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Garnock, Bibby and Co

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of Old Swan Rope Works, St. Oswald's Street, Old Swan, Liverpool

1838 Business established

1857 Supplied wire, hemp and Manilla ropes for comparative tests

1883 Serious fire at the premises

1937 Rope manufacturers. "Swan" Manila Ropes.

1963 British Ropes Ltd acquired Garnock, Bibby and Co, Liverpool [1]


Manufacturers of Hemp Ropes and Cords, Wire Ropes, Combined Hemp and Wire Ropes, Coir Ropes, Etc.


Although the firm was originally formed as a partnership in 1838, its history goes back fifteen years before this date and covers a wide range of interests on Merseyside. As shipowners, rope-makers, ship-chandlers, sail-makers, general merchants, and hemp brokers, the Company has played an important part in the commercial life of Liverpool. Unfortunately, complete records of all its enterprises are not available so whether the activities of its fast Atlantic clippers included slave trading, piracy and blockade running during the American Civil War, is a matter for speculation, it is known, however, that the partners' activities during this period were extremely profitable.

In 1823 Captain James Garnock and Captain Robert Bibby of Liverpool were master mariners owning, in conjunction with a large number of other shareholders, a number of fast sailing ships engaged in trading with the Southern States of America. Among the best known of their fleet were the Stormy Petrel and the Vinco.

Realising that the safety of their ships and crews depended to a great extent upon the ropes and sails with which the ships were rigged, and upon a satisfactory supply of stores, the two captains, whose joint fleet in 1838 justified such a step, joined together in partnership under the style of Garnock, Bibby and Company and set up additional enterprises in various parts of the town as sail-makers, rope-makers and ship chandlers. In 1842 they established the real foundation of the present business by building an extensive ropery in Wavertree some four miles from the dockside. In these days transport, by horse drawn wagons, was so slow that the Company acquired a number of warehouses in Chapel Street and in the dock areas where the normal ships' requirements could he held in stock for immediate delivery.

The partners continued their shipping interests and extended their trading to bring in, from the Philippine Islands, their own supplies of manila hemp which was now beginning to replace the Russian and Balkan soft hemp fibres in the manufacture of cordage. So successful was the trade in manila hemp that the Company was soon actively engaged in hemp merchanting both for its own factory and for many others. It was due to its activities, and that of similarly enterprising firms on Merseyside, that Liverpool became recognised as the principal hemp importing centre.

At the time of Captain Garnock's death in 1849, his son James was running a nautical training college in Birkenhead while his other son was at sea, so the Captain's interest in the firm passed to his son-in-law, James Fisher Jones, who had joined the Company soon after its formation and was manager. In 1853 James Fisher Jones joined Captain Bibby as co-partner. A year later Captain Bibby died and James Fisher Jones continued as sole proprietor for a number of years. He was joined by two of his sons, James Garnock Jones and Robert Bibby Jones, before ill-health forced him to retire some years before his death in 1882.

In 1861 the Wavertree Ropeworks was completely destroyed by fire and the business was transferred to the present premises at Old Swan. About this time the demand for hemp ropes was falling off due to the gradual replacement of the old sailing ships by steamships and the Company utilised its more extensive new premises to introduce the manufacture of wire ropes from iron, steel copper and brass.

After the death of James Fisher Jones the ownership of the business passed to his sons. As a direct result of this dispersal of ownership and control, a private limited company was formed in July, 1892, the original [sic.] directors being James Garnock Jones, Robert Bibby Jones, Harry Herbert Jones, and Percy Lord Jones, all sons of James Fisher Jones, with Albert Skillicorn as Secretary. The Limited Company did not take over the shipping interests of the family partnership but concentrated its efforts on rope-making and ship chandlery.

In 1894 Eric Fisher Garnock Jones, the eldest son of James Garnock Jones, joined the company as a junior clerk. A brilliant mathematician Mr. Eric, as he was affectionately known throughout his 54 years service, soon put his ability to good use by establishing a realistic costing and production control system which enabled the Company effectively to meet all competition and, at the same time, maintain its high reputation as makers of first class products. He was appointed a director in 1918 and until his death in 1948 was responsible for the technical details and control of production and cost accounting.

In 1901 J. W. Davidson, senior partner of Messrs. J. W. Davidson, Cookson and Company, Chartered Accountants, was appointed a director. His firm has been represented on the board ever since, the present senior partner, Sidney Colvin, being chairman of the Company.

In 1914 the Company was well placed to carry out whatever might be required of it to help the war effort, and was placed under direct Admiralty control. The demand for ropes by the Admiralty, War Office, and other Government departments, as well as by our Allies, was so great that some sections of the factory were working night and day.

After the termination of hostilities, the export trade which, before the war had reached a fairly high proportion of the Company's total trade, had practically ceased. However, success crowned its efforts to regain the orders which it had formerly been its good fortune to receive. Each succeeding year new markets were successfully entered and the firm's products and prestige became known in almost every part of the world where ropes were used.

At the beginning of the second world war the improvements and modernisation of the factory, which had been proceeding steadily throughout the intervening years, put the Company in an excellent position to meet all demands made upon it by the various Government departments. On several occasions enemy bombers set fire to parts of the factory but, as a result of excellent work on the part of first-class Civil Defence personnel, the fires were quickly extinguished and, due to the valiant efforts of the maintenance staff, manufacturing was not interrupted for more than five working days in all.

In 1940, E. J. Hopkinson was appointed managing director. He has been with the Company in various capacities since 1905, and had been export sales manager between the two wars.

With the occupation of the Philippine Islands by the Japanese, the supply of manila hemp was cut of. At first the available stocks, already held in this country and by our Allies, together with such similar fibres as could be obtained from other parts of the world, were blended with East African sisal in an attempt to eke out supplies. By 1943, however, stocks had fallen so low that manila hemp was restricted to essential uses such as ships' lifeboat falls, and all other hard fibre ropes had to be made entirely of sisal.

Sisal, while having about the same strength as a medium quality manila fibre, absorbs moisture and water much more readily. In order to overcome this disadvantage, particularly for shipping use, the technical department of Garnock, Bibby and Company Limited, quickly developed a waterproofing treatment which gives the sisal even better water resisting properties than manila. Far better results are obtained by this waterproofing process than are required by the British standard specification.

Another technical development, as a result of war experience, is the rot-proofing of manila and sisal ropes for use in tropical climates. This treatment also waterproofs the ropes and incorporates fungicides providing a high degree of resistance to the effect of dampness, fungus, mould growth, and tropical insects.

The use of new raw materials, new treatments and techniques is constantly under review with a view to improving the quality of the products and production efficiency.

After the second world war strenuous efforts were again made to re-establish overseas connections. This time special emphasis had to be laid on hard currency countries and it is to the credit of the Company, and its world wide chain of agents and representatives, that it very quickly achieved a remarkable volume of dollar earning trade as well as expanding trade to non-dollar countries. All this time the steady supply to the home trade for shipping, mining, etc., went on unimpaired.

In 1948, after the death of Eric Fisher Garnock Jones, the board of directors was increased by the inclusion of the works manager, William T. Doherty, J.P., who had started work with the Company in 1904 at the age of 13, and had been appointed works manager in 1940, Alec J. Garnock Jones (a son of Eric Fisher Garnock Jones) who had joined as assistant works manager in 1946 to promote the great post war production drive, and Percy Arthur Jones, the managing director of the Union Sack and Bag Company Limited, of Liverpool, another direct descendant of the Garnock family, being the son of Percy Lord Jones, one of the original directors of the Limited Company.

Since 1939 the Company has been able to install some of the most up-to-date machinery, not only improving the efficiency and productive capacity of the hemp rope production line, but doubling the capacity of the wire rope department and trebling the capacity for producing combined hemp and wire ropes. These facts, together with the technical developments over the years, put the Company in a very satisfactory position to face what ever eventualities may arise in the future.

The factory, as originally built, has been considerably extended and adapted according to the changing nature of trade. Thus, some of the rooms previously used for the dressing of soft hemps and the manufacture of life-belts, driving belts, etc., have been swallowed up in the expansion of the wire rope department while complete new buildings have been added for the manufacture of hemp ropes.

Behind the rather sombre frontage on St. Oswald's Street, lies a well equipped factory extending practically half-a-mile back from the road. Apart from the four rope-walks and the various machine rooms for the actual manufacture of ropes, there are extensive offices and stores, together with black-smiths, joiners and fitters shops necessary for maintenance purposes and for the manufacture of new machinery. Since its formation, the Company has shown 114 years of steady progress and expansion from the days when ropes were mostly made by hand and entire reliance was placed on individual skill and craftsmanship, through the age of mechanisation in the latter half of the nineteenth century, to the present days of new technique, processes and treatments, when engineers, technicians and chemists play an important part in production.

It is interesting to note that thirty-six firms were engaged in rope-making on Merseyside about the time that Captains Garnock and Bibby established their Wavertree factory, and that now Messrs. Garnock, Bibby and Company Limited is one of the only two remaining hemp rope manufacturers in the area and the only one to manufacture wire ropes, and combined hemp and wire ropes.

While the manufacture of ropes for shipping and the fishing industry provides the steady background of its home trade, the Company is a contractor to the Admiralty, Ministry of Supply, and other Government departments, also the Crown Agents for the Colonies and the various port and local authorities.

Large stocks are held in Liverpool and at many other centres, both at home and abroad, to minimise the delay in supplying urgent requirements. What the future holds in store is anybody's guess, but it is certain that Messrs. Garnock, Bibby and Company's factory at Old Swan is well equipped to deal with any eventuality and the Company looks to the years ahead with quiet confidence.


At the start of the manufacturing process the bales are opened and heads of fibre shaken out.

The fibres are then fed into the first machine being carried along by a conveyor to a slow moving endless chain of bars studded with strong steel pins each in the form of a comb. A similar chain moving very much faster pulls the fibre rapidly away from the slow chain combing it out. In passing through this first machine the fibres are sprayed with fine jets of lubricant, waterproofing or rot-proofing mixtures as required. The fibre is delivered from this machine in a heavy continuous stream or sliver which is mechanically piled by a turntable motion. Several of these slivers are fed into a similar machine and the irregularities are removed by a repetition of the same process. This preparation is repeated from seven to eight times on different machines, each operation producing a smaller and more even sliver. The final slivers are coiled in cans and conveyed to the spinning department.

The spinning machines draw out the slivers to the required thickness, twist and wind the yarn on to bobbins. The bobbins of yarn are then stacked in their respective qualities until required to be made up into rope.

The set of rope-making machines shown are typical of those used for making small ropes.

The two stranding machines on the right form the required number of yarns into strands which are wound on to bobbins. The strands are then put into the rope making machine to be laid up into the rope.

Larger ropes are made on the rope-walks. These walks are about 320 yards long. Heavy machines running on rails travel slowly down the walk drawing out the strands to the required length. After the requisite number of strands have been formed they are laid up into rope and finally the rope is reeled up.


Single wire of various gauges for rope-making is usually received from the wire drawers in coils and the first process of manufacture is to wind it on to bobbins. The requisite number of bobbins are then placed in one of the numerous stranding machines and the wires formed into a strand. If necessary this strand is passed through the stranding machine a second and possibly a third or fourth time so that the extra number of wires can be laid over it in accordance with the construction required. Two of these fast stranding machines are shown in the top photograph.

Normally a wire rope is composed of six strands so that six bobbins of strand are placed in one of the closing machines and laid up into rope around a hemp or jute core.

Wire ropes are often required to be greased with a suitable lubricant either inside only, or inside and outside according to the purpose for which they are to be used. This is done during the process of manufacture by passing the fibre core and if necessary the finished rope through a bath of melted grease.

For making combined rope strands, a centre core of jute or other fibre covered usually by six, 12, 18 or 24 wires is passed through one of the vertical combined rope machines shown in the photograph, where it is covered with manila, sisal or other fibre yarns as required. The strands so formed are then made up into ropes in the same manner as wire ropes.

The machines for making the combined rope strands and most of the rope-making machines shown in the photographs were made in Messrs. Garnock, Bibby's own workshops.

Ropes for shipping and many other purposes often require hand coiling, fitting with thimbles, eyes, etc., and the rigging department is kept busy dealing with this work.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1937 The Aeroplane Directory of the Aviation and Allied Industries
  2. Supplement to the American and Commonwealth Visitor, Dec 1952