Ropetackle – the last 300 years

– a collection of images from the galleries and collections of shorehambysea.com illustrating the changes to the area since the 18th century.

What a wonderfully eccentric place it was! Besides a fascinating ropemaking and shipbuilding past there were, in Victorian times, ancient buildings still standing, quaint cottages, wharf houses, a gas works and, spookily, a mortuary alongside an incinerator! In the Little High Street there were peculiarly shaped houses and strange, shop-like windows.

It was never a fashionable area, being part industrial and part residential where the poorer, labouring families largely dwelt. In 1817 William Butler’s poor grammar  described it as being “the lower ‘hend’ of town” and goes on to mention a ‘pour new’ shop where he had ‘connections’ with Sarah Fillaps. Something of a mystery and perhaps a pawn shop (a corruption of the French ‘for us’) or as William’s escapades suggest one of the numerous brothels in Shoreham port then?

During the early part of the 19th century Ropetackle included wharf houses, sheds, a brickyard, coal yard, a bonding pond, Thomas Clayton’s deal yard, his cement factory, stables, a mixture of 17th to 19th century houses and even a mill pond. By the Victorian era there was also a sewage plant and of course the gasworks, flint-built ware houses, incinerator and mortuary. It all added to a certain air of eeriness and mystery to the area.

It is historically accepted as the area where Shoreham’s ropemaking industry existed, and likely the mediaeval ship building too, until 18th century when the Tillstone family moved the rope business to the upper half of West Street and Ropewalk above it. In the 1782 Survey it was recognised by the Upper and Lower Ropetackle fields or ‘closes’ that lay between today’s Swiss Gardens school in the north and near the Little High Street to the south, bordered generally on the east by Victoria Road, the High Street and Old Shoreham Road with the river on the west. On the 1789 map, before the land reclamation, its western extremity is marked by ‘The Rope Tackle’ path that lay on the west side of the Lower Ropetackle field. Nowadays the area appears to be accepted as extending from north of the railway line (the Ropetackle North development) down to the road bridge in which the earlier development and Arts Centre now stands. 

1782 Survey Map and detail

 The 1782 Survey map shows that Ropetackle consisted largely of fields with just a small cluster of houses. The King’s Head inn (117) was there then and Mill Green on the corner plot (134) so called because of a windmill that stood there in earlier years. The Tilstone family made their ropes, stretching them up West Street to Ropewalk but they also had a shipbuilding yard on the site of 119. Timber for shipbuilding was still cut there as evidenced by the sawpits 114 & 115. Access to Lancing was by ferry.

Detail from Captain John Butler’s 1786 drawing. (courtesy Marlipins Museum)

By 1789 Daniel Roberts had purchased the Mill Green land from the miller’s widow and built a large granary there together with a jetty. Daniel Robert’s granary and jetty is on the left. At the centre is that part of Ropetackle facing the High Street with the King’s Head and what was later ‘West End Stores.’ During the Napoleonic wars when fears of invasion were rife the militia were encamped on Mill Green and behind the King’s Head which was no doubt good for the pockets of the Tilstone family who owned the pub then.

Norfolk Bridge (photos Marlipins Museum)

The 1833 Norfolk Bridge – not Ropetackle as such but an adjacent edifice that had an influence on its growth. It was an attractive suspension bridge replacing the ferry that operated there and became a favourite sightseeing venue of King William IV and his Queen during their frequent trips out by carriage from their summer retreat at Brighton. The number of buildings on Ropetackle doubled. By 1872 houses now extended further northwards up to the Old Shoreham Road/Victoria Road fork. Some of the older buildings were replaced by Florence Cottages bordering the High Street and Norfolk Cottages in the side street between the King’s Head pub and the bridge. In the years since the bridge has been replaced twice but sadly now looks nothing more than a road over a river.

‘The Rope Tackle’ path shown in the 1789 map is roughly where today’s ‘Ropetackle’ street now stands and was likely to have been where ropes were made before the manufacturing processes were moved to West Street by the Tillstone family. 

Between 1789 and 1817 a bank was built along the west side of Ropetackle in order to reclaim land and reduce flooding. For a short while the creation of a large mill pond to drive a tidal water mill was envisaged but does not seem ever to have been completed. 

The river bank path showing how deep the pond would have been and an illustration of how the mill pond could have looked. (photos Roger Bateman)
Detail from Captain Clegram’s 1815 Map showing the Mill Pond (courtesy West Sussex Record Office)
2003 map overlayed with 1782 map (photo Archaeology South East)

In 2003 Archaeology South East carried out an excavation of the area prior to the redevelopment of Ropetackle. Shorehambysea.com were involved in a small way by assisting the Senior Archaeologist Simon Stevens with one old map and references of the area in our records. This photo shows one of the saw pits under excavation and our 1782 map overlaid on a modern map that helped to identify the location.

One of the finds was this rare 13th century aquamanile now on display in Marlipins Museum. (photos Roger Bateman)
Ropetackle maps of the 18th and 19th centuries

In the 1840’s the London Brighton and South Coast Railway punched a line through the northern half of Ropetackle on its way to Worthing and beyond then again in 1861 for the branch line northwards through the Adur Valley. For a while temporary railway huts sprang up for the workers and even their families – temporary maybe but permanent enough for some of them and their residents still remaining to be included in the census of 1851.  In doing so the lines changed the character of that part of the area and included an impressive, arched brick viaduct through Ropetackle but only a wooden bridge on across the river that nevertheless took the weight of those heavy locomotives and carriages for sixty years until it was replaced by today’s iron bridge.

It was also around this time that the Gas Works Company built its ovens, chimneys and gasometers/gasholders at Ropetackle. Although tucked away well back from the houses in the High Street the largest gasometer was over 50 feet in diameter and probably tall enough for this and the chimneys to be seen above the rooftops. Initially, Shoreham folk were proud of their new utility and for a while  Little High Street was alternatively named Gas House Street. Edward Vinall was one of the first managers there with Ropetackle resident Edward Winton one of the coke burners – Edward was the father of William Edward Winton who later became well known as the organiser of Shoreham’s regattas and carnivals.

Pollution must have been intolerable in the area though and even more risky for the coke burners. Fatalities amongst gas workers nationwide was high with many succumbing to lung disease that was in those days too easily dismissed as consumption (tuberculosis). Did Edward’s years working at the ovens cause his early demise? Maybe, he was just 52. 

Eventually, the Brighton & Hove Gas Company acquired the business and tranferred it all to the Portslade works by the canal. Gasometers, ovens and chimneys were soon dismantled and by the end of the century no trace of the Shoreham works remained.

1898 map (West Sussex Record Office)
1 – May Villa
2 -Warehouses
3 – Norfolk Cottages
4 – Site of old Gas Works
5 – King’s Head Inn
6 – Little High Street
7 – West End Stores
8 – Florence Cottages
9 – Mortuary
10 – Incinerator
11 – Rose Cottage
12 – Alma Cottage
c1910 The Face of Ropetackle. (compilation Roger Bateman)

The Face of Ropetackle. This composite of circa 1910 photos has been put together in order to give an impression of the scene as it was then. Ropetackle faces us between the bridge and the westernmost shops in the High Street on the right.  From left to right, May Villa is next to the bridge and between it and the next building is the short street where Norfolk Cottages were. The building with the large poster on the wall was where the Maple family of fishermen sold their oysters, followed by the King’s Head shown here shortly after its facelift, then the Little High Street gap alongside the West End Stores.

The Maple family with their catch on Shoreham beach circa 1910. (photo Mary Gibbs)

The Maples first moved to Ropetackle during the 1840’s. They were a very active family particularly in the sporting sense; Sam Maple, the head of the family, was a successful national sculler and is recorded as having won one of the cups for that event in the 1867 Shoreham Regatta. Of his sons Alfred and Arthur, the former rowed for Shoreham Rowing Club and both played for the town’s football club in the early 1900’s, then the most consistently successful club in Sussex.

Detail from a photo of the 1881 snowstorm shows part of the Kings Head as it was before the gables were added. This and other similarly aged photos enable another earlier reconstruction of how things looked. (photo Roger Bateman) 
Norfolk Cottages during demolition. Situated in a short cul de sac between May Villa and the houses alongside The Kings Head (Marlipins photos)
Warehouses behind May Villa at the southern end of Ropetackle by the public hard. These old buildings served many uses during their existence. Apart from storage there was a drill hall during WW1 and later garaging for John Brown’s lorries. (photos Marlipins Museum)
Top: G (Shoreham) Company, Sussex Volunteer Training Corps July 1915 G Company outside their drill hall with the suspension bridge in the background.
Centre: The warehouses by the public hard during the 1970’s.
Below: The public hard today – one of the few features that survive. (photos Winton collection, Ian Newman and shorehambysea.com)
A crystal clear image taken in the 1980’s by Jack Liddell.

The pub was demolished as recently as the 1990’s because it was marginally ‘out of line’ of traffic flow coming around from the bridge. Its roof-line may have been modernized with a triplet of gables during the early 1900’s but it was ancient at heart and mediaeval in origin. Shoreham folk still remember the oak beams and the steps down into the bar below street level – a sure sign of antiquity. Much of Shoreham’s quaint village-like history here and along the High Street was demolished to provide easier access for traffic. Now things seem to have gone full circle and planners are pushing the motor-car out by building on the town’s car parks – a change of heart? – too late for Shoreham!  

The King’s Head with May Villa on the left after the clearance of buildings between them. To the right of the pub  is the entrance to Little High Street.(photo Brighton & Hove Stuff)
Little High Street  A dark, narrow Dickensian looking street entrance between the pub and the West End Stores that at its west end opened out on to Ropetackle’s waste ground. (photos shorehambysea.com collections).
Top: This view of the northwest side of Little High Street  gives some idea of the mix of houses that ran from behind the West End Stores in the High Street through The Little High Street. (Detail from Britain from Above photo EPW054138) (photo Peter Weaver)

Of particular interest is the strangely proportioned building on the corner. Is it what was left of  a partly demolished house; was it built like that to fit into a small space or did it have a special purpose? The 1872 map also reflects its irregularity as part of the longer building to which it was attached. Perhaps it or another of the buildings here was at one time the tiny one up, one down accommodation 13 feet by 8 feet  at Ropetackle  reported by an article in the Sussex Agricultural Express in 1892, where Frederick Parsons and his wife and seven children once lived in what were very cramped conditions. Bottom photo: Adjoining the back of the King’s Head was this small dwelling. The unusual window configurations perhaps suggests they were  once shops.

Looking east towards the rear of the King’s Head during the 1970’s demolitions.(photos Ian Newman)
Out of view around the corner of the inn in this 1891 photo was the West End Stores (inset), an ancient, low house thought to have been at least 15th or 16th century and maybe was the Old Bell inn that old documents sometimes referred to in this area. Next to it and in view in the photo were the Florence Cottages – beyond them was yet another very old, low slung cottage. 
Florence Cottages  (photos Roger Bateman and Ian Newman)

Florence Cottages. Even in the 1880’s redevelopment happened. Some of the older shops in this part of the street were replaced by a short terrace of three houses called Florence Cottages.  Perhaps an attempt to upgrade the area but as it turned out they had not been well built, cracks appeared in the walls and they started to crumble. A succession of squatters and vandalism hastened the decay and in the 1970’s they were demolished along with much of the rest of Ropetackle. 

This detail from the 1891 photo shows the old cottage beyond Florence Cottages. It is from this building that part of an 18 foot cambered, queen post truss from the roof structure was revealed during the 1970’s demolitions – another clue as to its antiquity. (photos Roger Bateman and Ian Newman)
The remainder of the old buildings fronting the northernmost part of the High Street (photos Ian Newman)
Ropetackle in 1937 looking north-east. (Photo EPW054138 Britain from Above)
Detail of the incinerator, Rose Cottage and the mortuary
The variously named ‘Norfolk’ or ‘Ritz’ cinema that flourished for some years in this part of Ropetackle. The King’s Head and the 1920’s oxbow bridge is in the distance. (photos shorehambysea.com)
The Evening Standard newspaper photo of the laundry with the broken glass roofs and water filled crater illustrates just how close the miss was. (photo Evening Standard)

In between the fork of the railway line to Worthing and the branch line to Horsham a laundry was built during the 1930’s. Apart from having two glass roofs along its length the Imperial Laundry, to give it its name, did not otherwise have any particular architectural merit. It did though have a brief claim to fame during the afternoon of 26th September 1940 when bombs fell near the railway viaduct (probably the target). Houses in Buckingham Street across the road from the laundry were hit and another narrowly missed the laundry itself but the blast smashed most of the glass in the roofs where eight of the girl workers were cut by the flying glass.

1930’s (photo Marlipins Museum)

This 1930’s view shows the laundry at the northernmost tip of Ropetackle and the large nissen hut beyond that was erected between the wars and survived until the recent residential development at northern Ropetackle.

1980’s (photo Shorehambysea.com)

By the 1980’s Riverside Motors (Rose Cottage) still stood as did the King’s Head, May Villa and the warehouses but some show signs of being demolished. A few commercial buildings have been built but much of the cleared land now serves as car parks.

Ropetackle during the 2009 final demolition stage looking north. (Photos Chris Dowling)

By the end of the last century and for many years Ropetackle was looking very run down comprising as it did wasteland and a few surviving buildings including  Rose Cottage (centre and inset) albeit now considerably extended and used as a garage having lost any charm it may have had before. The red building was BJ’s nightclub – a less than permanent, partly wooden structure constituting a huge fire risk that nevertheless somehow survived for a number of years.

2009 (Photo Chris Dowling)

Late attempts were made to save the ancient King’s Head but demolition was pushed through on the grounds that it was an obstruction to traffic. Looking east with the King’s Head and May Villa now gone and just the warehouses still left.

The imposing new development compared with what it replaced. Impressive modernity but historic buildings and rooftop views of the Downs beyond now gone. (Photo Roger Bateman)
Changes in the later years (photos Britain from Above, Meridian Collection, Google Earth)
History lost but compared with the wasteland it eventually replaced the new Ropetackle development presents a varied and attractive view from across the river. (photo Chris Dowling)

Roger Bateman, Shoreham, November 2020

Sources:-

1782 Survey  https://www.shorehambysea.com/1782-survey-new-shoreham/      

Mills, Millers and Millwrights https://www.shorehambysea.com/mills-millers-millwrights/

Ropetackle Archaeology https://www.shorehambysea.com/archaeological-excavations-ropetackle-2003/

Shoreham Rope and Sailmakers  https://www.shorehambysea.com/1400-2/

John Butler’s 1786 Sketch Examined https://www.shorehambysea.com/john-butlers-1786-sketch-shoreham-examined/

Shoreham’s War https://www.shorehambysea.com/shorehams-war/

A Small Book of Letters https://www.shorehambysea.com/small-book-letters/

Census Returns, Parish Records and Directories  https://www.shorehambysea.com/category/not-printable/census-parish-directories/

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