Samuel & Ephraim Yeo - Ropemakers - East Street, Newton Abbot


During the boom years of the Newfoundland fishing trade, the area between Hopkins Lane and East Street in Newton Abbot, Devon, must have been a pretty busy industrial scene. Dominating the ground had to be Samuel Yeo's Rope Works. Built in 1828 it housed a rope making machine that twisted the imported hemp and sisal fibres into one long yarn.

It worked on the same principle as the ancient spinning wheel and any size of rope could be manufactured by just doubling up the input of fibres. As one length was completed it was set aside to be used later. In the final build up three such twisted yarns were taken and laid at the same time, multiples of up to 36 strands could be made in this way depending on the customers requirements.

Above the Rope Walk was a sail loft and an adjoining building was used to store the large bales of fibre. Tanks contained concoction of tar, fats and other water proofing ingredients that were used to impregnate the finished product. Samuel Yeo's industry, it is said, was run by horse power. This primitive method of driving machinery was still wide-spread at the time. The horse had to go around in circles for hours pulling a shaft that was attached to a centre pivot with gears built into the base

Rope Walk, East Street, Newton Abbot - today The original door was a double wooden one, large enough for a horse and carriage to go through.
It is amazing just how much rope was needed for each wind powered ship
Rope Making Machines - the top one was a twisting machine and the bottom a flat rope machine.
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From the original 1840 Tithe map showing the extent of Samuel's ropery which stretched from East Street to Hopkins Lane. This is all built on now.. On the map the property Samuel owned was called Pavilion Place and it included 7 cottages.

Samuel Yeo married Eliza Newman in 1832 at Plympton St Mary where the Newman family lived and were also ropemakers. It was a double wedding as Eliza's sister, Peggy, married William Lister on the same day. William Lister;s business was ropemaking. Samuel and Eliza had two children, Ephraim born in 1837 and Rhoda in 1843 both born in East Street, Wolborough, Newton Abbot.

The house in East Street where Samuel & Eliza lived, on the left is the entrace to Rope Walk and the East Street Rooms.

Samuel had three brothers. William who married Susannah Hearder, John who married Sarah Thomas and James who died in his first year of life at East Stonehouse. His sister MaryAnn married James Brewer who were also involved in the ropemaking business. William's ropemaking firm which was established initially in Teignmouth was called W. Yeo and Sons and William the eldest son, with his sons continued the business in Plymouth for a few years and then in Teignmouth and Exeter. William & Susannah's son, John, is recorded in the 1841 census living with the Newman family in Plympton St. Mary, showing the close contact between all the female side of the Yeo marriages. Eliza & Ephraim were also there. In Ephraim's will he mentions 'Mrs E. B. Wills, the daughter of my cousin John Yeo'. John Yeo was a ship owner and lived at Brixham.
Samuel was trading as a ropemaker in 1841 and 1851 in Wolborough, Newton Abbot.

Samuel died on the 1st January, 1871 and left his properties and those in possession of Messrs Gatty, Harris, Kingston and Lvis as his tenants, situated in Wolborough, to his wife for her life and then to his son Emphraim. Rhoda was left an annuity of £30 a year. Eliza died in 1875 and Ephraim was her executor. Both Samuel & Eliza were buried in the dissenter's cemetery in Plymouth St Maurice, next to the Newman & Lister families, Eliza's relatives.

The business was handed on to Ephraim Yeo before his father's death as in the 1861 census, Samuel states that he is retired. Ephraim. whilst continuing the work, must have been aware that the fishing boom of the far off Newfoundland coast wouldn't last forever. Steam powered engines were growing in popularity but they suffered a major problem. This was a loss of power due to steam leakage from the glands. Ephraim came up with a simple and cheap solution using refined hemp fibre impregnated with tallow and micaceous heamatite (a local product from the shin Ore Mines of the Teign Valley). He proceeded to pack the leaky glands of the troublesome steam engines with this material. Success was his and he immediately applied for a patent for his invention. A document dated 1876 which can be viewed in Newton Abbot Museum bears a Royal Seal of Queen Victoria and reads as follows:

"Whereas Ephraim Yeo of Newton Abbot in the County of Devon, Rope Manufacturer, hath by his Petition humbly represented unto us that he is i: possession of an invention for improvements in the treating of yarns for packing purposes, which he believes will be of great public utility. The Queen has graciously granted to him the patent of this invention."

Right - the document which can be viewed at the Newton Abbot Town Museum.


Ephraim Yeo married Jessie Godfrey on the 9th September, 1875. Jessie's father was Frederick Godfrey, a chemist in Newton Abbot. They were married at the Parish Church in Wolborough, Newton Abbot and the witnesses were Frederick Godfrey and Rhoda Yeo, Ephraim's sister. Rhoda never married and when she died in 1881 she left everything to Ephraim

Ephraim, like his parents was a member of the Plymouth Brethren sect and initally worshipped in the Prospect Chapel. However there was a split into the Open Brethren and the Exclusive Brethren and Ephraim built the East Street Room adjacent to his rope walk property for the use of the Exclusive Brethren. An interesting point is that it is quite probable Ephraim was a descendant of the Reverend William Yeo who was the first dissenter in Newton Abbot.

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The chapel is directly in front of the entrance and the original stairs can still be seen

This is all that remains of the East Street Rooms Chapel and it is now a storeroom. The prayer still remains above the door and is protected by a covenant which states that if ever the building is rebuilt it must include the prayer.
This is a side view of the chapel, which was quite extensive in its day. However times have moved on in the hundred years since the ropemaking business declined and it is now used as a business for Satellite Installations. The owner of this business also lives in a flat above the Rope Walk entrance.

By 1883 to Ephraim and Jessie had moved to Ardrossen, in Knowles Hill Road. They then moved to Ramsgate in Kent in the early 1900's, where Jessie died in 1905. She was wealthy in her own right, and left property in Eastbourne and their house in Ramsgate to Ephraim. They had no children and when Ephraim died in 1913 most of his estate worth £32,330 was left to different charities, including Newton Abbot Hospital, Newton Abbot Baptist Church (first established in Newton Abbot in 1697), the Plymouth Brethren Church attached to Rope Walk, Newton Abbot, Dr Barnadoe`s Homes, Stepney Causeway, London, The Cancer Hospital, Brompton Road, London, The Hospital for Consumption, Brompton Road, London, The Samaritan Hospital for Women, Marylebone Street, London, Mullers Orphanages, Ashley Downs, Bristol, The West of England Blind Institution, Exeter, The Royal Eye Infirmary, Plymouth, The Taunton and Somerset Hospital, Taunton, The South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital, Plymouth, The Devon and Exeter Hospital, East Southernhay, Exeter and The Railway Benevolent Institution, London This money, using the retail price index means Ephraim was worth over two million pounds !

He left the business to his cousin John Brewer, (who was the son of his aunt, MaryAnn) and the Meeting Room, upon trust that he should grant a lease to the Plymouth Brethren for twenty years and that he shall covenant with the leasees or lease to keep the exterior of the building in good repair and to do all necessary outside painting once in every three years, to keep the premises insured against loss or damage by fire in the sum of £300 and not do anything on his own adjoining land which might be a nuisance or annoyance to the said Brethren when using the said room and subject to the lease the said meeting room shall be held by the said John Brewer for the use of himslef, his heirs and assigns free from any duty. John's son Charles Brewer was the last of the line to carry on the rope making business.

Other relatives mentioned were Mrs E B Wills of Victoria Villas, 234 Friern Road, East Dulwich, daughter of my cousin, John Yeo, Dinah Beater, daughter of my cousin Mrs Susan Beater (Susan was the daughter of William Yeo & Susannah Hearder), Annie & Maud Crews, daughters of my mother's sister, Mary Crews, (nee Mary Newman), Samuel Reginald W Yeo, son of my late cousin, Samuel Yeo, (Samuel was the son of William Yeo & Susannah Hearder), and Mrs Thompson, daughter of my late cousin Mrs Martha Moon (who was drowned at sea with her husband). Martha nee Newman was the daughter of Eliza's brother, William Newman.

Ephraim requested to be buried in Ramsgate Cemetry alongside his dear wife, Jessie.

Curiously the only reminder of the Yeo ownership of Rope Walk and the adjoining cottages was this small plaque on the back wall of one of them.



Many thanks to :-

Michael & David Yeo, sons of the Reverend George Henry Yeo, MBE, Ann Philippa Rowe, nee Yeo of Bristol, daughter of Stanley Colston Yeo, for sharing their family history and William B Lister of Southport, Merseyside who provided the information on the Newman Family relationship to Samuel Yeo..

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  © 2003-6 Sheila Yeo | For more information on the Yeo family and the research contained in this site email sheila@yeosociety.com or call me on +44 (0)1626 360978