New book: Life of Irish Ropes founder who put Newbridge on the global map

Eric Rigby-Jones' grandson John talks to Laura Coates about 'Tintawn and Binder Twine'

Laura Coates

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Laura Coates

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laura.coates@leinsterleader.ie

The story of an English WWI veteran who became an industrialist, founded a thriving Newbridge factory which employed thousands of locals over six decades; and pulled out all the stops to keep this country’s rope and twine industry afloat during ‘The Emergency’, is the subject of a new book.

Tintawn and Binder Twine is written by John Rigby-Jones, grandson of Eric Rigby-Jones, founder of the Irish Ropes factory which became world-famous during the 1950s and 1960s for its Curragh Tintawn carpets.
Englishman John is also the nephew of Michael Rigby-Jones, Eric’s successor, who died tragically young in the Staines Air Crash of 1972. This claimed the lives of 12 leading Irish industrialists who were on their way to Brussels for talks about Ireland joining the EU.

“There are a few people still around who remember working at the Ropes in Eric’s time. He was instrumental in founding Ryston Sports and Social Club,” said John, referring to the club, originally for the Irish Ropes factory workers, which survives today. Although none of his grandchildren ever met Eric — Michael’s eldest daughter Gillian was born four months after his death — “his widow, Sarah, our grandmother was a determined woman and she kept his flame alive.”

The front cover of Tintawn and Binder Twine, which will be available later this month

John’s interest in writing his grandfather’s history was sparked upon inheriting a bundle of family letters, documents, photographs and cuttings upon his own father, Peter’s, death in 2006. The trove included some 250 letters that Eric had written home from World War I — which was the basis of John’s 2017 book Best Love To All, which covered Eric’s experiences in that conflict. His research for this book has taken him from family records to the British National Archives… and even to discover redacted documents in the UK’s Ministry of Defence concerning the Irish Ropes founder and the Second World War.

Eric Rigby-Jones was born in Cheshire in 1897 into a family steeped in rope-making tradition. They had moved at the turn of the 19th century from North Wales, where they were flax dressers, to Liverpool, where they became twine merchants. The family started a rope-making endeavour around 1870.

Eric joined the army straight out of school, and served in France in 1917, taking part in the battles of Arras and Ypres. He was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry, and was awarded the Military Cross and Bar by the late King George V at Buckingham Palace.

He was made a director in the family business, H&J Jones, on his 21st birthday — while still serving in the army — and that appointment set him on a path that would last the rest of his life.

The company, which was run by his father Harry, faced an increasingly difficult time in the twenties, but the family built up a valuable business selling rope and twine into Ireland.
“I’m not quite sure how they did it,” said John, “but when the Free State came into existence in 1922, increasingly they were at a risk of losing it because they thought that tariffs were going to be introduced that made it impossible for foreign importers to sell in Ireland.”

Eric and his father started to look at the possibility of building a factory in Ireland, and from 1930 onwards he was in this country most of the time.

Irish Ropes was founded in Newbridge in 1933 with the close cooperation and involvement of the Irish government — which took a substantial financial share in the venture — and in particular then Minister for Industry and Commerce Sean Lemass.
“Eric’s children, including my father, grew up without seeing much of him,” said John. “He was away from his family basically from 1930 to 1937, when he moved his family over to Ireland.” Eric, his wife Sarah, sons Peter and Michael and daughter Ann subsequently lived at Morristownbiller House in Newbridge.

Irish Ropes was founded in the riding school of the old British Military Barracks. Eric’s obituary in the Leinster Leader in July 1952 noted that, at that time, “the floor was of mud and it is on record that there was not one whole pane of glass in the windows. With characteristic zeal and thoroughness, Mr Rigby-Jones set to work to build up his industry. First, the premises were renovated, then the machines were installed and a small staff was engaged and production began.”

“He was clearly encouraged by the government, by De Valera’s government. It seems very strange that my grandfather, who had his commission in the British Army, was encouraged by a Republican government to set up in a former deserted British cavalry barracks. That seems extraordinary to me,” said John.

There is no doubt that Eric had been directed to a specific location to set up his factory. Newbridge had suffered huge poverty and unemployment with the loss of the British military barracks on the Curragh and in the town. Other new local industries set up around this time imported British knowledge and skill, including Newbridge Cutlery — now Newbridge Silverware — which drew steelworkers from Sheffield; and the Irish Last Works, which closed in the 1960s but was set up with shoemakers from Northampton.

Within four years of its founding, the company was supplying nearly all of Ireland’s rope and twine. The lifeblood of Irish Ropes was sisal, the fibrous plant used before the introduction of polypropylene plastic to manufacture these products.

John said: “Sisal came from the British colonies of Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa. So when the war came, the threat to shipping in the beginning made it difficult to get hold of any sisal but Eric managed to stockpile absolutely masses. He stockpiled two years worth of sisal to make sure that the farmers didn’t run out of twine. But then he suffered a major fire which threatened to destroy all of his reserve stocks in the autumn of 1940. And the following year the British got fed up with Irish neutrality and introduced the trade embargo and basically said ‘we’re not supplying you with any more sisal’.”

“He had to look at what else he could do to get the fibre to make twine, and he tried to buy it from elsewhere and that was impossible; he tried to make it thinner and use other materials, and eventually he resorted to growing flax. He got a thousand farmers in County Carlow to grow flax for him to make twine. And it was appalling, it was useless, it was absolute rubbish.”

However, the Irish had a trump card to play. The British had committed to buying the entire Irish flax crop, and in 1942 the Irish government decided to play hardball. They threatened to cut off the flax supply unless they could access sisal.

“And the British immediately turned around and said, ‘no, we want your flax, we’ll give you your full allocation of sisal instead’.

“One Irish civil servant said that Ireland was probably the only country in the world in 1943 to get its full allocation of sisal, but I think that all of these things took their toll on my grandfather, and I think there were several times in the war he felt like giving up.”

Eric’s English nationality and, no doubt, his history of service in WWI, prompted him to try to be of use to the British government during the war.

“As an Englishman, he did turn up one day a couple of weeks after the German invasion of France at the War Office in London and volunteered his services,” said John. “He subsequently had regular meetings with the British representatives in Dublin, the undercover military attache. It’s not passing secrets, he was keeping the British government informed on what feeling was like in Ireland, because I think Ireland at that time, in the summer of 1940, was as much under threat of invasion as Britain.”
Eric’s daughter Ann, who turned 90 years old recently, gave John a visitor’s book from when the family lived in Newbridge — which led to the discovery of an interesting episode from the WWII era. “That showed that Eric and his wife entertained two of the British RAF pilots who were interned at the Curragh camp for the duration of the war. He entertained two of them at his house — one in the same month that the pilot escaped.”

John tracked down the sons of the escapee, however, and learned from an account of his adventure that it was unlikely the Rigby-Jones family were involved.

“It was quite a relief to find out that my grandparents almost certainly weren’t involved in the escape!”

Eric, sadly, passed away tragically young from cancer in 1952. “He’d been badly injured in the first World War,” said John. “In 1918 he won the Military Cross and Bar in the space of six weeks. The second time he was badly gassed and buried alive twice in the same day, and my father said he never recovered.”

The founder did not live to see Irish Ropes reach its real heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. At that stage, its Curragh Tintawn sisal carpets marque, which had started in 1937 but really exploded in popularity after the war, became a prestigious worldwide brand. The company reportedly employed over 1,000 people by the end of the 60s.

Michael, Eric’s younger son and successor — Peter became an architect and lived in England — became a leading entrepreneur and something of a jetsetter, opening offices around the world including on Fifth Avenue in New York.

However, Michael’s untimely and tragic death in 1972 marked the start of a couple of troubled decades for the company. A changing industrial landscape was coupled with the decline in demand for sisal products and a glut of carpets on the worldwide market. Irish Ropes diversified into plastics, and was ultimately taken over by Barlo and its industries subsequently sold off during the 90s. The Whitewater Shopping Centre now stands on what were its factories and warehouses.

Eric Rigby-Jones’ obituary noted that “in his dealings with his workers, he was known as a straightforward, firm and generous employer. They recognised him as one who had their welfare and security sincerely at heart… his widely-mourned passing will be a major loss to Droichead Nua and to Irish Ropes Ltd.”

The Covid-19 restrictions have scuppered an official launch at Ryston of the Tintawn and Binder twine, which is currently at the printers and is due to be available mid-May. However, it will be available from booksellers, including Farrell & Nephew in Newbridge, and John hopes to hold a Newbridge event before the end of the year.

“I just hope that people find the story interesting, that they think ‘I never knew that about Irish Ropes’,” he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Rigby-Jones, pictured above, was educated at Sherborne School and read classics at Oriel College, Oxford. After qualifying as a chartered accountant, he spent 35 years in the private healthcare industry before retiring at 60 in 2015. Since then, he has spent much of his time researching his family’s history and in particular the life of his grandfather, Eric Rigby-Jones, who died before he was born. His first book, Best Love To All, about Eric’s experiences as a young officer on the Western Front, was published by Helion & Company in 2017.