There was a time when if you wanted rope – rope to moor a ship with, rope to tie supplies down, rope to save a man’s life – there was only one place to go…
The rope-maker now known as Arthur Beale has existed in London’s West End since the sixteenth century. From the 1860s onwards, from its Shaftesbury Avenue premises, it was an official supplier to the pioneering British mountaineering association, the Alpine Club. “The Alpine Club was fed up with climbers falling and the ropes just snapping, so they did some research. Of 100 different ropes they got hold of, only four survived a 12-stone man falling six feet – I think that was their test,” explains the current managing director, Alasdair Flint. Every one of those four ropes was made by Arthur Beale (or, rather, John Buckingham, as the business was known at the time).
“We had the sole contract to supply the Alpine Club rope,” Flint continues.“We were sending it everywhere. All the early Everest attempts were done on Alpine Club rope, and indeed Sir Ernest Shackleton ordered it for his expeditions. The rope that didn’t break during Edward Whymper’s famous first ascent of the Matterhorn, that was ours; the rope that did break wasn’t!” Alpine Club rope was made of three strands of rot-proofed Manila, with a red thread of worsted yarn braided through. It was the rope of choice for luminaries including George Mallory, Gino Watkins and, of course, Sir Ernest, until, Flint says, “some sod invented nylon, and that was the end of Manila rope, because nylon rope really does withstand a man falling six feet, thanks to its stretch.”
When Flint took over Arthur Beale in 2014, which had become a yacht chandler after the Second World War, it was just weeks away from shutting up shop. Now, it is bustling, friendly and modern, though still firmly rooted in maritime tradition – somewhere you might as easily buy oilskins, a replica Shackleton woollen jumper or a brass bell as a GPS unit. “We have to keep up with the times, so we do sell modern equipment, though our niche is more classic – sailing in wooden boats than glass fibre ones,” he says. “We’re more into sailing north than sailing south: people come to us for charts to Greenland, pilot books for the Arctic and Norway. We do warm clothes rather than sun umbrellas, and we’re more into natural products than artificial ones.”
In Arthur Beale’s upper rooms there are dark wood cabinets and drawers filled with invoices and correspondence from some of the great explorers. In among them, a purchase order from the Shackleton-Rowett expedition of 1921, signed by Sir Ernest himself. “He specifically ordered Arthur Beale ice axes, which were made in Chamonix,” Flint says. “He also ordered four 60-foot lengths of Alpine Club rope. We delivered it all to St Katharine Docks and gave him a 10% discount.” Flint continues: “It’s quite bizarre, because we still supply Arctic sailors, we deliver to St Katharine Docks and we do still usually offer them 10% off.”
Sir Ernest’s order is dated 27 August 1921, and it was fulfilled on 29 August. On 17 September his ship, the Quest, a repurposed steam-powered sealer, went to sea. Funded by his friend, John Quiller Rowett, the aim was to map 2,000 miles of uncharted Antarctic coastline, undertake oceanographic soundings and other scientific research. But the ship was unsuitable, progress slow and the expedition plagued with issues. Despite this, the expedition was one of infinite learning and success for for Shackleton and his team.
Flint says he still finds Sir Ernest’s exploits timeless and inspiring: “The thing is, they weren’t following in people’s footsteps. It must have been a hair-raising thing to do. That’s the real adventure, isn’t it?”
Check out Arthur Beale here, or visit the store at 194 Shaftesbury Avenue.
Written by Max Leonard. To check out Max's work read more here.
Photography by Joe Woodhouse. To check out Joe's work, find out more here.