Enderby Hemp and Ropeworks

The Hemp & Ropeworks Page

The precise date that rope-making began on the old gunpowder magazine site is unclear; however, from 1799 John Hounson (1754-1823) paid rates on this Crown Land for a rope walk, rope house and ware house. Hounson was listed in the Parliamentary Register of 1788 as being the Clerk of the rope yard in Woolwich, which supported Woolwich Dockyard, founded by Henry VIII in 1513. Ship’s ropes were made of hemp and laid up in one continuous length, called a ‘Cable’, in a long shed known as a rope walk. A Cable is 100 fathoms. 600 feet or 138m in length. It appears that Hounson continued to lease the land from the Crown and operated the rope works until at least 1808, when the rope works came under the control of James Littlewood.

Around this time the land was acquired by Henry Vansittart (1777-1843), who allowed Littlewood to continue operating the rope works under a new lease. Henry was a naval man, rising to the rank of Vice-Admiral by July 1830. It has been suggested that it was Henry Vansittart who was, during the period of his ownership, responsible for refurbishing the existing dilapidated wharf and jetty.

In James Littlewood’s lease, the land was described as supporting a ‘rope house, rope walk, houses and wharf’. James Littlewood also appears to have been involved in the illicit production of alcohol.

The following extracts are from a court case heard in the Court of Exchequer in June 1824 and are taken from an account in the Morning Chronicle. It concerns ‘The King v. Robert Binns’; Binns was the landlord of the Seven Stars in Whitechapel, and without a permit, he had received a quantity of spirits in cans or bladders.

Thomas Phipps, a Surveyor of Excise, gave evidence that he had discovered a private still in Kentish Town managed by ‘a person who gave his name as Smith. He was taken to the Magistrates Court and fined 30/-.’

The next witness was James Littlewood, who admitted that he also used the name of Smith and within the past three or four months had manufactured three or four hundred gallons of spirits. Littlewood went on:

he had been rather unfortunate in business; he became a bankrupt in 1817, …. having borrowed off his friends £40 he took the rope walk which had occasioned his bankruptcy and where he should have succeeded, had not a conspiracy been formed to take it out of his hands”. he went on that he has “made over the rope-walk to a person named Young, but received nothing for it, only a promise of his situation as foreman, with a salary of £250 per annum’.

It then emerged that he had been charged with stealing some hemp, from a Mr. Young, but he claimed that this was not so. He took out a counter suit against Mr. Young to recover the possession of what he claimed was his property. This case was tried at Maidstone Crown Court, but it failed because there had been no written agreement between the two men. During the proceedings, Littlewood was held in the Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark for running an illicit still, and also for selling spirits in the prison. Once out of gaol, he turned his attention to a private still in Kentish-town, which he also operated under the name of Smith. When that still was discovered by the Excise, he set up another still at Leytonstone, and then another at Camberwell, changing his name again to Cross, and when this was discovered, he opened yet another still in Bethnal-Green. After all this, he was sent to the Fleet Prison because of his unpaid debts connected with the Greenwich ropeworks.

Following the giving of evidence from several other parties, the Foreman of the Jury stood up and said, ‘My Lord, we are unanimous’, and went on to say about Littlewood ‘we cannot believe such a wretch on his oath’.

Littlewood was declared bankrupt in 1817, and the rope works with the lease of the land were made over to Mr Young. Horwood’s map of London, dated 1819, is the first to show a ‘rope-walk’ on the site. The ‘rope-walk’ also appears on the later Greenwood map of 1827. The rope-walk ran east to west along a line behind the houses that are now on the north side of Mauritius Road. When Henry Vansittart became a Rear Admiral in 1830, he sold the land to Messrs Enderby Brothers: Charles Enderby (1798-1876) and his younger brothers Henry (1800-76) and George (1802-91). The Enderbys also acquired the rope-making business from Young.

Three generations of the Enderby family were successful merchants who lived in Greenwich. Their ancestors can be traced back to the English Civil War, during which they supported Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and were rewarded with confiscated lands in Ireland. These were sold off shortly after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. By the time of the Great Fire of London (1666), members of a branch of the Enderby family were proprietors of a tannery in Bermondsey (now in the London Borough Southwark). This business was passed down from father to son, until at the beginning of the 18th Century it came under the control of Daniel Enderby (1681-­1766). Daniel was keen to raise the social status of his family, and in 1735 he indentured his son Samuel (1719-1797) as an apprentice cooper (barrel maker). Samuel became a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Coopers in 1742 and set up his own business based at Paul’s Wharf in the City of London. Ten years later he married Elizabeth Buxton, the daughter of a rich merchant from Essex. Buxton and Enderby went into partnership to exploit the growing market in whale oil. Their business was based on shipping finished goods from England and Europe to the colonies in America and returning with whale oil purchased from the American whaling fleets. The whale oil was used for oil lamps and the manufacture of soap and candles. All went well, and the business grew rapidly, until the Boston Tea Party (1773) and the subsequent American Revolutionary War (1775-83).

After losing access to the American market for the sale of finished goods and the source of whale oil, in 1775 Samuel Enderby set up his own company, Samuel Enderby & Sons, and for the first time, became directly involved in whaling and seal hunting. He targeted the South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and by 1791 the company owned or leased 68 vessels (a mixture of cargo and whaling ships). Five of these took part in the ‘Third Fleet’ transportation of convicts to Sydney Australia. in 1791. The Enderbys’ plan was to obtain contracts to transport convicts from the British Government and then send the ships whaling before they returned to England with whale oil and seal skins. However, the Third Fleet contracts were the only ones that they were able to secure.

Samuel Enderby Senior was the first of his line to live in Greenwich. He died in 1797, and the business passed to his three sons: Charles (1753-­1819); Samuel Junior (1755­-1829) and George (1762­-1829). All three married, but Samuel Junior was the only one to have children and, more importantly, male heirs; although younger than Charles, he became the managing partner in the business. The brothers presided over the zenith of the company sponsoring a number of expeditions south of Australia and New Zealand into Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters, naming and claiming for Britain a number of previously undiscoverted land masses. However, two decades of intense whaling and seal hunting had driven the whale and seal populations close to the point of extinction. At the same time, competition from American and Australian based whaling companies was becoming difficult to withstand. Perhaps worse, the use of gas for lighting was becoming more popular, causing a major decline in the demand for whale oil.

Samuel Enderby Junior

Samuel Enderby Junior (1755-1829)

By the time Samuel Junior and George died in 1829, the company was on the downward path. It was left to three of Samuel’s five sons, Charles; Henry and George, and the company was renamed Messrs. Enderby Brothers. Unlike their father they were not great businessmen, but they recognised the need to diversify, so in 1830 they purchased the land and the rope works from Vansittart and Young respectively. They expanded the facility into a rope and sail manufacturing factory known as the Enderby Hemp & Rope Works. It was at that time that the river frontage became known as Enderby’s Wharf but at some time during twentieth century the possessive ‘s’ was dropped and it is now more commonly known as Enderby Wharf. The Enderbys leased the south-west corner of the site to Joshua Beale who established a foundry there to make boilers and steam engines. To learn more (Click Here)

Over the next few years the Enderbys invested a great deal of money in developing the site by adding a sail works and a hemp factory to the existing rope-making facilities. A boiler house and steam engine (probably made by Joshua Beale) were added to mechanise the rope-walk and drive looms; before that, horses had been used to provide the power to form and lay up the ropes. Over the boiler room were hemp and spinning rooms and in other factory buildings were joinery workshops and weaving looms. At its peak this business employed over 250 local workers.

Greenwich Peninsular 1835

The Greenwich Peninsula, 1835

The map above shows the peninsula in 1835, with its two industrial sites: George Russell’s Corn Mill on the eastern side, and the Enderby Hemp & Rope Works to the west, highlighted in Red. All the rest of Greenwich Marshes was farm land, water meadows and marshland, as can be seen in the painting below:

Enderby Hemp and Ropeworks

Enderby Hemp and Rope Works, c.1835

This watercolour is titled Enderby Mill, Greenwich. It shows the view looking south from a position on the west bank of the peninsula to the north of Enderby Wharf, roughly in the area of Morden Wharf. As can be seen, the area on the left-hand side is open undeveloped marshland

The layout of the Hemp and Rope Works is shown below; this image is a part of the F W Simms Map of 1838.

Simms Map

F W Simms Map, 1838

The F W Simms Map was produced from a survey carried out in 1838 for the Poor Law Commissioners. On the map, the building numbered 150 is Beale’s Foundry and the plot of land numbered 264 is called Bendish Marsh. It is to the north of the rope walk and to the south of Bendish Sluice, at that time was owned by Morden College.

A Brief Venture into Subsea Telegraphy

Charles and George Enderby were interested in science and new inventions, so it was only natural that they would dabble with the electric telegraph. William Fothergill Cooke (1806-­79) and Charles Wheatstone (1802­-75) were the joint owners of the first telegraph patent, awarded to them on 12 June 1837. In the same year Wheatstone sent a letter to Cooke, suggesting that the Enderby Brothers of Greenwich could make a 1,500-foot (457.2m) cable consisting of four copper wires covered in insulated hemp. Wheatstone was also interested in a cable for what he described as ‘our cross Thames experiment’. Cooke approached Charles Enderby on the subject, and as a result, two experiments were planned. These were to be waterproof cables, one to go from Wheatstone’s lecture hall on the north side of the Thames to the south bank and another from Euston Square to Camden Town. Unfortunately, the experiments were unsuccessful, as the insulation failed because of water ingress. The Enderbys had no further involvement with telegraphy or subsea cables.

Expansion of the Factory

The Enderby Hemp & Rope Works continued to grow significantly, and around 1838 a row of ten dwelling houses were built for Enderbys’ workers. These were located at the inland end of the ‘rope walk’, adjacent to Mash Lane (now Blackwall Lane). These were known as ‘Enderby Cottages’ and stood there until the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1839, the brothers tried to lease Bendish Marsh from Morden College. Morden College is a long-standing charitable trust, which at that time owned a great deal of land around Blackheath and on the Greenwich Peninsula. It was founded by philanthropist Sir John Morden (1623-1708) in 1695. Sir John lived much of his life at Wricklemarsh Manor, in Blackheath. Morden College itself was built between 1695 and 1700 to a design sometimes attributed to Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), but largely carried out by Edward Strong (1652-1724), Wren’s master mason. It is situated in a corner of the Wricklemarsh estate at 19 Saint Germans Place. However, obtaining a lease for Bendish March proved difficult, as a licence was needed from the trustees if anything other than a bleach house was to be built on the land. As an alternative, the Enderbys offered to exchange some land already owned by them, but this apparently required Parliamentary approval, involving significant additional cost, and so negotiations broke down.

As the tenth anniversary of their father Samuel Junior’s death approached, the opportunity for the beneficiaries of his will to remove their legacies from the capital of the company loomed large. On this date the right to be paid their share of the capital would be exercisable, irrespective of any wishes of the executors to the contrary. Whether any of the beneficiaries did choose to take their money out of the business is unknown, but from 1840 onward, the finances of Messrs. Enderby Brothers were not as strong as they had been previously.

In 1841, Charles was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society. On 6 June, when the census was taken, Charles spent the night at the Enderby Hemp Rope Works’ site. His occupation is given as merchant and in the same house that night were George Adamson, a rope maker, Adamson’s wife Sarah, who is described as a housekeeper, and Thomas Goodger, a groom. This is an unusual household for a wealthy merchant and it is very unlikely that this was Charles’s permanent address. The Tithe Map of 1840 only shows a small cottage and gardens on the site to the north of the rope works and no other dwelling houses. It is, therefore, most likely that Charles just spent the night of 6 June 1841 in this cottage, and that his permanent residence was elsewhere. The Electoral Registers for London between 1832 and 1845 list Charles, George and Henry’s qualification to vote as ‘House, Counting House and Warehouses’ in Millwall, Poplar but it is unlikely that he lived there either. There is a strong possibility that Charles was actually living with his mother in her house on the Charlton Road, along with his brothers, George and Henry, who were there on the night of the census.

A Terrible Fire

On 8 March 1845, a devastating fire at Enderby Wharf put an end to the family’s involvement in the sail and rope-making business. Contemporary reports in the Kentish Mercury and the Illustrated London News gave a description of the factory and the damage caused by the fire. The Illustrated London News article is reproduced in full below:

About eight o’clock, on Sunday evening, the extensive premises belonging to Messrs. Charles, Henry, and George Enderby, patent rope, twine, and canvass manufacturers, at East Greenwich, were discovered to be on fire. The flames were first observed from without, in the rope-walk at the rear of the factory, which was a strong brick building of about 140 feet long by 40 feet deep. It was not till day-break on Monday morning that the firemen could extinguish the flames, when a scene of the utmost desolation presented itself. Of the main factory, which faced the Thames, and was the most prominent object on that bank of the river between Greenwich Hospital and Woolwich, nothing remained but its lofty walls, which in the course of the day were blown down with tremendous force by the wind.

The machinery it contained was most extensive, and its immense value can be better judged from the fact that its completion has occupied a space of ten years. The whole of it was destroyed. It is proved that the flames were first seen raging in the store-room in the rope-manufactory, which was detached from the main building, where there had not been a light for several weeks.

There was a considerable quantity of manufactured goods deposited there, which were seen perfectly safe a few hours before the outbreak. The supposition is, therefore, that the fire either arose from spontaneous combustion, or was willfully caused by some incendiary. The factory, or waterside premises, containing joiners’ workshops, spinning, card, and loom rooms, is totally destroyed. The hemp and spinning-rooms over the engine and boiler-house are burned out, and the iron roof has fallen in. The engine-room beneath is considerably damaged. The weaving workshops, fronting the factory, are greatly damaged; the roof has been partly demolished by the falling of the opposite walls. They contained twelve weaving looms, worked by machinery, which are all damaged. The dwelling-house of Mr. Enderby, on the north side of the factory, is much damaged by fire, and most of the furniture and its contents destroyed; as are also the stores at the back, and part of the rope manufactory. The rope gallery, adjoining the manufactory, is a quarter of a mile in length; about 100 feet is gone, and but for the firemen cutting off the communication, the whole would have been levelled to the ground. Unhappily, upwards of 250 workmen are thrown out of employment by this calamitous event.

The exertions made by the military, parochial, and other authorities, as well as by the neighbours and workpeople, during the conflagration, were very efficient in saving much valuable property. The loss to the worthy proprietors, we are happy to add, is well covered by insurances.’

1845 Fire

The Fire at Enderby Wharf, 8 March 1845

(Illustrated London News)

This article hints strongly that the fire was started deliberately, and possibly by the proprietors, in order to claim the insurance. It was not uncommon at that time for fires to break out spontaneously in ailing businesses, but one can only speculate. The article also states that Mr Enderby’s dwelling house on the north side of the factory was badly damaged. As mentioned earlier, the Tithe Map of 1840 shows that there was only a cottage and gardens north of the factory. F W Simms Map of 1838 also shows a square building to the north of the factory. This could possibly be the dwelling house referred to in the article but could just as well be the cottage. Whether the dwelling house referred to is the one where Charles Enderby spent the night of the 1841 census, or a more substantial building that had been built on the site by the time of the fire, cannot be established.

No records have been found to indicate that the factory ever reopened; however, the Kentish Mercury of 13 September 1845 ran the following:

Liberality.— On Saturday last the workmen in the employ of Messrs. Enderby took possession of the new factory, which has been erected in place of the one burnt down some few months since. In the evening a supper was prepared for a portion of them at the Ship and Billet, Woolwich road; and also for another portion at the Star and Garter, Park Street. The expenses were borne by Messrs. Enderby, who have generously given all the persons who were thrown out of employment by the fire, half their weekly wages since that period.

This appears to confirm that at least part of the factory was rebuilt but whether it recommenced trading is less certain.

Despite the claims made by the Illustrated London News that the property was well insured, this may not have been the case. A note in the Morden College Archive, dated 15 August 1845, relates to the future leases on the Peninsula and stipulated that:

‘…the fire insurance covenant should cover not only the structures for which permission had been given, but all such other buildings which may be built on the land.

This may suggest that the Enderbys’ fire insurance only covered some of the buildings and their contents that were destroyed during the fire.

After the fire, Charles Enderby decided to build a new dwelling house on the riverfront and work commenced in June 1845. Whether it was built on the foundations of the old house shown on the F W Simms map and destroyed in the fire, or whether it was an entirely new structure that was erected, is uncertain. Although the existing house is in roughly in the location of the house on the F W Simms map, it has a different footprint. The new house incorporated the unusual and attractive ‘Octagon Room’ on the first floor of the north-west corner, and had an angled bay window, giving an excellent view up and down the river. This building still stands on the river bank and has, from that time on, been known as ‘Enderby House’. It appears that construction of the house was finally completed in April 1846, and Charles (and possibly George & Henry) ware able to take up residence.

Charles again approached the Morden College Trustees regarding the leasing of the Bendish Marsh land. The minutes of the Trustees’ meeting of 29 October 1845 record that it was agreed that Bendish Marsh could be leased to the Enderbys as ‘Bleaching Grounds’ but not for building. On the 13 November 1845, Charles Enderby wrote to the Trustees of Morden College offering to take Bendish Marsh on a seven-year lease.

Mary Enderby (1767-1846), Charles’s mother, died on 25 February 1846 and was buried alongside her husband in St Alphege crypt. There is no record of her executing a will, so through primogeniture her estate would have passed to Charles, although it is possible that it was divided among her sons and/or used to bolster the funds of Messrs. Enderby Brothers. In June that year, a notice was placed in the Woolwich Journal to the effect that the late Mrs Enderby’s house in Charlton was to be let or the lease disposed of. Perhaps it was from this legacy that Charles was able to obtain the lease of Bendish Marsh, which was taken up later that year. Charles wanted the Bendish Marsh land to provide direct access to his new residence from March Lane, by-passing the rope works site. The lease, running until Michaelmas 1854, was executed on 24 December 1846 in the names of all three brothers. They had the dyke and sluice culverted and a coach road built up to the newly-built Enderby House. The minutes of the Morden College Trust state that:

the Enderbys have covered the Brandish Sluice and built a coach road to the new house’.

Messrs. Enderby Brothers was now a struggling concern, and it appears that they did not have the funds or the inclination to continue operating the rope and sail business. What viable business interests they still had were run from the main offices at 13 Great St Helens, Bishopsgate, and Enderby House in Greenwich. The Masers Enderby Brothers was in need of a profitable new enterprise to rescue their ailing company.

In parallel with developing the rope and sail business, the brothers had spent large amounts of the company’s capital reserves on building a new ship, the Samuel Enderby, and sponsoring three expeditions to the Antarctic. These voyages were successful from a geographical discovery point of view but were a commercial disaster. Also the Hemp & Rope Works had not been properly insured, and instead of investing what insurance money they received in re-establishing the rope works business, they had chosen to build Enderby House and to lease the land from Morden College in order to build a coach road up to his new front door.

Charles and his younger brother George were fascinated by science and geography, particularly the discovery of new places and things. They were both founder members of the Geographical Society and served on its Council during the 1830s and 1840s. The Geographical Society of London was founded in 1830 as an institution to promote the advancement of geographical science. Like many learned societies of the time, it started as a dining club, where select members held informal dinner debates on current scientific issues and ideas. It was first established under the patronage of King William IV (1765-1837), but later became The Royal Geographical Society when it was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria in 1859. Charles would regularly hold dinners for members of the Royal Society and the Geographical Society in the Octagon Room in Enderby House from April 1846 to mid-1849.

Enderby House served many purposes during the period that it was part of the cable making business, with the Octagon Room being an Executive Office, a Board Room and an Executive Dining Room. In 1972, while under STC’s ownership It was listed as a Grade II building, and is now, with its modern extension, a Gastro Pub, part of the Enderby Wharf development.

Charles Enderby

Charles Enderby (1797-1876)

As a last throw of the dice, Charles and George promoted a new company, the Southern Whale Fisheries Company, the mission of which was to establish a settlement in the Auckland Islands, which had been discovered by the Enderby ship Ocean in 1805. This settlement was intended to support whaling and ship repairs in the region. The Enderbys could not afford to finance this venture themselves, but their name, and the efforts of the two brothers, got the project underway. Charles secured for himself the position of Chief Commissioner of the settlement, which was to be known as Hardwicke after Charles Philip Yorke (1799­-1873) the 4th Earl of Hardwicke, who was the chairman of and major investor in the company. Charles was also made Governor General of the Auckland Islands under a Royal Charter signed by Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Hardwick Settlement

Hardwick Settlement c.1852, attributed to Charles Enderby (1797-18776)

A small flotilla of ships left Plymouth in August 1849, arriving at Port Ross in the Auckland Islands in December. Things did not go well, as Charles proved to be inept as both Commissioner and Governor. Eventually the company’s directors sent out Special Commissioners to assess the settlement, with the result that it was abandoned in August 1852. There was much antipathy between Charles and the two Special Commissioners, George Dundas (1819-­1880), M.P., from Linlithgow in Scotland and Thomas Robert Preston, the company secretary. This resulted in Charles resigning as Commissioner before he could be dismissed, and then being evicted from the Governor’s House. He was then forced to leave the Auckland Islands and went to Wellington, New Zealand, where he brought a court action against the Special Commissioners. This failed, and so he returned to England in late 1853, determined to put his grievances before Parliament. Again, his attempts to be heard were unsuccessful.

Almost immediately after Charles’s departure for the Auckland Islands, it had been announced that Messrs Enderby Brothers was in financial difficulty and could not service its debts. At the same time, the derelict Hemp and Rope Works had been put up for sale. With Charles’s return to England, the affairs of Messrs. Enderby Brothers were finally wound up in 1854, and in 1857 the 14-acre (5.66 hectares) site, including Enderby House were sold to Glass, Elliot & Company and W Y Henley, and with that sale, Enderby Wharf’s 151-year association with the submarine cable systems industry began.

It is most unlikely that Charles took up residence again in Enderby House during the three years before its sale. He died intestate, a lonely and bitter man, on 31 August 1876 at his sister’s house in Kensington, London.

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