Outhwaite Ropemakers

K n o t     t o     b e     m i s s e d     s i n c e     1905

We are a rope making business  set in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales creating rope for commercial and domestic purposes. We create personalised stair and bannister ropes, barrier rope systems, dog leads and halters as well as mass produced braided rope. Once, there would have been hundreds of rope making businesses all across the country, now only a handful remain - this is our story.

  1725 - 1802

Askrigg parish records describe John Brenkley of Setbusk (Sedbusk, near Hawes) as a ropemaker at the time of his death in 1725.


The surviving records of Hawes church include detailed accounts for the years 1726 -1802. The church's expenditure on bell ropes and related work has been extracted from these records.

In 76 years, Hawes church bought 39 bell ropes and two ropes for the font. Cord was purchased on four occasions and in 1757 and 1798 payment was made for hanging and putting up the new bell rope. Work done included mending the bell wheel (1/- in 1734), work "about the steeple" (11/9d in 1765) and " Repairs at Bell and Clapper" (2/- in 1800).

In 1765 Isaac Metcalfe was paid 4/6d for a new Bell Wheel - a substantial figure at that date when two men's board for 29 days whilst working cost the "chappell wardens" 16/6d (82½p).

Most tantalizing are the names in the church records, mentioned only occasionally in connection with bell ropes, though often in the case of builders, joiners and other workmen. The following people are known, from the records, to have been paid for supplying ropes:


  • 1734 To James Constantine for a Bellroap - 1/2d
  • 1761 To Thos. Archer for a Bell Roap - 2/-
  • 1775 To Thos. Archer for cording - 2d
  • 1781 To Mr. Stubbs a new Bell Rope - 1/9d


These men may have been ropemakers in Hawes or district, or merchants who dealt in rope. When did ropemaking begin in Hawes? Perhaps information from local sources may yet come to light to provide an answer.

The Wharton Family 1841-1905

Clear evidence of ropemaking in Hawes begins with the household census returns for 1841 in which Thomas Wharton, aged 60 (In the 1841 census ages were rounded off to the nearest five years.), and his sons Richard, 30, and John, 20, are listed as ropemakers. Information in other census returns suggests that it was at least 1830 before the Wharton family moved to Hawes, probably from a neighbouring dale.


The Wharton's ropemaking business was based at the Old Toll Bar, later known as the Gate House, which still exists on the outskirts of Hawes on the road leading to Ingleton. The family, including Thomas's wife Mary and youngest children Thomas, 16, and Mary, 15, may have been toll-keepers as well as ropemakers. The ropewalk ran parallel to the toll-road, allowing passers-by to watch the family at work.



As well as the regular trade at the fortnightly cattle markets, which until 1919 took place in the main street, extra demand for ropes was created during the special fairs in June, September and October, for horses, cattle and tups (rams) respectively. Every rope made required the labour of two people, one to turn the wheel and the other to lay the rope.


By 1851 Thomas had employed a thirteen year old boy, William, as a wheelturner † to help John in the manufacturing process. The business also had to support at least four younger members of the Wharton household, including a future ropemaker of the third generation.


Following his father's death in 1852 John (1) took over as head of the household and trained his nephew, John (2), Thomas's grandson, as an assistant ropemaker. Having successfully served his apprenticeship John (2) graduated as a journeyman, making way for another of Thomas's grandsons, John (3), to follow the family tradition. At the age of 14, in 1881, the latter was already an assistant ropemaker, eventually succeeding his father John (1) as proprietor of the business at the age of 28. 


† Electricity now supplies the power formerly provided by an apprentice, who turned the wheel that put twist into the rope. 


The ropemaking business continued to support John Wharton (3) and his family for a further ten years until, at the age of 38, having spent at least twenty-four years making rope, he `retired' and sold the business in order to pursue his profound interest in specialist poultry breeding. His successor, Mr. W. R. A.Outhwaite, took over the ropemaking concern in 1905.



At this point the story of the Wharton's involvement in ropemaking ends, but as John Wharton remained an important figure in the local community his subsequent history is worth recording. He served as a local councillor, became chairman of Aysgarth Rural District Council and later a Justice of the Peace. From his home at Honeycott, next to the Gate House, he had a commanding view of his own land and the White Wyandotte poultry which had fascinated him for so long. It was his growing success with poultry which allowed him to sell the ropemaking business and concentrate on his hens. As an enthusiast, breeder and judge he travelled as far as Germany exhibiting and judging at shows, not the least of his personal successes being as a cup winner at Crystal Palace. His family stayed at home when he travelled abroad but he sent one daughter to live in Germany in order to learn the language and thus facilitate business deals.

Mr. T. C. (Kit) Calvert of Hawes tells of two local farmers returning to the dale by rail from a trip to Manchester to sell one hundred lambs. Sharing their carriage John Wharton listened to the story of their success until, joining in the conversation, he recounted his own journey - to sell one White Wyandotte cockerel in Germany. When told that this one sale had realised more profit than all one hundred lambs the farmers were, not surprisingly, speechless. No doubt John Wharton's waxed moustache and dignified figure added conviction to this impressive story.


In spite of his success abroad he was always pleased to come home. His love of poultry and bees (after which Honeycott was named) was combined with an enthusiasm for trees and flowers; family anniversaries and special occasions were celebrated with tree plantings. His daughter, Mrs. Lilian White, who was born in 1900 recalls her father leaving the house with pocketfuls of snowdrop bulbs which he planted at random on his walks around local lanes. As he grew older and looked back on his business achievements and travels he was left with one ambition. This he fulfilled in 1924 when he travelled from Hawes, across the Atlantic, to see the Rocky Mountains and Niagara Falls. He was away for almost two months and for an all-inclusive price of £208

The Outhwaite Family 1905 - 1975

The origins of the Outhwaite family, to whom John Wharton sold the ropemaking business, can be traced back two hundred and fifty years, during which time there have been several changes in spelling. Over this period Outhwayt, Outhett and Outhwaite have all been recorded in the registers of the family's births, deaths and marriages.


John Outhwaite settled at Stalling Busk in the 1730's with his family which included sons John and Thomas. They farmed successfully at Raydaleside and gradually became landowners. The next four' generations, including several Johns and Williams, continued this success until the end of the nineteenth century when William Richard Alfred Outhwaite, the great-great-great-great grandson of the original John, realised that the farm was no longer large enough to support his family. As no suitable farm was available, the alternatives being either too large or too small, `Billy Dick' moved to Hawes and changed his occupation, taking over the ropemaking business from Johnny `Roper' Wharton in 1905.


Thomas Gardner Outhwaite, the second generation of Outhwaite ropemakers, was born into this community at Lancaster Terrace, Hawes, in 1911, the whole family moving to the Gate House in 1912.


The Whartons had practised the ropemaking business from its Gate House site on the Ingleton road, and it was here that W. R. Outhwaite made ropes until about 1922. He also had a regular stand in Hawes market where his first Tuesday's trading brought in only 3s.9d (18½p), but the second a more satisfactory £5.


The railway had made a significant difference to trade in the area during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, but Mr. Outhwaite still travelled to Kettlewell once a year by pony and cart with a load of ropes. By staying the night with relatives at Stalling Busk he was able to make the journey over Stake Pass into Wharfedale and return to Stalling Busk in one day. There he was met by Tom and his sister. The success of this annual venture was measured, naturally, by the reduced load on the cart.


The period of the First World War saw the beginning of the changes which the twentieth century brought to Hawes. Mr. John Blythe of Hawes, who was a young man at this time, describes the war years as a period when "goods and materials were all in short supply. Most of the young and middle-aged men had gone to the forces or to munition work, and community activities were carried on largely by the older people and `teenagers'. The whole emphasis was on keeping things going, not on enterprise and development." 


Life was not made any easier in the 1920's when John Wharton decided that the Gate House would eventually be needed for his married son, thus forcing W. R. Outhwaite to find a new site for the ropemaking business. After negotiations with T. T. Iveson, a local land-owner, Mr. Outhwaite acquired Banker's Field, the present site of the ropeworks at Town Foot. This land had the advantage of being on the route between the auction mart and the railway station. The new ropeworks, a wooden shed, was built on this ground and extended nearly as far as the footbridge beside the present building. Longer ropes were made in the field behind the shed but Mr. Iveson imposed the condition that all outdoor ropemaking equipment was to be stored out of sight at the end of each working session.


All through this difficult period - the business moving out of the Gate House in 1922, followed some time later by the family - W. R. Outhwaite continued to trade at the market, but he was convinced that the move to Town Foot would finish the business. The first week's trading was a disaster but trade gradually picked up until in later years he was able to admit that the move had been a blessing in disguise. As a young man his son Tom was not keen to follow in his father's footsteps; he had experienced too much wheel-turning in his youth and, as a result, he moved into the grocery trade as an alternative means of earning his living.


A more stable period followed with the Outhwaite reputation spreading by word of mouth through Wensleydale, Swaledale and Wharfedale. The only competition which Tom recalls hearing his father speak of was from one firm in Lancaster (35 miles away) and another at Stalybridge, near Manchester.


Gradually the Town Foot premises became a base for social activity as well as business. Many farmers coming to the auction mart caught up with local affairs over a pint in the pub. Methodists, however, used Billy Clement's boot repair shop under the Conservative Club and Outhwaite's ropemaking shed as a regular meeting place to discuss religion, politics and gossip, while at the same time keeping warm.. The ever-open door was not only an invitation to adults; children enjoyed Mr. Outhwaite's company and turned the handle for him while he made ropes. Several people have recounted their happy memories of these times to us.


It would be wrong to give the impression that business life was always straight-forward. Correspondence surviving from the early 1940's between W. R. Outhwaite and the Ministry of Supply, which controlled the allocation of hemp, coir and jute used in ropemaking, indicates that the rationing of raw materials caused problems and frustrations right through the Second World War. At the end of this period Tom, having been demobbed, decided to join his father in the business and thus the firm became W. R. Outhwaite and Son.


In spite of a move to more mechanised farming, the manufacture of the ropes and the products for sale were just as they had been thirty years earlier at the Gate House site. Mr. Outhwaite Snr. had devised a self-adjusting rope halter for cattle and horses but, to Tom's regret, it had never been patented. The raw materials for the ropes at this time came from Burnley and the finished products were sent off by rail from the Hawes station.


By now Hawes agricultural merchant, Mr. Alan Irving, was taking rope products to different markets each day of the week, and on Tuesday - market day - the Outhwaites displayed their goods on a stall on the pavement outside the ropeworks. In addition to the ropes there was always a good selection of hay creels, buckets, walking sticks and general farming equipment. In 1952 Tom applied for a grant from the Yorkshire Rural Industries Council. This enabled him to install an electric motor to power the twisting machine, thus replacing the wheelturner and speeding up the manufacture of the ropes without changing the traditional method. "It just does the same work as I've done by hand and I fancy it makes a better job of it," his father remarked of this innovation. Mr. W. R. Outhwaite continued to take an active interest in the business until a short time before his death in 1956 at the age of 81.


Tom Outhwaite was now the Hawes ropemaker although he continued to trade using his father's initials. He soon found out that the business of ropemaking could be very lonely and recalls days on end, particularly in winter, when he had no visitors and no-one to talk to.

He carried on working in Hawes until his retirement, with one notable exception. In 1961 he was given the opportunity to take some of his work to the Great Yorkshire Show. Such was the success of this venture that, having set off with twelve dozen cow halters, for which he meant to charge 4s.6d each (22½p), he returned having sold them for £1 each and with orders for many more.


As Tom neared the age of retirement with no obvious successor it seemed that the ropemaking tradition in Hawes, as in so many other places, was doomed. However, two visitors to whom he described the situation, in the summer of 1974, saw that it might provide the opportunity that they had been seeking to move to the area. By the end of the year arrangements had been made for the sale of the business. It was agreed that the firm would continue to trade under the long-established name of W. R. Outhwaite and Son.

Peter & Ruth Annison from 1975

When Tom Outhwaite retired in 1975, the business was bought by two college lecturers, Peter and Ruth Annison. They had no knowledge of the ropemaking process, nor any experience of running a business. For a few months newspapers ran astonishing stories of "drop-out teachers" moving to Wensleydale.


For the record, it is worth saying that the Annisons' move was much more carefully thought out than the unsought publicity indicated. Both came originally from the north of England and already knew the area intimately from holidays, including the rigours of winter. The change of life-style was planned in detail to make good use of their previous joint experience - and especially Peter's specialist knowledge as a textile chemist. And for four months they overlapped with Tom Outhwaite before he retired, learning about ropemaking and the business.

An additional advantage was that Tom, still living nearby, continued to be readily available with advice and practical help after his retirement - and gave both willingly. This was especially important in an agricultural business, for even after the four month changeover period each fresh farming season brought some unfamiliar situation. During this period the new owners found the support and interest of Tom Outhwaite, his wife Mrs. Laura Outhwaite and his sister Miss Mary Outhwaite invaluable.


At about the same time as the business changed hands, the success of the James Herriot vet books contributed to an increase in tourism in the area. Visitors who came into the ropeworks to watch ropes made by the traditional method often asked for rope souvenirs, and so multicoloured skipping ropes and macrame (knotted) plant pot hangers were produced to meet this demand. A growing range of locally-made rope items was then developed to add to the list of agricultural rope products.


The firm of W. R. Outhwaite and Son (now trading as Outhwaites Ltd) now makes braid, cord and twine as well as rope, using more modern machinery. These differing constructions of fibres enable products to be made in Hawes which provide for many needs, including those of Pets, children, the household, work, travel, handicrafts and leisure as well as the traditional farming and equestrian markets.