Bridport daggers and rope walks

According to the local Marshwood Vale magazine, the joke about the Bridport dagger goes back to Tudor times when Henry Leland, “geographer to Henry VIII” remarked that good daggers were made in Bridport, not realising that the Bridport dagger was slang for the hangman’s noose, made of rope from Bridport.

The town is proud of its rope-making tradition which goes back at least to the 13th century, based on abundant supplies of flax and hemp which grew in the vicinity and water power from the town’s rivers.

It supplied the English Navy with rope until 1610 and  when the navy started to make heavy rope in-house, diversified to other types of cordage and netmaking.

In the early days before water power was replaced by steam and the workers were gathered in factories, there was a lot of outwork, where families received hemp and flax from the merchants and then processed the raw material by spinning it in 100 metre long rope walks.  The traces of this early industrial activity can still be seen  in the odd rectangular plots of land beside the houses, now transformed into gardens.

And the tradition is not completely dead as Amsafe, according to its website, a world leader in aviation restraint technology (airplane safety belts among other things) has a substantial plant in the town (as well as in Phoenix, Arizona).

I spent the morning walking along the river, looking for old mills and rope walks and wandering around the old industrial and pre-industrial quarters. Quite a lot to see but I have to force myself to concentrate as I’m poorly educated and difficult to enthuse when it comes to the technical. But to really understand a place, it’s important to know.

I’d intended to continue with Bridport’s other industries – brewing and tanning but a half day was enough for me and I rushed back to my computer.

Tomorrow will be a long day when I leave for St Ives in Cornwall for the weekend to see an old friend whom I haven’t met for a very long time.

Sources: “Walking Textile History”, The 4 Museums, 2018                                    “The Rope, Net and Twine Industry of Bridport”, Bridport Museum Trust



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