Unravelling the history of the Belfast Ropework Co

The Belfast Ropework Co was the largest ropemaker in the world.

W H Smiles establishes 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.

It was the largest rope works in the world by 1892, and the company employed a capital of £250,000.

W H Smiles would see his health broken due to overwork, and he died in 1904 with a relatively modest estate valued at £6,303. By this time the ropeworks spanned over 40 acres and employed 3,000 people.

Smiles was succeeded as managing director of the Belfast Ropework Co by his son, John Holmes Smiles (1875 – 1955). Between 1904 and 1910, Smiles managed to treble company profits.

In one year during the First World War the business produced 20,000 tons of twine, cord and rope.

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 was registered in London in 1930 with a nominal capital of £1 million. The works had a productive capacity of 350 tons of rope a week.

The Belfast Ropeworks site suffered heavy damage due to air raids during the Second World War, but continued to produce goods for the war effort, including camouflage nets.

Post-war decline and closure
The 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.

Belfast Ropeworks employed 1,000 people in 1968. However the business was loss-making, and it was sold to McCleery L’Amie in 1970.

McCleery L’Amie 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, particularly Portugal, saw the Belfast Ropeworks become loss-making, and the site was closed in 1978.

McCleery L’Amie was acquired by Lamont Holdings for £2.5 million in 1980.

The Connswater Shopping Centre was opened on the site of the Belfast Ropeworks in 1983.

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