The Belfast Ropework Co was the largest ropemaker in the world.
William Holmes Smiles (1846 – 1904), the son of Self Help author Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904), acquired a half share in a small Belfast ropewalk (a place where rope is made) in 1871.
Smiles established the Belfast Ropework Co as a limited company in 1876. He had three partners, including G W Wolff (1834 – 1913), of the Belfast shipbuilding firm Harland & Wolff.
G W Wolff was the chairman, and William Holmes Smiles was managing director. It was the organisational ability and energy of Smiles that would enable the venture to prosper.
50 people were initially employed on a four acre site at Connswater, Belfast.
Edward Harland (1831 – 1895), of Harland & Wolff, soon became a large shareholder.
The business grew in tandem with the growth of the Belfast shipbuilding industry. 300 people were employed at the works by 1880.
Progress was being made in export markets by 1880. The company won market share in Canada, despite a ten percent tariff against imported goods in the dominion.
It was the largest rope works in the world by 1892, and the company employed a capital of £250,000.
The Belfast Ropework Co was listed on the Belfast Stock Exchange from 1897.
W H Smiles died in 1904, probably from overwork, with a relatively modest estate valued at £6,303. By this time 3,000 people were employed at the ropeworks, which spanned over 40 acres.
Smiles was succeeded as managing director by John M’Candless (1861 – 1913), who had worked his way up from a modest position in the company.
The site covered 34 acres and the firm employed 3,600 workers by 1913.
Over 3,500 workers were employed by 1919, as well as a staff of over 150 clerks. The company served over 100,000 customers.
The Belfast Ropework Company had a nominal capital of £1 million by 1930.
The twine department, representing around 30 percent of the business, employed 1,500 workers by 1931.
The company remained the largest ropemaker in the world in 1935.
During the Second World War Belfast Ropeworks produced goods for the war effort, including camouflage nets.
Belfast Ropeworks entered into decline following the end of the Second World War.
The company still operated the largest single rope factory in the world in 1957. The company employed 1,000 people in 1968.
Belfast Ropeworks merged with other Belfast textiles firms including McCleery L’Amie to form a company with capital of £3.2 million in 1970.
Belfast Ropeworks changed its name to McCleery L’Amie Group in 1972.
The company ended hemp rope production in favour of synthetic fibres from 1973.
A slump in demand for ropes and twines, as well as the growth of low-cost imports from overseas saw the closure of the Belfast Ropeworks in 1979.