Rope making

in Victoria



Gary Vines


Draft notes 30 October 1995



The origins of ropemaking go back at least to the beginnings of seafaring, several thousand years B.C. While rope has been in demand for many uses, it has been the rigging and lashings of sailing ships which have required the greatest quantities of strong, large diameter ropes. The advent of industrial applications from the mid eighteenth century gave an impetus to rope makers to provide ropes for haulage, rope drives, lifting cranes, etc.


There were many centres of ropemaking in Britain, Europe and America during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early 20th centuries. These were generally concentrated around the larger seaports. Glasgow, Belfast and Leeds appear to have been particularly important ropemaking centres and each supported specialist engineering firms which supplied the ropemaking machinery. Among these were James Mackie of Belfast and Lawson of Leeds later to become Fairbairne Lawson Comb Barbour of Leeds and Belfast.


The principles of ropemaking have remained the same for thousands of years. In walk laying of ropes, bundles of fibres (whether jute, hemp, flax, Manila, cotton, sisal or synthetic) are first combed,  drawn out and spun into strands. The strands are then pulled out along the ropewalk by a ĺ─˙travellerĺ─¨ which sits on rail lines,  and are then twisted by attaching to hooks on the ĺ─˙fore gearĺ─¨. They are further twisted from the fore gear end while at the other end, the counter tension causes them to twist together on the traveller, as a guide is drawn back down the rope. The guide or ĺ─˙topĺ─¨, which comprises a grooved cylinder of wood which holds the strands in place is held in a bogie or ĺ─˙top cartĺ─¨. The ropes are supported on a series of gate rests and stake posts, which are hinged beams fitted with timber or iron pegs between which the ropes are guided. Rope can be distinguished from cord, twine, string, etc. by its size, it being generally accepted that rope is an inch (25mm) or more in diameter.[1]


The specialised jargon used for the equipment in ropemaking also extends to the processes, often with different terms used from one factory to the next. For example, in a source on Scottish ropewalks the names of the traveller and top cart seem to have been switched.[2] In a 1934 arbitration hearing concerning Millers Ropeworks in Brunswick the process was described as follows:


The rope layer has to put ropes through a tube when the traveller goes 900 feet down the walk and we hang the ropes on hooks on the top end, and harden them. When we finish  the hardening, we put the strands together and close the rope. Then when I [the first rope layer) get to the top, the reeler reels it in.


My responsibility is to bring the tram up and start off again making rope... The reeler has to look after the frame, that is pull the yarn off the bobbins on the frame. Then he has to make the ĺ─˛bitesĺ─˘ and put his levers in correctly, and he looks after the top end while we are laying the rope. He has to make the reel look  respectable. The rope layer gives the traveller driver certain sets of what are called ĺ─˛motionsĺ─˘, that is, the turn of the rope. He has to put those on and then he comes down to the traveller and has it ready for the rope layer when he goes to the bottom. The skill is in looking after the tension of the rope while the rope layer is laying the rope. If he had the traveller too tight, that would naturally make the rope harder than it was intended to be and that is where the skill comes in.[3]


The alternative method of ropemaking is the ĺ─˙houseĺ─¨ method, so called because it is accommodated on a machine which can be housed in a normal factory building. Only smaller diameter ropes can be made by this method, and the buildings which housed the machines were generally single storey gabled structures with repeating bays of approximately ten metre width.


Ropemaking began in Australia in the early nineteenth century, and one of the earliest attempts at starting rope manufacture relates to the establishment of a ropewalk  in 1826, at Port Arthur, Tasmania. This was evidently intended to replace imports of cordage but the scheme was discouraged in London because it might become a financial burden.[4]


A number of open air ropewalks were in use by the 1850s and ĺ─˛60s. These were located on the banks of the Yarra in South Melbourne, near the Railway Pier in Port Melbourne, and at Yarraville. Basically comprising a long thin and flat stretch of land on which the rope strands could be drawn out and twisted by a hand cranked machine. Such walks were operated intermittently according to demand and the availability of suitable raw material.


James Miller is given credit, in a company publication, for the introduction of the first machinery for walk laying of rope in Australia. However, as James Miller began operation in the 1860s, Donaghy probably has the greater claim for first mechanised ropemaking in Victoria.[5]  The rope makers of Australia appear to have been a small group of men who were well-known to each other. For example, Archibald Forsythe, the largest New South Wales rope maker was a friend of James Miller when they were still in Scotland and the connections between the families were maintained well into the twentieth century.[6]


Archibald Forsythe arrived in Sydney in 1864 and set up the first ropeworks in Sydney using Manila hemp imported from the Spanish East Indies. His works was located on Bourke and Lachlan Streets, Waterloo. In 1874 Forsythe set up a factory in East Brisbane in Queensland with his brother John. This works had a rope walk 1100 feet long.[7]


The growing complexity and depth of gold-mining operations, by creating a demand for stronger and better quality ropes, pushed existing rope makers to new levels of technical achievement. Donaghyĺ─˘s was instrumental in the development of flat ropes for the mining industry and benefited in 1864 from a grant from the Premium Board which promoted ĺ─˙new manufactures and industriesĺ─¨.[8]


South Australia had its first rope manufacturer by the early 1870s, when the firm of Tamlin & Coombe established its Adelaide Rope Factory, subsequently winning a bonus of Čú100 for the first 50 tons of rope and cordage produced in the Colony.[9]


Michael Donaghy & Sons


Michael Donaghy was a native of Ireland with an interest in political liberalism and follower of the Irish Reform Movement as professed by Oĺ─˘Connell. He gained his experience in the rope-making business in England and came to Australia in 1852, landed in Melbourne, and, assured by his ships captain of the urgent need for ships rope, he headed for Geelong to commence its manufacture.[10]


The companyĺ─˘s centenary history records that on the eighteenth of May 1852 Michael Donaghy with the aid of a lad, made by hand, the first rope ever to be fashioned in the colony. This was in a small weatherboard factory on the banks of the Barwon River at Marnock Vale, Geelong. This work involved combing and cleaning the fibre (termed hackling), then spinning in a process where the spinner feeds out fibre from a bundle wound around his waste. The end of the rope was twisted on a hand wound hook while the spinner walked backwards and continued to feed out the fibre. ĺ─˙Hardĺ─¨ fibres such as flax and hemp were used at this time.[11]


Donaghy then took the finished ropes  in a hand barrow, along the unmade roads  from Chilwell to the Geelong Port for sale directly to ships. By 1853 the Marnock Vale works were regarded as an important branch of the industrial life of the growing town of Geelong and in the following year steam driven machinery was installed to increase production and 30 people were being employed at the factory. In around 1861 new forms of mechanisation were introduced which allowed the spinning of ĺ─˙softĺ─¨ fibre ropes such as Manila which was superior to flax and gradually replaced it.[12]


By 1873 the Chilwell/Marnock Vale works ceased to be sufficient for Donaghyĺ─˘s production needs and a new site closer to the port and railway at Geelong West was purchased. At the same time Michael took his two sons, John and Michael into the business as employees, and also in 1873 established a branch in New Zealand and a plant in Adelaide.


George Kinnear & Sons


George Kinnear was born in England in 1825 and migrated to Canada, and then America as a young man, where he learnt the ropemaking trade. He returned to England and in 1864 received an invitation to go to Australia to erect and start rope-making machinery for a Melbourne company. He left this firm to join Maine Crawford, of Richmond, but this factory burnt down soon after his arrival and he subsequently established his own ropewalk in Queen's Park, Essendon in 1874 where most of the ropemaking was done by hand. Later George Kinnear bought various machines including a lapper, a single head drawing frame and a spinner. In 1890 he acquired a two spindle automatic spinning frame made by Thomas Jennings, of Leeds and a one spindle doubling frame manufactured by Humphrey of Melbourne. George Kinnear himself made machines for various purposes including one for making hay band and leather lashings in coils.


In 1899, Edward H. Kinnear and his brother Henry Humphrey Kinnear bought out the business from their father and then the firm traded under the name of George Kinnear and Sons. Kinnear & Sons. They moved the works to Kensington briefly and in 1902 moved again, to a larger site in Footscray. The Footscray works was destroyed by fire in 1908, but was immediately rebuilt. By the 1930s the works was making many types of hard fibre ropes including lashings, clothes lines and reaper and binder twines from jute, flax and cotton. The company was taken over by Boral Industries, some years ago and continues in operation today as Kinnearĺ─˘s Pty Ltd. Part of this factory includes a corrugated iron ropewalk along the back of the site, parallel to Kinnear Street which originally extended from Farnsworth Ave. (formerly Waring St.) to Gordon Street a total distance of c420 metres.[13]


James Miller & Co.


James Miller, a native of Wick, Scotland arrived in Australia in the 1850s and established a ships chandlerĺ─˘s business in Geelong in 1860. He erected his first ropeworks in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) in 1862 on a site between City Road and Queen's Bridge Street. Floods in 1874 caused him to move to Moray St. where he set up a plant for weaving corn sacks and wool packs. The value of the South Melbourne site rose so dramatically during the land boom that Miller & Co. were tempted by a Čú100,000 sale price to sell up and move to Yarraville where they erected a new factory in 1888 and closed the South Melbourne works around 1890. A ropewalk was included among the buildings at Yarraville and ran along the southern boundary of the site all the way to Whitehall St., a distance of about 350 metres. However, it appears to have been demolished by the 1920s.[14]


Success in manufacture of ropes, twines, jute sacks for the adjacent sugar and fertiliser works and coir mats led to a further expansion in the early 1900s when a new site in Dawson St. Brunswick was purchased for the establishment of a branch factory in 1909.[15]


The company initially bought 17 acres of land to accommodate any future growth and erected a building which was described in a contemporary account as follows: 'The mill is a splendid strong brick structure of nice appearance, and erected on the most modern lines so far as light, ventilation, and sanitary requirements are concerned. The machinery is also of the latest and most up-to-date type ...'.[16]


By 1928, Millerĺ─˘s had concentrated its works at Brunswick and closed down the Yarraville factory. The Yarraville buildings were subsequently used by the adjoining fertiliser and sugar works. The Brunswick works incorporated a substantial ropewalk along the southern boundary of the complex, and like Donaghyĺ─˘s Geelong works, running along the backs of houses at the ends of Trinity, Harvey, Goodman and Ivy Streets for a distance of c375 metres from the railway line to Fallon St. It is now evident only from the narrow plantation on the southern boundary of the Melbourne College of Textiles which occupies all of the former Millers Ropeworks site. Part of the factory remains as a converted sawtooth roof building near the railway line, still proclaiming the companyĺ─˘s name on its parapet.[17]


Millers set up a second Factory in Warragul in 1945, mainly to take advantage of the new development of sisal and flax cultivation in the Gippsland region. The Warragul plant was subsequently operated under the combined James Miller Holdings / Donaghyĺ─˘s merger, and following the purchase of the Geelong works by Kinnearĺ─˘s, the Warragul works became part of the Downs/Donaghy firm.[18]


A.C. Downs/Samson Cordage Works


A.C. Downs was a native of Birmingham who worked as a rope maker in Hull, England before he travelled to Australia in 1887 to work as master rope maker for James Miller and Co. Pty Ltd. This employment only lasted a year, for in 1888 he established his own ropeworks in Brunswick and was joined, in 1890, by his eldest son, J.W.C. Downs to form the firm of Downs & Son. The company occupied several successive premises in Brunswick and Coburg including a site on Sydney Road between 1888 and 1900 and the Moreland Rope Works from 1892 to 1903 before moving to an existing rope-making factory in Tinning St. in 1903. This works was revamped and renamed the Samson Cordage Works.


The timber factory on this site had been built before 1888 for the Brunswick Rope Works operated by Jack and Maclean. George McCarthy took over the works in 1893 and continued until 1898 when the factory appears to have become vacant. It remained vacant until Downs moved in. MMBW sewerage plans show that a long timber building extending westward from Rose St. existed on the site in the late nineteenth century. Following the incorporation of the firm as a proprietary limited company and expansion of the business in 1907, the company replaced some of the timber buildings with brick buildings including new offices on the corner of La Rose and Tinning Streets, Cordage Mill, Braiding Department and Netting Department along La Rose St. The surviving red brick and bichrome buildings date from this period. By this time the works covered 25,000 square feet, employed 30 hands and had a 50 foot wide ropewalk which was enclosed for 300 to 400 feet, and extending into the open air making a total length of 1640 feet. The ropewalk was later shortened when the company began to specialise in small cordage.[19]


The ropewalk can be still be traced by the c20 metre wide strip of land running behind the houses on the north side of Tinning St. as far as Garnet St., a total distance of 450 to 500 metres. The eastern end of the rope walk has modern factory buildings while the remainder has been redeveloped for housing.


By 1934 Downs employed 96 workers, specialising in small sized ropes, fishing lines, shop twines, silk cords and threads. [20]A cafeteria and social hall for employees was added by 1947. The firm was always a family business with a loyal and predominantly local work-force. Their specialties have been butchers twine, plough reins, horse halters, parachute cord during World War Two and today they manufacture laces, industrial and carpet threads, blind cords, tennis nets, bouncinette fabric, etc.


The complex of red brick buildings includes: 1) The two storey office and store on Tinning St. which has decorative brickwork comprising cream brick string courses, cornices and diamond patterns and segmental arched windows and door openings. The upper floor windows are later additions which have been sympathetically constructed. 2) The braiding and netting department along the north side of La Rose St. extending back from an office on Cassels St. which features a rendered plinth and parapet and trabeated windows with dog tooth corbels above. 3) the main mill on La Rose St. which is a more simple brick sawtooth structure. There has been considerable alteration to the building such as blocking up windows or opening new ones, a second storey addition on La Rose St. and some modern buildings.[21]


The works was later purchased by Donaghyĺ─˘s who operated it in conjunction with the former Millers Ropes Warragal plant under the name Downs-Donaghy, and now trades as Donaghyĺ─˘s Industries Pty. Ltd. This firm, however, appears to have been the New Zealand Donaghyĺ─˘s, originally a subsidiary, but later a separate company which then came back into the Melbourne ropemaking business only a few years ago. Mick Donaghy was brought in from the New Zealand plant to manage the works, but later moved to Fiji Ropes in Fiji.[22]


Wolfe's Cordage Works


Frederick J. Wolfe established this small ropeworks around 1924 at 399-401 Albion St. Brunswick. The business has continues in operation under the management of Ross Wolfe, grandson of Frederick, specialising in light cordage, fishing lines and nets, but is only able to operate spasmodically, when the price of raw cotton allows them to compete with imported cord. The single storey brick factory at the front has segmental arched windows along the west side and concrete lintels to windows in the facade suggesting at least one period of extension. beside this is the contemporary timber home, and at the rear are a group of timber and corrugated iron sheds which are accessible via a r.o.w. off Shamrock St.[23]


The buildings lack any architectural refinement but are examples of typical industrial vernacular. The rope walk, which retains its twisting gear (not viewed), and a short section of shed, originally ran to the rear of the deep block (about 200 metres) and then continued out the back gate and up a bluestone- cobbled, public right of way to near Moreland Road (more than 500 metres to the north) between the houses on Cornwall and Shamrock St. At the upper end was a tower housing winding gear to hold the end of the cord being fashioned. The strand was drawn out and layed by hand, with a worker, usually a boy, walking out with the strands, and back with the laying stick.[24]


The works still retains a number of early machines, including a Fairbairne, Lawson Coomb and Barbour spinning frame c1900-20, American made sash cord braiders, a dressing machine, lappers made by Wolfeĺ─˘s and the fishing line laying fore gear, again made by Wolfeĺ─˘s themselves.[25]



By the 1960s there were at least nine main rope-making firms in Australia. They included the following companies:


Adelaide Rope and Nail Co. Ltd.

M. Donaghy & Sons Pty Ltd.

Downs & Son Pty Ltd.

A. Forsythe & Co. Pty Ltd.

Frank & Bryce Bentley Pty Ltd.

George Kinnear & Sons Pty Ltd.

James Miller & Co. Pty Ltd.

J. Scott Pty Ltd.

West Australian Rope & Twine Co. Pty Ltd.


Four of these operated from Victoria, Donaghyĺ─˘s, Downs, Kinnearĺ─˘s and Millerĺ─˘s. Several of the companies had multiple factories. For example, Forsythe had works in Sydney and Brisbane and James Miller had works in Yarraville, Brunswick, and Warragul. Nearly all the companies had interstate branches for warehousing, distribution and sales.


History of Place:


Fairview Rope Works


In 1873 Michael Donaghy relocated the Marnock Vale factory to its present site in Pakington Street taking the name of the Fairview Rope Works from the then uninterrupted views across to the Western Beach. Production commenced at the works on 1 October 1874 with 50 hands on a five acre site.


The original works  in Fyans St. Chilwell, near the Barwon, comprised, according to the auction notices, "brick and iron buildings 75ĺ─˘ x 70ĺ─˘ and 10ĺ─˘ high walls including engines on bluestone foundations." The boiler and engine house were probably of brick while the rest of the buildings, including the ropewalk were timber and corrugated iron. Machinery included a spinning machine made by the Geelong engineering works of Humble & Co. for the manufacture of the famous flat mining rope.[26]


The works was advertised for auction on 9 March 1874 as a 5 acre site with 900 ft ropewalk,  two very superior dwellings, engine house, sheds, retort and gasometer, subterranean 30,000 gallon water tank, 14 h.p. steam engine, etc.[27]


As part of the relocation, some machinery was moved but much new plant was installed with local firms such as the Barwon Iron & Brass Foundry supplying components, while even some of the houses at Chilwell were transported to Geelong East.


The architect of the new works was said to be Mr. J. Matthews who also designed additions to the Albion Woollen Mill.[28] Fagg Bros, building merchants and builders of South Geelong (whoĺ─˘s name incidentally still lives as Faggĺ─˘s timber yards) were involved in the construction of the main buildings and the ropewalk and tendered for labour to erect 150 fathoms of sheds and painting and glazing on 22.12. 1873.[29]


Blakeĺ─˘s map of 1890 shows the walk along the north side of Wellington (Waratah) Street as far as the present Askew St. but early photographs, and the later arrangement of the works suggest that this is an inaccurate representation.[30]


The works influenced settlement and home building in Geelong West because as it brought its predominantly pedestrian work-force with it. This appears to have been a period of considerable expansion for the company, with a New Zealand branch and Adelaide factory set up in the same year and the inclusion of his sons John and Michael in the firm. The sons became partners on 1 January 1878 and Michael junior went to Dunedin as manager there. Michael senior died on 21 May 1883 at the age of 62 and so John Donaghy succeeded his father as manager at the Fairview Works,. In 1886 John became sole owner, buying the interests of his brother  and James Wallace, another partner.[31]


Michael Donaghy kept close control of the works, partly by living on site. His home in Waratah Street was adjacent to the works, but was destroyed by fire in 1882.[32] John Donaghy was prominent in local affairs, was mayor on two occasions and in 1886, he was elected to Parliament and was president of the local fire brigade which was initially located on part of the rope factory site. Johnĺ─˘s residence in Aberdeen Newtown, was known as ĺ─˛Manilaĺ─˘. In 1889 John Donaghy took Henry Sargeant and Frederick Scarlett into partnership. Sargeant was factory manager at Pakington St. for a number of years and also Mayor in 1895-7. Scarlett was manager of Donaghyĺ─˘s Flinders St. Branch until his death in 1924.


Frank Donaghy, Johnĺ─˘s son, joined the partnership 31 May 1894, 6 months after death of John, aged 51 on 9 October 1994 leaving an estate of Čú19,060. Frank was described as a ĺ─˙picturesque and noted figure in the racing and sporting worldĺ─¨. On nineteenth March 1889 Robert William Dobson began work at the factory, subsequently taking on a principal role in the company when Frank suffered a severe illness.


The advent of steam ships and reduction of sailing ships in the early twentieth century was viewed with concern by Australian rope makers, but the increase in trade, and continued demand for large mooring ropes ensured demand for Donaghyĺ─˘s products continued. Ropes of 8, 9 and 10 inch circumference were regularly supplied as mooring lines along with larger ropes up to 16 inch circumference for towing. [33] The largest ropes were coir springs up to 36 in. (14.5cm.) circumference laid with nine strands. The ropewalk reached 2500 foot in length giving the capacity to produced specialised lengths such as the 2000 ft. cables used in South Australia for well boring although most ropes were made to standard lengths of 120 and 180 fathoms (220 and 330 metres). [34] The ĺ─˛houseĺ─˘ machines were able to produce even longer lengths of smaller sized ropes and cordage.


A coir mat factory was added to the works in 1894 and by 1920 the coir mat factory was employing  ĺ─˙a large number of healthy good-looking girls, whose skill and quickness are remarkableĺ─¨. Overall, there were 250 people employed at the works, many of them quite young boys. The works in fact, had the nick-name of ĺ─˛Fairview Collegeĺ─¨ due to the large number of juveniles employed. A more positive aspect of its industrial relations was the adoption of the 8 hour system by the late 1880s for its then 90 workers. In June 1890, 50 of the employees resolved to form a Rope workers Employees Union and immediately passed a motion thanking their employer for granting the 8 hours day. Accidents were very common at the works, with regular notices in the Geelong Advertiser appearing about crushed limbs, gashes and other such injuries.[35] A large number of Donaghyĺ─˘s employees spent all of their working lives at the ropeworks, and it was not uncommon for three or four generations of the same family to be associated with the factory.[36]


Donaghyĺ─˘s is credited with a number of innovations on ropemaking, including the development of a flat rope for hauling cages in deep gold mine shafts, the first knotless baler twine for baling hay and the works to extrude polypropylene for rope and cord. Production of large diameter shipsĺ─˘ rope fell off from the 1950s because of competition from Singapore.[37]


Both in the early years, and continuing well into the twentieth century, much of the machinery was imported from Britain, particularly from Lawson & Sons of Leeds, who were said to make the best machines for the spinning of flax and hemp into rope and cordage.


In 1905 Donaghyĺ─˘s became a proprietary company, the first in Geelong and one of the first in Victoria according. The walk which ran to Elizabeth St, was shortened at this time, opening land in Queen St. (Waratah) for housing.  The works had its own engineering shop which carried out all maintenance and manufacture of machinery apart from casting. The works eventually covered 7 acres (2.8 hectares)[38]


In 1939 Frank Donaghy, Thomas Hogg (of James Miller & Co Pty Ltd. and Edward H. Kinnear (of George Kinnear & Sons Pty Ltd.) were awarded the Prime Ministerĺ─˘s Medal for services to the industry, recognising the national importance of the three Victorian rope makers.[39]


Much of the original works survived into the second half of the twentieth century, but the difficulties of operating modern plant in old buildings with their forest of timber posts brought about reconstruction.  This appears to have been carried out in-house, with James Smith, the companies building foreman, supervising the erection of a number of new sawtooth-roof buildings which replaced part of the original works.[40]


Donaghyĺ─˘s merged with James Miller Holdings in 1968 but the company did not prosper and by December 1976 Miller's had been placed into receivership. The Geelong works closed down in 1978, putting off the 203 staff, some of which had been with the company for 40 years. Sale of Millerĺ─˘s Brunswick site to the Education Department was seen as a possible saviour for Donaghyĺ─˘s, but it was the purchase by Kinnearĺ─˘s as a going concern, that enabled the works to re-open.[41]


Description of Place:


The former Donaghyĺ─˘s ropeworks occupies a site on  the west side of Pakington  Street between Waratah Street, (formerly Wellington Street) and Collins St. The main part of the works covers an area of about 200 metres by 140 metres. The north-east corner of the block is not part of the works but has several shops, a house and the Petrel Hotel.


The complex today comprises a diverse group of connected  buildings dating from the late nineteenth century to about 1970, arranged around the characteristic internal laneways which were also evident at Kinnearĺ─˘s Footscray, Downs & Son and Millerĺ─˘s Brunswick works. The laneway begins as an extension of Bread Street and provides the main goods entrance. It then turns west to divide the site into two and continues to Donaghy St.


The older buildings on the site date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and are generally timber-framed or with brick load bearing walls with king-post, timber truss roofs clad in corrugated iron. The gable and hipped roofs are partly oriented north-south and partly oriented east west. Along Waratah St. there were originally nine bays of steeply pitched gables extending back from the Pakington Street corner. However,  the three bays closest to Pakington Street, including the earliest two which featured cream brick finishes to the corners and openings, were demolished some time after 1952 and replaced with a steel-framed, brick-walled, saw-tooth roof structure. This is now the combing department. Four bays remain with red brick gable ends on Waratah Street and internally, timber king-truss roofs, hipped at the northern end. A further four short bays of similarly roofed structure continues to the west behind a more recent (c1940s) pitched roof section which houses the modern Roblon 5000 machine. A long hipped roof range runs east-west along the northern side of this area, forming the south side of the internal laneway. It features red brick walls with segmentally arched openings and appears to date from around 1890-1900.


An etching of 1890 shows the two early gabled bays with regularly spaced windows, and behind these bays is the main boiler house chimney, now demolished. The 1890 etching also shows the central office block  on Pakington Street, to be only single storey at this time, and also shows a second ropewalk running parallel with the main walk along the northern boundary of the site. Beside and behind the central office are a group of hipped roof structures, again with the characteristic king-post trusses, and a few surviving section of probably 1870s brick-work. This is most evident along the rear walls of the buildings facing Pakington St. where bichrome hand-made bricks and segmentally arched openings are evident.[42]


The oldest surviving part of the complex appears to be the group of buildings around the two storey office and entrance building, along with the range of structures behind this extending south to Waratah Street. These buildings are of 1873-1900 date. Externally, however, these buildings do not reveal their age as the Pakington Street facades have been reconstructed, evidently in the 1960s. The south-east corner of the site, which once housed the earliest buildings on the site, was reconstructed in the 1950s.




The ropewalk is the most characteristic part of the complex and the only building which is of a specialised form. It is approximately 6 metres wide and 412 metres from the fore gear to the western end of the surviving structure, although the overall length of the site to Pakington St. is about 510 metres. As originally built, the ropewalk appears to have commenced at Pakington St.  The walk runs down the centre of the works westward, between the backyards of houses along Waratah and Collins Streets with a 25 feet (7 metre) wide easement on the north side which is part of Kinnearĺ─˘s property, probably originally intended to allow duplication of the walk.


The rope walk building is of light timber-framed construction with a simple king-post truss roof clad in corrugated iron. The walls are partly clad in corrugated iron, generally at the eastern end, but for most of their length they area of over-lapped timber palings typical of backyard fence construction. An early illustration shows the palings on the north side were not lapped but had gaps between them, letting in some natural light.[43] These walls appear to have been reconstructed in various stages, some sections having long shuttered window openings without glazing, but with props allowing the shutters to be held open to let in light and ventilate the building. The main structural frame of the building, however, probably dates from at lest 1912, as identical frames are shown in the illustration of this date.


The machinery in the ropewalk comprises two sets of rope-making machinery with two tramlines on which the mobile components run. At the head of each walk is the ĺ─˙fore twistĺ─¨ (the term used at the Geelong works) or fore gear. This is a stationery piece of machinery which imparts the twist on the strands and includes a rack of spools or bobbins and a die through which the strands are threaded for running along the walk.


On the walk itself are the traveller and top cart. The traveller is a solid four-wheeled carriage with several hooks to which the strands are attached for drawing out and twisting. It has a central freely revolving hook for permitting the final twist to be put on the finished rope, termed ĺ─˙layingĺ─¨ the rope. The Traveller has a platform or seat to accommodate the operator who controls its speed, distance and the tension of the rope.


Between the fore gear and the traveller is the top cart which carries the top and is driven along the walk by the ĺ─˛ground ropeĺ─˘ which runs along one side on pulleys. This drive rope is kept in tension by a device termed the ĺ─˙gallantyneĺ─¨ which is a series of pulleys behind the fore gear with a heavy weight attached to one pulley. The weight decends into a pit in the floor and so draws the ground rope tight. An unusual feature is the fabricated steel top for guiding the strands as the rope is layed. This is usually carved from a wooden block.


Along the ropewalk are a number of fittings which assisted in the rope making process.


Two types of stake heads (also termed gate rests and stake posts) which were used to support the rope at about five metre intervals These are hinged from the wall posts on the north side and from free-standing or intermediate roof supports on the south side. The stake heads generally have cast iron brackets of identical pattern which provide for the hinges and attachment of an upper and lower timber beam fitted with pegs. The northern ropewalk has only one beam with round timber pegs (the upper bracket having been shortened) and the southern walk has loops of steel rod to guide the strands.


The stake posts hinge so that they fall by their own weight across the ropewalk and can be pushed out of the way by the movement of the traveller and top cart. Originally at lest one walk had stake posts which fitted into sockets on the wall. A runner had to go ahead of the traveller pulling out the stake heads and pushing them back in after it had passed.[44] Sockets such as would have been used in this way still survive at Kinnearĺ─˘s Footscray rope works.


The tramways are of three foot six inch gauge with 40lb rail dog-spiked to timber sleepers. Much of the originally earth floor between the rails has been concreted.


A timber chute runs beside each walk. This was used for placing the rope so that it could be wound back. A section of the chute at Kinnearĺ─˘s in Footscray survives for use in steaming ropes.


Wooden plates are attached to the main wall joists or the timber rope chute with painted numbers showing distances from the fore gear. Overhead are the control and signal ropes for setting the top cart in motion and signalling the operator at the fore gear to start or stop the machine - green for start and red for stop..


Other plant


In general, the factory today has few early items of plant and machinery. Some evidence of the line shafting survives attached to roof trusses, and the machine shop includes an early milling machine. A c1940s diesel generator is intact, but no longer operates, and a modern high pressure boiler provides steam for treating rope.


The main production area houses a series of machines for preparing and spinning sisal fibre for making hay band and binder twine. These includes three spreaders and three drawers for hackling the fibre, that is combing it out into strands. They are of 1950s and 1960s vintage. One retains a makers plate identifying it as being manufactured by James Mackie of Belfast in 1959.


The final drawing of the strands is done on the so called ĺ─˛six canĺ─˘ machines, at least one of which was manufactured by Lawson of Leeds in 1921. The next process is spinning the strands, accomplished on nine James Mackie 12 and 24 spool spinning frames also known as gill spinners. These are of late 1930s to early 1960s vintage. Beside these are small spoolers, also by James Mackie of the late 1950s, which wind the finished twine.[45]


A neon - illuminated, animated sign featuring the kangaroo brand once adorned the roof of the main office and was a famous landmark in Geelong for many years. This was something of a local landmark but was removed 20 or more years ago.



The former Donaghy Rope Works is of importance to Victoriaĺ─˘s history because it was one of the most important rope makers in Victoria responsible for several technical and commercial developments in the industry. Rope and cordage manufacture was an industry essential to the development of Victoria and Australia because, as an island nation with colonial origins, communications by sea has been the country's link with the world. In the days of sailing ships, and even after the introduction of steam, rope has been essential for shipping. Other of Donaghyĺ─˘s products such as drive ropes and binder twine were also important to the development of industry and farming in Victoria and Australia.


The rope walk - the key component of any ropeworks and today and obsolete technology - is the longest an most intact example of a very rare type of structure with equally rare equipment. Only a very few rope walks ever existed in Victoria, and only three of four sites survive with any original fabric or machinery.


Donaghy's ropeworks contributes to the understanding of both the role of rope making in the development of shipping and industry in Victoria and the now obsolete technology of rope making on a traditional rope walk.





There are five other sites known in Victoria (all in Melbourne) where some evidence of rope works can be identified. Some of these also retain plant and machinery. They are as follows:


Kinnearĺ─˘s  Footscray


Surviving rope walk along Kinnear St. with approximately 200 metres of discontinuous timber framed, corrugated iron clad shed retaining the fore gear and overhead drive shafts and pulleys along with short lengths of timber chutes and two lines of tram tracks, now concreted up. The fore gear is of c1910 or earlier date. Other buildings from the period 1902-1920 also survive around the characteristic internal laneway. These include the queen-post truss and sawtooth roofed hard fibre mill, boiler house and truncated brick chimney stack and brick engine room, spooler room, engineers and blacksmith shop and former laboratory testing room. The site also appears to incorporate a small brick building which was in existence in 1895. A much larger area of modern steel framed sawtooth and clearspan buildings is also on the site.[46]


Downs -Brunswick


The site of the ropewalk is evident from the later brick building at the eastern end and by property boundaries for the remainder. However, there is no surviving equipment or fitting, nor has there been any since at least 1947, when Jim McCabe started at the factory. Some early equipment does survive such as the old type of 12 cord sash cord braiders of about  1930s vintage, but these have been modernised and modified.[47]


Wolfe and sons Brunswick


F.J. Wolfe and Sons probably has the best collection of early cordage making machinery of any works in Victoria. It includes a very early Fairbairne Lawson Coomb Barbour spinning frame, a number of American sash cord braiders, a dressing machine, lappers, and fishing line twisting gear. The buildings, however, un unremarkable ĺ─˙tin shedsĺ─¨ with only a short section of open sided skillion roof over the walk.[48]


Millers Yarraville


A group of lantern roofed, queen-post truss timber and corrugated iron and brick walled sheds survives from Millerĺ─˘s Yarraville works. Nothing remains of the rope walk which had been  demolished by the 1920s. The site has since been used for storage and workshops by the Commonwealth Fertiliser works.


Millers Brunswick


Millerĺ─˘s Brunswick works was mostly demolished in the early 1980s. It comprised a series of Dutch-gabled sheds on Dawson St., a large area of sawtooth roof sheds, and the rope walk along the southern boundary. All that survives is a section of sawtooth roofed factory near the railway line with the company name in raised cement lettering on the parapet.[49]




Begg, Peter, An Irishman who really knew the ropes, Geelong Advertiser, 18 May 1990.


Borough of Geelong rate books, 1875


Brownhill, W.R. History of Geelong and Corio Bay,  Melbourne 1953, p.324.


Buchan Laird and Buchan, Architects, drawings and specifications, p.23


Factory and Shops Commission 1883


Geelong Advertiser,  15 August 1912, News of the Week, illustration ĺ─˙A mile long ropewalk at Donaghyĺ─˘s Rope Factory, Geelong.ĺ─¨


Geelong Historical Records Centre, photographs 1703/027, Donaghy and Sons Pty Ltd. Rope and cordage works; 1728/7, Tramway in Donaghyĺ─˘s Rope Mill, 1890s.


Houghton, N. Tramways of the Geelong Region, Light Railways, January 1984. page 6.


James Miller & Co. 1862-1962 Centenary History, James Miller & Co. 1962.


M. Donaghy and Sons Pty Ltd., One Hundred Years of Ropemaking, A story of pioneering achievement, 1852-1952,  centenary booklet, M. Donaghy & Sons Pty Ltd. Geelong West.


MacMillan, David S. One Hundred Years of Ropemaking 1865-1965,  (History of Archibald Forsythe and Company) A. Forsythe and Co. Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1965.


McKenzie, Greg.  Factoryĺ─˘s Closure will Spell and Eraĺ─˘s End. Geelong Advertiser, 20/1/1978 page 5.


Seaton,  G. The Ashby Story - A History of Geelong West,  Geelong West City council, 1978, p.88.


End Notes




[1] Craig Dixon, plant manager Kinnearĺ─˘s Geelong, pers com.; James Miller & Co. Centenary History, 1962.

[2] Hay, G.D. & Stell, G.S. Monuments of Industry, an illustrated record. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. 1986.pp.93-99.

[3] Transcript from the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, case no. 16 of 1934, transcript 10A, p.41-2. in Penrose, Helen, (ed) Brunswick One History Many Voices, City of Brunswick, 1994. p.132.

[4] Linge, G.J.R., Industrial Awakenning, Geography of Manufacturing in Australia , ANU Press. p. 132.

[5] James Miller & Co. 1962.

[6] A. Forsythe and Co. Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1965.

[7] Macmillan, David S. One Hundred Years of Ropemaking 1865-1965,  A. Forsythe and Co. Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1965.

[8] Linge pp. 190,196.

[9] Linge p. 622.

[10] Seaton, p.97.

[11] Donaghy and Sons 1952 p. 8.

[12] Geelong Advertiser 18 May 1990.

[13] Australian Dictionary of Biography  Vol. 9, Kinnear, E.H. & H.H. Ferguson, J. Footscrays First Fifty Years, City of Footscray, 1909; Footscrays First Hundred,  Years City of Footscray, 1959. Ferguson, J. pers. com. Forging Ahead

[14] MMBW Sewerage Plan No 6. 1900; Lack, J. A History of Footscray, City of Footscray, 1991, p.115.

[15] Vines, G. Western Region Industrial Heritage Study, Living Museum of the West. Footscray's First Fifty Years; Vines, G.. Northern Suburbs Factories Study.

[16] The Australasian Storekeepers' Journal, Feb 27, 1909 pp.27-8, Cannon, M. Life in the Cities., 1975 page 271; Sands & McDougall Melbourne Directories, Keeping Brunswick's Heritage

[17] Penrose, Helen, (ed) Brunswick One History Many Voices, City of Brunswick, 1994. p.132; Vines, G. Northern Suburbs Factory Study,  1991.

[18] ames Miller & Co. 1962.

[19] Miles, F.G. Jubilee History of Brunswick and Illustrated Handbook of Brunswick and Coburg, Periodicals Publishing Co. Melb. 1907 pp.112-5.

[20] Tarriff Board Report, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers, 1932-34, p.527, in  Penrose, Helen, (ed) Brunswick One History Many Voices, City of Brunswick, 1994. p.131.

[21] Vines, G. Northern  Suburbs Factory Study.  Historic Buildings Council;Keeping Brunswick's Heritage, pp.218-20; Downs and Sons, The First 100 Years, Brunswick 1988; Hy. Ling Ltd. Cordage, Canvas and Jute World, The Dorchester Press, 1947;  Sands & McDougall Directory of Victoria.

[22] Craig Dixon, plant manager Kinnearĺ─˘s Geelong, pers com.

[23] Sands & McDougall Directory of Victoria; Keeping Brunswick's Heritage.

[24] Vines, G. Northern  Suburbs Factory Study; R. Wolfe, Pers Com.

[25] Ross Wolfe, F.J. Wolfe & Son. pers. com.

[26] Geelong Advertiser, 14.2.1874.

[27] Geelong Advertiser, 9.3.1874.

[28] Geelong Advertiser,  25.10.1873.

[29] Geelong Advertiser,  22.12.1873.

[30] Seaton p.10, Blake

[31] Seaton, pp.61,118.

[32] Geelong Advertiser 22.8.1882.

[33] Melbourne Leader, 1893, quoted in Seaton, p.119.

[34] Donaghy & Sons 1962, pp.14-17.

[35] see for example Geelong Advertiser, 22.8.1882.

[36] Seaton, p.p119, 133.

[37] Seaton p.118;Geelong Advertiser, 20 1. 1978.

[38] Seaton 120.

[39] Donaghy & sons, 1962, p.31.

[40] Donaghy & sons, 1962, p.44.

[41]Geelong Advertiser 18.1.1978, 18.5.1990.

[42]  Reproduced inGeelong Advertiser, 20/1/1978

[43] Geelong Advertiser, 15.8.1912.

[44] Craig Dixon, plant manager Kinnearĺ─˘s Geelong, pers com.

[45] Craig Dixon, plant manager Kinnearĺ─˘s Geelong, pers com.

[46] Len Aisbett, Les Bird, Alan Wilson, Kinnearĺ─˘s Ropes Footscray, pers. com. 1989.

[47] Jim McCabe, Len Jackson, Donaghyĺ─˘s Industries, pers. com.

[48] Ross Wolfe, F.J. Wolfe & Sons, pers. com.

[49] Vines, G. Northern Suburbs Factory Study.