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The Outhwaite Family 1905-1975

The origins of the Outhwaite family, to whom John Wharton sold the ropemaking business, can be traced back two hundred and fifty years, during which time there have been several changes in spelling. Over this period Outhwayt, Outhett and Outhwaite have all been recorded in the registers of the family's births, deaths and marriages.

John Outhwaite settled at Stalling Busk in the 1730's with his family which included sons John and Thomas. They farmed successfully at Raydaleside and gradually became landowners. The next four' generations, including several Johns and Williams, continued this success until the end of the nineteenth century when William Richard Alfred Outhwaite, the great-great-great-great grandson of the original John, realised that the farm was no longer large enough to support his family. As no suitable farm was available, the alternatives being either too large or too small, `Billy Dick' moved to Hawes and changed his occupation, taking over the ropemaking business from Johnny `Roper' Wharton in 1905.

Thomas Gardner Outhwaite, the second generation of Outhwaite ropemakers, was born into this community at Lancaster Terrace, Hawes, in 1911, the whole family moving to the Gate House in 1912.

The Whartons had practised the ropemaking business from its Gate House site on the Ingleton road, and it was here that W. R. Outhwaite made ropes until about 1922. He also had a regular stand in Hawes market where his first Tuesday's trading brought in only 3s.9d (18½p), but the second a more satisfactory £5.

The railway had made a significant difference to trade in the area during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, but Mr. Outhwaite still travelled to Kettlewell once a year by pony and cart with a load of ropes. By staying the night with relatives at Stalling Busk he was able to make the journey over Stake Pass into Wharfedale and return to Stalling Busk in one day. There he was met by Tom and his sister. The success of this annual venture was measured, naturally, by the reduced load on the cart.

The period of the First World War saw the beginning of the changes which the twentieth century brought to Hawes. Mr. John Blythe of Hawes, who was a young man at this time, describes the war years as a period when "goods and materials were all in short supply. Most of the young and middle-aged men had gone to the forces or to munition work, and community activities were carried on largely by the older people and `teenagers'. The whole emphasis was on keeping things going, not on enterprise and development."

Life was not made any easier in the 1920's when John Wharton decided that the Gate House would eventually be needed for his married son, thus forcing W. R. Outhwaite to find a new site for the ropemaking business. After negotiations with T. T. Iveson, a local land-owner, Mr. Outhwaite acquired Banker's Field, the present site of the ropeworks at Town Foot. This land had the advantage of being on the route between the auction mart and the railway station. The new ropeworks, a wooden shed, was built on this ground and extended nearly as far as the footbridge beside the present building. Longer ropes were made in the field behind the shed but Mr. Iveson imposed the condition that all outdoor ropemaking equipment was to be stored out of sight at the end of each working session.

All through this difficult period - the business moving out of the Gate House in 1922, followed some time later by the family - W. R. Outhwaite continued to trade at the market, but he was convinced that the move to Town Foot would finish the business. The first week's trading was a disaster but trade gradually picked up until in later years he was able to admit that the move had been a blessing in disguise. As a young man his son Tom was not keen to follow in his father's footsteps; he had experienced too much wheel-turning in his youth and, as a result, he moved into the grocery trade as an alternative means of earning his living.

A more stable period followed with the Outhwaite reputation spreading by word of mouth through Wensleydale, Swaledale and Wharfedale. The only competition which Tom recalls hearing his father speak of was from one firm in Lancaster (35 miles away) and another at Stalybridge, near Manchester.

Gradually the Town Foot premises became a base for social activity as well as business. Many farmers coming to the auction mart caught up with local affairs over a pint in the pub. Methodists, however, used Billy Clement's boot repair shop under the Conservative Club and Outhwaite's ropemaking shed as a regular meeting place to discuss religion, politics and gossip, while at the same time keeping warm.. The ever-open door was not only an invitation to adults; children enjoyed Mr. Outhwaite's company and turned the handle for him while he made ropes. Several people have recounted their happy memories of these times to us.

It would be wrong to give the impression that business life was always straight-forward. Correspondence surviving from the early 1940's between W. R. Outhwaite and the Ministry of Supply, which controlled the allocation of hemp, coir and jute used in ropemaking, indicates that the rationing of raw materials caused problems and frustrations right through the Second World War. At the end of this period Tom, having been demobbed, decided to join his father in the business and thus the firm became W. R. Outhwaite and Son.

In spite of a move to more mechanised farming, the manufacture of the ropes and the products for sale were just as they had been thirty years earlier at the Gate House site. Mr. Outhwaite Snr. had devised a self-adjusting rope halter for cattle and horses but, to Tom's regret, it had never been patented. The raw materials for the ropes at this time came from Burnley and the finished products were sent off by rail from the Hawes station.

By now Hawes agricultural merchant, Mr. Alan Irving, was taking rope products to different markets each day of the week, and on Tuesday - market day - the Outhwaites displayed their goods on a stall on the pavement outside the ropeworks. In addition to the ropes there was always a good selection of hay creels, buckets, walking sticks and general farming equipment. In 1952 Tom applied for a grant from the Yorkshire Rural Industries Council. This enabled him to install an electric motor to power the twisting machine, thus replacing the wheelturner and speeding up the manufacture of the ropes without changing the traditional method. "It just does the same work as I've done by hand and I fancy it makes a better job of it," his father remarked of this innovation. Mr. W. R. Outhwaite continued to take an active interest in the business until a short time before his death in 1956 at the age of 81.

Tom Outhwaite was now the Hawes ropemaker although he continued to trade using his father's initials. He soon found out that the business of ropemaking could be very lonely and recalls days on end, particularly in winter, when he had no visitors and no-one to talk to.

He carried on working in Hawes until his retirement, with one notable exception. In 1961 he was given the opportunity to take some of his work to the Great Yorkshire Show. Such was the success of this venture that, having set off with twelve dozen cow halters, for which he meant to charge 4s.6d each (22½p), he returned having sold them for £1 each and with orders for many more.

As Tom neared the age of retirement with no obvious successor it seemed that the ropemaking tradition in Hawes, as in so many other places, was doomed. However, two visitors to whom he described the situation, in the summer of 1974, saw that it might provide the opportunity that they had been seeking to move to the area. By the end of the year arrangements had been made for the sale of the business. It was agreed that the firm would continue to trade under the long-established name of W. R. Outhwaite and Son.

Barrier ropes made in the Yorkshire Dales
Yorkshire Dales day out at Hawes, Wensleydale
Ropemakers, rope making, rope manufacture
Rope making at Hawes Ropemakers