and even floated. The merchant, Joseph White who lived at No. 12 / 14 High Street had a cooperage or barrel workshop at the back of his house. Cooper Adams Wadham lived nearby, probably in No. 18, at the end of the 18th century. Coopers continued operating in High Street until the middle of the 19th century when Robert Saunders had a workshop and employed 2 apprentices in the premises next to Beech Hurst.
Sailing ships needed specialist tackle. A three-masted ship might use as many as 1,000 blocks to work the rigging. These would vary in size from 3 inches to 3 foot in length. They were made from hard wood and consisted of an outer shell with one or more inner pulleys or sheaves over which the rope ran, and which rotated on a pin. The fortunes of the Barfoot family were probably based on the trade as William Barfoot’s father Stephen was a successful blockmaker. The blockmaking trade was listed on High Street as late as 1861 when Charles Gates lived on lower High Street opposite the present museum entrance. With the decline of the big sailing ships, the trade had probably diversified into industrial and agricultural applications.
The main requirement for sailmakers was space so that they could spread out the sails as they worked. There were also many specialist tools associated with the trade like awls, punches and spikes to pierce the sailcloth. A sailmaker’s ‘palm’ was a piece of leather with a metal pad that went around the hand and was used to force the needle through the cloth. Most of the sail lofts were on the Quay with a few on High Street, perhaps as late as the 1870s when Henry Cartridge was listed as living at No. 3. With a declining demand for large sails for merchant ships, sailmakers would have aimed at other markets such as leisure sailing, tarpaulins, rick-covers and tents.
Ropemaking was another trade that had its heyday in the days of the great sailing ships. A single ship would use literally miles of rope for its rigging, hawsers and cables. A major ropemaker in the early 18th century was John Carter who lived on High Street near Carter’s Lane and owned the White Bear Inn. His ropewalk was at lower Hamworthy. Richard Ledgard, described unusually as a merchant, ropemaker and stationer was in the trade in the 1790s. In the early years of the 19th century, he was prosecuted for causing an obstacle by operating his ropewalk across the highway near the turnstile at the entrance of the town. When High Street was finally connected to Longfleet and opened up to traffic, the ropewalk had to be relocated just to the east.
Often shown on maps as a long row of posts or hoops, ropewalks are very distinctive premises being very long and narrow. The early ones may have been open air or temporary structures. Later they were more substantial. Ropes were made of hemp, sisal or other fibre. Raw hemp was ‘hatchelled’ or combed out and then spun into fibres which were twisted into yarns. Yarns were twisted into strands and the strands into rope, the direction of twist being reversed at each stage. The rope walk was where the rope was ‘laid’ – stretched out between revolving hooks and twisted, the strands being brought together through a ropemaker’s ‘top’. The walks might be 300 yards long or more to make the required length of rope. When twisted, the rope would only be about 2/3 of the length of walk.
Ropemaking near High Street continued until the late 19th century when Balston and Co’s rope and twine works ran alongside the railway line with its entrance just north of the railway footbridge. Today the shops of Kingland Crescent are on the site.