Local history of Bristol - R is for Rope.

Money for Old Rope.

Money for old rope! That literally was the case in Victorian Bristol. Just take your old rope to a marine store and be rewarded with a coin or two. Marine store dealers bought and sold second-hand cables, anchors, old iron, and marine equipment of all descriptions. There were 156 of these shops in Bristol, Bedminster, and Clifton in 1856. According to the magistrates of the city they were ‘a perfect nuisance in the community and should be got rid of’. The mayor himself declared, ‘The facilities offered by marine store dealers for the disposal of stolen property tends to encourage theft’.

For of course a quantity of the rope that ended up there was stolen. Rope, after all, was rope and once detached from one of the many boats and spirited off to a marine store undetected, probably seemed untraceable. Sometimes, however, a watchman or an eagle-eyed policeman caught a glimpse of what was going on. Then the perpetrator could be hauled off to court, though if apprehension seemed likely, the favoured tactic was to drop the rope and make a dash for it. Some coils weighed a hundredweight and needed a gang of two or three to carry them away.

Policemen, though, were naturally suspicious of men going into marine stores with lengths of rope and when in 1862 a constable saw this happening in Guinea Street, he took both man and rope into custody. The suspect protested he had brought the rope in a barge from Cardiff. When asked which barge, he couldn’t give a correct name. Then it was reported that 10 fathoms of rope were missing from the Dart steamer, which matched exactly what had been in the suspect’s possession and he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 6 weeks with hard labour.

of Bristol

Occasionally lengths were cut from mooring ropes, a dangerous practice, as if the wind got up, unmanned vessels could drift away. Not so likely at the crowded quay but a possible disaster elsewhere in the harbour. In 1885 one of the water police, knowing that 30 feet of mooring rope had been stolen from a barque, the Maxwell, came across an elderly man in Redcliff Hill wheeling a pair of trucks loaded with rope. The man claimed to have fished the rope out of the harbour by the General Hospital. But there had been 4 mooring ropes cut that night and this tallied with what the suspect was wheeling along, so he was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.

Another dangerous practice was removing ropes from workmen’s scaffolding. In one case 3 boys had purloined nearly all the rope fastenings from newly erected scaffolding, causing a sizeable portion of it to collapse without warning. The rope had been sold to a marine store in nearby Hotwell Road, the boys being paid three farthings per pound. The rise of the railways opened up a new source for the rope-thieves as they targeted freight yards. Here they could steal lashings securing tarpaulins which meant goods underneath were not protected. The Great Western Railway counteracted this by marking their rope with a special stamp, meaning that it could be easily identified.

So you might get money for your old rope but it wasn’t necessarily the easy job that the saying suggests. Many people tried it and a lot of them ended up in front of the magistrates. What’s more, it could ruin lives. An old rope weighing 32lbs (about 14 and a half kg) might have a value of 10 shillings but the seller would receive less than a fifth of that from a marine store dealer. It was perhaps those marine store dealers who could really say they got money for old rope when, in turn, they sold it on.

Cynthia Stiles's book A-Z of Bristol is available for purchase now.