The Sussex Stringtown

By Elizabeth Wright

In Sussex, a county with a rich maritime heritage there has always been a demand for ropes for its ships and boats. There is mention in records of rope makers at Rye in 1610 and 1626,and Playden in 1572 and 1587 but it was a journeyman saddler and collar maker named Thomas Burfield, who was mainly responsible for the prosperous growth of the market town of Hailsham in East Sussex. He moved there in 1780, and, at the age of twenty-two, set up a saddlery business in the High Street.

He originally bought the ropes and cords for his business from London dealers, but by 1807 he was making his own, his workers using a lengthy walk behind the shop to weave together the soft, natural fibres of hemp and cannabis. Sussex has a rich maritime history, so within a few years the business had expanded considerably supplying ropes for use on sailing craft. Further walks were set up in Stoney Lane, Mill Road, Bell Banks, Common Road and Summerheath Road. By 1846 eighty to ninety outworkers were employed in the rope industry on a regular basis. They were classified as ‘twine spinners,’ ‘hemp dressers,’ ‘sack makers’ and ‘weavers.’ Others were engaged as clerks, packers and labourers.

Children as young as thirteen were on the payroll; Elijah Baker was just seven when he started work in 1850, balling rough material. By the age of seventeen he had become a ‘twister of mattress twine’ and ‘finisher of cable laid curtain cords’, jobs he continued to do until he retired at the age of eighty-five.

An even younger child to work for Burfields was John Burton. Born in 1856 in the Hailsham Union (the Workhouse), at the age of just six he was taken on as a ‘spinning boy.’ He worked twelve hours a day for a wage of 4d (less than 2p) a week.

At that time, the ropes were hand made; the spinners would use the lengthy alleyways around the area, and, with 30-40lbs of hemp around their waists, they would first feed a wisp of hemp onto a revolving wheel, or ‘whorl’ and, by walking steadily backwards, would pay out the flax into a thin loose yarn, which the turning wheel converted and consolidated into a “twine”, thread or yarn. Two or more of these yarn were again twisted together to make thicker strings and ropes. At intervals there were hooks on the walls on which the completed yarn could be hung to prevent it becoming soiled.

Every few days the spinners would put their finished work into barrows, and wheel them to Burfield’s High Street warehouses. Having been paid, they would then collect a fresh supply of raw materials to work with. This was usually hemp, prepared for use by being ‘hackled,’ a type of combing which took out the refuse and short fibres. If it rained, work had to stop, which meant workers’ incomes were, being piece-rate, subject to considerable fluctuation, sometimes just a few pence a week.

George Green, a spinner from Staffordshire, was also influential in shaping the future of Hailsham. Originally employed to spin yarn for Burfields, the business prospered under a partnership. But, in 1830, he broke away and set up his own rope making business, which mainly serviced local industry. Such was the demand for various ropes that both manufacturers could still make a good living.

Bell ropes were made for Sussex churches and another outlet for Burfields was to the Wealden hop industry which was needing hop ‘pockets’, large sacks for storing the plucked hop flowers; they also made coal and corn sacks, flour bags, halters, webbing, clothes lines, nose bags, and doormats.

A twine maker, Samuel Tutt, worked at Burfields for fifty-four years, and in his early days was reputed to have ‘spun the rope for the hangman’s use at Lewes prison, although he stated that this was made of cotton, not hemp as was generally supposed.’

The second Thomas Burfield was a benevolent old gentleman who encouraged the boys who worked in his factory to attend school in the evening. He was well respected by his employees and when he died in 1874 most of them attended his funeral. Walking four to six abreast they followed the carriages through the streets, and local shops closed for the day.

His children had no interest in the rope making business and by the late 1800’s it started to decline. By 1903 it had transferred into a limited company.

At Green’s the child employees, average age nine years, also attended school daily from 2pm – 4.30pm. One of the Headmasters, a Mr. Towler, often found them difficult to teach, as they had been working hard in the factory from 6am – 1pm. In 1875 it is recorded that they were paid half a crown a week, plus a little extra ‘pence money’ which they could spend on themselves.

Green Brothers benefited from the First World War when the company was contracted to the government to help with the war effort by producing camouflage, sails, hangar frame covers and tarpaulins. And, at the start of WW 2, they were commissioned by the Air Ministry to build 100 dummy Hurricane aircraft in kit form. These were placed on decoy airfields to confuse German air reconnaissance, and one of the first to come into operation in March 1940, was at Lullingstone. Like the planes, many of the visible buildings and equipment were false, so all the workers were billeted in the neighbouring villages of Eynsford and Shoreham.

Alan Tompsett, worked at Green Brothers from 1953-1955 as a trainee wood machinist. Although the company was still making ropes, they had diversified into the production of trug baskets, rakes, traditional deck chairs and Formica topped kitchen tables. He patted the one we were sitting at and said, “I made this at the factory when I was about sixteen and they gave it to me when I left. Part of my job was to use my carpentry skills to assemble the tables, varnish them, and fix the Formica to the table tops.”

Alan recalled, “The shipping company, Cunard, I believe it was, gave Greens an order for a quantity of luxurious reclining deck chairs; these were made of teak, with comfortable cushions and finished to a high standard. They were used on the big liners which were sailing between Britain and the USA.

“We had a timber yard out the back of the premises that covered an acre of ground. We took in lorry loads of wood, which were then stacked and left there to season. Much of the manufacture of the wooden items was mechanised, and you had to be careful not to put your hands to near the moving parts, health and safety wasn’t around then.

“Another line we made was folding Directors’ chairs, the sort you see on film sets, wooden arms, canvas seats and backs; whilst we were in the joinery works assembling them, there were eight or ten women on sewing machines sewing the canvas.

“When we were making trug baskets, I spent days and days in a wood and corrugated iron shed with a great big saw, either pushing wood through it to make the bases, or I would be on the receiving end ready to tie the wood into bundles. We used the traditional woods of willow and sweet chestnut to make the trugs in popular sizes, as well as tiny posy ones, kiddies’ trugs. The parts were all held together by copper nails, which won’t rust. There were at least four of us in the trug shop, shaving away like mad, and all that waste was re-cycled by being put back into the fire that steamed the sweet chestnut to make it pliable. A van would then come and take 50-100 finished trugs down to the railway station where they would be sent all over the country.

“When I was there, the manufacture of rope was being done by a machine that ran on rails when it was doing the twisting. If you want a rope that doesn’t tangle, twist one lot one way, and the other lot the other way, then you can roll it out on the deck without a kink.”

One line that didn’t quite work out was the production of coconut matting and coir fibre door mats. A machine to make them was built at ‘enormous expense’ but turned out to be a white elephant, cutting the mats too small or too large.

A rope making company, Hawkins and Tipson, from the Isle of Dogs, London, bought out Green Brothers in 1941, and, in 1953, Burfield and Sons. This provided them with land and capacity to expand their business. By 1957, synthetic fibres were becoming more widely used in industry, and Hawkins and Tipson started manufacturing them under the ‘Marlow’ brand name. With demand from the re-emerging yachting industry, the company stated that, ’Yachtsmen around the world replaced their traditional 3 strand hemp ropes with braided nylon and polyester ropes….and the 1970’s saw Marlow Ropes (now the synthetic fibre arm of Hawkins and Tipson) moving from strength to strength… also extended it’s operations into polyester ropes and slings for civil engineering projects and other general lifting work for land and marine use.’

Today, all the rope makers have moved away and the various sites are either occupied by commercial units or have been built on. The Burfield name is perpetuated by the Burfield Park Industrial Estate. Between the warehouses there stands a tall chimney, now a listed building, with the name ‘Burfield Park’ painted down one side. The only other visual evidence of the rope makers that contributed so much to Hailsham are roads and alleyways with related names such as Rope Walk and The Stringwalk.


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