The Women of Devonport Ropery

History on your doorstep: how a simple photograph brought the women of Devonport ropery to life.


In the 1860s, dockyard roperies introduced rope making machines capable of producing metres at a time. Operated by women as a form of cheap labour, they saved dockyards up to £446 (approximately £55,590 today) per year.

In 2007, Devonport Naval Heritage Centre received a photograph of twelve female workers of the ropery gathered for a rare, staged portrait. Unlike any image in the collection, volunteer Bob Cook launched a curatorial investigation.

As naval and dockyard uniforms evolve, they become synonymous with particular time periods, even decades.

The women’s uniform enabled Bob to date the photograph to the 1890s, while the three stripes on the arm of the woman in the centre of the second row suggested a position of authority. Armed with more information, Bob moved onto genealogical research.

We began with the 1891 census, narrowing the field to Stoke Damerel – a former parish of Devonport and popular residential area for naval and dockyard workers – and used the word ‘rope’ in the occupation field.

Of the forty-six records generated, thirteen were women and all worked in the ropery. Among them was 54 year old Charlotte Sullivan, listed as ‘Head’ of her household and ‘Matron’ of the ropery. We believed we had just found our senior member of staff.

A more detailed search provided us with ages, addresses and household status. Eleven were heads of their household and almost all had been widowed under the age of 50. Eight women were machinists, and three rope and hemp spinners.

Charlotte Sullivan was the eldest at 54, with Maud Sheppard the youngest at just 20 years old.

Listed above Maud Sheppard - ‘Daughter’ to head of the household – was 39 year old ‘Head’, Emma Sheppard. We believe Maud and her mother to be the two women on the front row linking arms.

Bob also traced five of the workers – including Charlotte Sullivan - to local Ford Park Cemetery, with the help of a representative who located them in their burial records.

Of course, there are things about the photograph we may never know: Local census records suggest the photo was taken in the 1890s but pinning it to a specific year is impossible, as is discerning why one of the thirteen listed women was absent from the photograph.

We may never be able to match the other names to the faces without reliable identification from descendants. We can only guess at why such a photograph was taken; we think it may have been commissioned by Charlotte herself upon retirement.

Interestingly, she purchased the grave deeds at Ford Park Cemetery in June 1893. Perhaps this was on her retirement, a possible date for the photograph? Charlotte remarried four years later, and died in 1925, aged 91.

Though we lack many answers the image offers perhaps a rare and happier glimpse into what seems to be a close-knit team in an era of female exploitation, limited prospects, and poor working conditions.

White BG