South Somerset Flax & Hemp & the West Coker Twineworks
Ross Aitken, Chair of the Coker Rope & Sail Trust, gave an illustrated presentation on how the Trust was restoring the famous Dawe's Twineworks at West Coker, and more generally, provided a wideranging description of the history and importance of the flax and hemp industries to South Somerset and West Dorset. Ross was dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had invented one of the small
machines used at the Twineworks.
The industry developed in this region because of its propitious geology and soil, ideal for growing flax and hemp. An important product of the regions' various rope and twine works was sailcloth, and Coker Canvas' was used as high-quality sailcloth for the Royal Navy, including several ships of Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar, as well as for many of the early America's Cup Race yachts. Ross speculated that it may even have been exported to Russia when Peter the Great was creating his Navy. To overcome domestic shortages of the necessary quantities of flax and hemp as raw materials for the industry, supplies were regularly imported from Russia by sea to West Bay, and to this day, small lead seals, dated and in Cyrillic script, that were affixed to these imports could be found in the fields and elsewhere in the region. Ross suggested that it was logical to assume that the ships would return to Russia laden with sailcloth for its Navy.
He then focussed on the Twineworks, which was developed by John Dawe in the late 19th century out of an existing business run by the Rendells. He briefly described the operation of the Works – which produced 42 differed types of twine – and the lives of its workers. Sadly, the Works stopped operating in 1968, and lay derelict for many years. However its importance as part of the history and heritage of South Somerset was increasingly recognised by various public and voluntary bodies, keen to preserve the site and its contents, including, importantly, all its production machinery which, unlike other similar Works, had been retained in their entirety. The Works are Grade II* Listed; various studies were made of how to preserve and restore it; and the site was eventually compulsorily purchased by SSDC in 2005.
The Coker Rope and Sail Trust was formed to take forward the site's restoration, and, with the benefit of substantial grants and donations has been working to transform the site, including restoration of the 100-yards long ropewalk building as its centrepiece, the various pieces of machinery at the site, and the creation of an impressive Visitor Centre. The Trust has received many expressions of interest in exploiting any new twine the restored Works produces.
The Society's next event will be its annual Christmas Social, to be held at the Black Swan, North St, on Monday 3 December from 7.30. It is £10 per person; bookings essential, to Colin Edwards on 01458 251118. Anyone interested in joining the History Society should contact Sue Standen (01458 273471, email@example.com). Follow the History Society at @langporthistory, and on the web HERE