From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 24
May - June 1983
Tied up with Ropes: The Story of W. Coates & Sons
W. Coates & Sons' St. Ann's Ropery in the 1870s - the founder, William Coates, is standing centre front, with two of his sons, George and William, to his right.
Mention a 'ropewalk' around Nottingham and most people will immediately think of the thoroughfare from Canning Circus across the top of the Park to the General Hospital. The odd one or two, more knowledgeable perhaps, might also recall that a ropewalk was, as its name implies, a long stretch of ground used for spinning ropes. Our photograph shows one in St. Anns, but in the nineteenth century a number of ropewalks were strung about the Nottingham area. At one time there was a ropewalk in the Lenton Sands area, off Mills Lane (or Milnes Lane as it was sometimes known). Mills Lane made way in the twentieth century for Rolleston Drive. Near the Castle Rock and not far from where Gunn and Moore's cricket bat factory is now situated, was another rope walk. This one had to go when Castle Boulevard was constructed in the 1880s. The name of 'The Ropewalk', formerly Ropewalk Street, would obviously suggest that rope- making had once taken place in its vicinity. Local historian, John Holland Walker bluntly stated in the Thoroton Transactions of 1930 that 'it was the ropewalk of 18th century Nottingham and there is really little of interest to say about it'. He offered no evidence and was most likely repeating handed-down knowledge. We have quite a lot of evidence for the existence of the subject of this article, W. Coates and Sons, and trust you will find it of a little interest, at least.
An advertisement for the firm used in
publicity during the 1920s.
William Coates had founded the firm in 1840 and started the manufacture of rope and twine on open ground off Dryden Street in Nottingham. Business must have been good, for he rapidly acquired further ropewalks in St. Anns Street, Wells Road and St. Anns Well Road. Further sites on Kirkby Street and Windsor Street were later added to the collection. By the turn of the century the business had become the premier ropemakers in Nottingham and one of the best known firms in the Midlands. The Nottingham directories show that between the 1850s and 1860s the firm had a number of different premises in the town centre at Bunkers Hill, just off Milton Street. In the 1870s premises in the town were secured on Milton Street itself, first at No. 22 then later at No. 28. These were used for shop space, warehousing and offices.
Until the advent of machinery for yarn spinning and the use of steam power, rope making had long been a traditional craft. The first requirement was to produce a yarn out of the 'raw' hemp, jute or cotton. A mass of loose fibres would be wrapped around the waist of a worker. He started by pulling out some of the fibres and attaching them to one of the hooks on a manually turned wheel, positioned at one end of the ropewalk. He then walked backwards along the ropewalk paying out the fibres. As he did so the turning of the wheel would twist the fibres into a continuous length of yarn. The yarn was laid along the skerders (the 'mini-telegraph poles' in the photo) as the spinner worked his way along the ropewalk. Once sufficient lengths of yarn had been spun, these could be combined into strands of rope. At one end of the ropewalk, each yarn was attached to a separate hook on the wheel and individually twisted in the same direction. At the other end the yarns were bunched together and fixed to one hook which was turned in the opposite direction. Gradually the component yarns twisted together into a strand of rope. The process would then be repeated with a number of strands to form the rope itself. Before the arrival of steam power, the wheels were turned by 'hand'. Mr. Coates' innovation was to rig up a bicycle style contraption whereby the boys employed for the task could sit down and provide the motive power by pedalling. Once the rope was of a sufficient thickness, it was soaked, stripped of its whiskers, smoothed and dried, size and tallow applied and the rope was ready for coiling. The processes involved in the production of twine were basically similar.
A view of the Spring Close Works
The efforts of the large number of hands employed enabled W. Coates and Sons to offer a very comprehensive range of goods. The list below contains many items that readers will recognise, but some may prove a little puzzling. It included hosiery, parcel, bleachers, laid cotton, press papering, upholsterers', shop and macramé twines; lacing, reading, lace piece, stitching and other strings; lacing tapes, lace bags, spun yarns, hamper cords, lace bands, dyers' bags, dyers' baggings, dyers' cords, bale cord, bailing canvas, hoist ropes of all kinds, needles, pulley ropes, spindle banding, twisted tubular and flat. Also offered for sale at the Milton Street premises were Hessian paper packing, oil cloths and tarpaulins, rugs and whips, leggings, travelling bags and other leather goods, mackintoshes, cricket and lawn tennis nets, calicos, kerseys etc. Admittedly not all these products could possibly have been produced at Coates' roperies. A proportion, quite how much is not clear, must have been bought in from other firms. Of all these Coates felt that their own particular speciality was the production of prepared cotton driving ropes used on steam powered machinery (as displayed in the advert).
The Move to Lenton
Sophisticated, steam driven machinery became increasingly available in the rope industry towards the end of the nineteenth century and W. Coates and Sons had literally to move with the times. It was at this point that the Lenton connection began. They decided to erect a great covered ropewalk on land beside Spring Close. (Spring Close was situated in Old Lenton at the end of Leengate and was eventually joined to Clifton Boulevard when the latter was constructed in 1939. It has now disappeared under the foundations of the Queen's Medical Centre). In 1903 all the old ropewalks were closed down and Coates opened for business in Lenton. Their new premises contained a huge ropewalk some 100 yards long and 60 yards wide. Having installed the latest machinery available, they were able to produce even more rope and twine than before.
The Polishing Unit shortly after the Lenton Works had opened
Within a few years the work force at Lenton had been built up to about 200, working on a wide variety of products. Besides many of the lines mentioned previously, adverts for the company now gave specific billing for waggon ropes, cart ropes, plough lines, halters, barrel ropes and scaffold ropes. Never just rope and twine manufacturers, W. Coates and Sons also offered products such as waterproof covers, potato bags, coal bags, horse clothing, flags and bunting. In 1920, however, the business took on an additional sideline. Norman and Bert Coates, grandsons of the firm's founder, had returned from the Great War convinced that there was more to life and business than the rope and twine trade. And so they were allowed to develop a sporting goods side of W. Coates and Sons. A small portion of the works was given over to the production of hockey sticks, tennis and badminton rackets. They even made their own cat gut for the rackets; though cat gut is a misnomer as treated sheep's intestines were used. A Coates racket was not cheap. Purchasers often liked to consider it improved not only their game but also their social standing. No doubt there are the odd one or two stowed away in attics, waiting to become family heirlooms. With the new emphasis on sports goods, came an increase in the netting work force and Coates sought to attract experienced workers from Ireland. Their agent in Belfast organised and paid the passage for a number of girls to come and work at Lenton. The woodworking division made the wooden posts to accompany the tennis and football goal nets, and in order to be able to offer the complete package, Coates employed a team of workers to lay out and construct the tennis courts themselves.
The Racket Department in the 1920s. This was run by Arthur
Meats who is standing on the left of the photograph.
As motoring became a popular pastime, so the market grew for protective hoods which could be fitted to open top cars. Coates were already producing a wide range of weather-proof covers, so it seemed natural for them to make these car hoods. It was, however, an enormous leap, when in 1927, they launched the 'Coates' motorised light delivery van selling at £295. Perhaps it wasn't the great success they had hoped for, as no further models were produced, but it enabled the firm to advertise itself as motor engineers and coach builders.
All these new side-lines may have suggested either a buoyant firm eager to develop into new profitable areas or perhaps a firm deep in financial trouble perpetually casting about for a fresh lifeline. As the years went by, it became apparent that the latter was the case, and in 1935 the firm was forced into liquidation. Their city centre premises were closed down and most of the Lenton works were sold off to W. J. Simms, Sons and Cooke, a firm of builders and joiners. Once the debts had been cleared, Coates resumed business in a small portion of the Spring Close works and took on about twenty of their former employees. The production of ropes and twines was dropped completely, though Coates continued to market other firms' goods. The sport lines were all discarded and the workers' efforts concentrated on the production of tarpaulins, sacks and bags. One carry-over from their 'motor manufacturing' days was the retention of a small unit for paint spraying cars and vans.
Not the 'Coates' Motorised Van - but one of their horse-drawn delivery vans. Photograph taken in the early 1900s.
After William Coates, founder of the firm died in 1894, the reins were passed to his son, Herbert, who retained overall control of the business until his death at the age of 88 in 1949, when his executors sold off the premises to Simms, Sons and Cooke. If the family business was to continue, fresh premises were required. Sadly his son Bert died in 1951 aged 65, before these were found and as there was nobody within the family willing or able to take over the running of the business, a Mr. Marshall Wilkinson was made managing director. He decided to take premises on Montpelier Road in Dunkirk. Bert's sons, John and Stewart Coates joined the business and worked alongside Mr. Wilkinson and two old hands. When Mr. Wilkinson retired, Stewart bought up the shares from the rest of the family and took over the firm in 1961.
Across at Dunkirk
10 Montpelier Road with Stewart Coates standing between his boat
and the shop.
Within the present premises is a small shop, quite unlike any other in the area. Every available cubic inch is filled with an amazing variety of ropes, twines, materials, waterproof or otherwise, and sundry other items. Happy to sell the odd ball of string to the local populace, Stewart finds many of his customers come from the ranks of the sailing fraternity, builders, breweries, truck companies etc. He still has a number of small machines capable of producing a range of braided cords and ropes and these are in action whenever there is a special order to fulfil. So the brass plaque on the door is still correct when it reads 'W. Coates and Sons - Rope and Twine Manufacturers' - al though it actually dates from the days of the Milton Street offices. The side of the business which has proved most profitable, however, is the production of special order covers. These range from awnings for shops and protective covers for robots to rubber covers for fun fair air bags - though Stewart would be quite happy if he never got another order for the latter, such is the trouble he has with them. Many of the pleasure boats which chug up and down the canals and the Trent carry covers designed and constructed by Stewart. Although only a stone's throw away from the masses of traffic which pass along Clifton Boulevard or Beeston Road, you might wonder how sufficient custom ever finds its way to this secluded spot on Montpelier Road. The answer is the 'Yellow Pages'- many a new customer has been found once those fingers have done their walking. Stewart is the fourth generation of the Coates family to work in the business and he has recently been joined by a fifth, his son Barry, who has been learning the ropes these past three years. The distaff side of the family also plays a part in the running of the business. Wife Jacqueline keeps the books in good order and daughter Jo helps out part-time in the office - a real family firm.
So next time you have occasion to visit Dunkirk, why not seek out No. 10 Montpelier Road? You'll not be the first to have stood and stared in wonder at this old established curiosity shop. And should you want the odd yard or two of garden twine, household string or clothes line, then you know you need go no further.