Inside the shop, there are stacks of string and twine, jute and bungee cord towering high against almost every wall in the premises, and navigating nonchalantly around the maze of rooms and workshops is Stewart Coates, a fourth-generation rope maker. At 83 years old, Mr Coates moves slowly yet surely around the place, exuding enthusiasm when explaining each piece of machinery to me – although clearly bemused by my incessant questioning of both his personal life and his life’s work.
Stewart’s great grandfather, William Coates, established the firm in 1840. By the turn of the twentieth century he had various premises in the centre of town and at a number of sites in St Ann’s. Back then, the machinery was powered by an innovative bicycle-like method in which a boy pedalled constantly to provide motive power to the equipment.
“What I know,” explains Stewart, “is that my great-great-grandfather came through from Uttoxeter to Nottingham and was rope and twine making. When his son, who probably worked for him as a boy, was seventeen, he decided to set up on his own. That was my great-grandfather.”
In 1903, as steam power was trickling its way into manufacturing, W Coates and Sons moved to Spring Close in Lenton. They established a huge indoor ropewalk, which enabled work to continue even in the bad weather spells. This move considerably increased productivity.
By this time, the company had established itself as one of the premium rope makers in the Midlands. Stewart recounts, “It was in its peak, I think, in the twenties and they employed about 200 people, making lots of string; tennis rackets, tarpaulin and all sorts of things. The factory was steam-powered and it was all done with shafting from the steam engines, not a boy turning the wheel any more.
“The string was sold a lot to the hosiery trade. They used to have cut lengths of cotton twine, there was jute twine which was sold to the garden trade, and there was hemp twine which was used for stitching and bailing. Then the sisal came in which was a rough old string, that came in and knocked a lot of the other stuff out.”
The company manufactured a huge range of products, not just different types of string – over the years it has specialised in tennis rackets, boat sails, marquees, flags and even bunting. It was ever-changing and adapting to keep up with shifting markets, making itself relevant to a new customer base. Whatever they’d make, they were good at it, Stewart explains: “If they were making tennis rackets, then they were known for tennis rackets.”
During the Second World War, supplying tobacco for the troops was seen as a priority and W Coates and Sons were drafted in to provide tobacco factories with products like kneeling mats and tool bags. Later on, as the need dwindled, the only thing they used to buy was a bit of string. “It had to be natural so that if it got mixed in with the tobacco it’d be all right for you to smoke it,” he laughs. “It’s true.”
Stewart now works every day by himself, a position he seems to have become quite accustomed to. “I have no employees, which are very expensive to have nowadays for various reasons; the minimum wage, the insurances, the pensions, the factory act, inspectors and all that lot. Me on my own, I don’t get bothered by all that.”
He talks about his last employee, who worked with him for fifteen years, “I think he was getting quite well paid. He got married and I think his wife was pushing him a little bit. He gave me a letter which I think she’d written for him and it was asking for more money, longer holidays, shorter hours and pay when he didn’t come in.” After giving the letter some thought he decided on a plan of action. “I said, when I’m 65, you can have your redundancy, you can have all the customers you do the work for now cos I don’t want to be doing twice as much as I am already doing. I’ll sell you all the machinery that you need to do the job and ta-ta… [Stewart waves] That was, I think, eighteen years ago, and he’s still trading at Lenton. But I think he’s finding it a little bit more difficult now.”
When I asked Stewart about the most memorable moment of his career, he answered with conviction, “the day that I bought the company from my brothers and sisters.” This was a move that was made possible by a very generous and trusting accountant. He talks about sitting in a meeting with his bank manager and accountant when his bank manager asked him if he had any assets he could put up as security for a loan.
“I said, ‘I haven’t got very much.’ The accountant said, ‘I’ll put my house up as security for him.’
And I came out of there with a cheque book, with a permission to buy all the shares from the rest of the family.” I asked him why he thought the accountant did that, and he replied, “He got confidence in me… You wouldn’t do it now, you wouldn’t get an accountant put his house up now.”
Mr Coates is not a one-man band. His wife, a mathematician who used to work at Rolls-Royce, would help with the rope making. But after one too many splinters from the rough sisal rope, she worked solely on the bookkeeping, which she does to this day. As Stewart puts it, “She keeps an eye on the money. I was brought up in a six-bedroomed house on Derby Road and when my father died, my brother and his wife took it over and they had students, they gave them bed and breakfast. At one stage they had four girls come, and one of those I used to take out for little walks and eventually we got closer and, to cut a long story short, we finished up getting married. That was 1957… before you were born.”
Stewart is clear and straight-talking about the future of the company. “I hope to sell all the machinery, the idea is probably to send all the stock to auction and then sell the property.” He doesn’t wallow in what-could-have-beens, neither does he lay blame at anyone’s feet for the fact that the company is drawing to a close after 150 years of trading. He talks triumphantly about how it’s lasted so long and points out a long hand-written list of companies that W Coates and Sons has outlived. “It’s the trade; things change, nothing stays the same forever.”
Watching Stewart Coates potter around his workshops, it’s clear to me that he wakes up every morning and comes to work for the love of it. I asked him if he has plans to retire any time soon. “I’m slowly moving towards it, but it’s a slow process.” When asked ‘Why?’ he said, “Why? Well, I’ve got no particular hobbies at home in that area, so I’m quite happy to come here and meet people like you.”
This interview is an extract from a LeftLion documentary – come and have a nosey around the W Coates and Sons premises with Stewart Coates as your guide.