The trade related surnames Cooper and Hooper are very common in Britain, thanks to the vast number of men that once worked in these vanishing professions. The list of commodities once packed into barrels included ale, fish, tar, meat, butter, vegetables, spices and even items of clothing – so it isn’t surprising that in former times, there was plenty of work for our ancestors in this trade. The lesser known hoopers were, in effect, skilled assistants to coopers, and were responsible for binding together the shaped wooden slats (known as staves) with wooden or metal hoops. Breweries once employed thousands of these workers. Records show that in 1900 there were nearly 7000 breweries in England and Wales alone, plus countless more in Ireland and Scotland.
Unfortunately, finding employment records can prove difficult. A lot depends on whether a man’s former employer still exists, and if the management bothered to retain any records. It must be remembered that to keep the industry running, it was necessary to regularly take on new employees, including youngsters who wanted to learn the trade. Though apprenticeship records can prove useful, some lads were only taken on temporarily or as unofficial trainees. Most of these would begin their first day at work with the traditional initiation ceremony of being placed in a large open wooden barrel, to be rolled three times around the brewery or workshop to the sound of whistles, claps and noisy banter from the other workers. Luckily, even if documentation is sparse, group photos of workers are quite common in the early 1900s, so it’s always worth looking for them on Google Images.
A good potential source of useful information is coopers’ guilds and incorporations. The National Archives lists a number of related records at http://tinyurl.com/ mnn3jw5. Unfortunately, the TNA’s search system can be quite frustrating at times. When looking for coopers, for example, the Discovery results page shows only ‘hits’ for the word ‘Cooper’, without distinguishing between personal names and professions. This means you’ll need to trawl through unrelated results to find relevant ones. A more specific list of coopers’ guild records can be found at http://tinyurl. com/m9mxhoy, and if you’re looking for very early records (up to 1754), you might want to take a look at the Board of Stamps Apprenticeship Books which can be purchased online from the Parish Chest genealogy site – see http:// tinyurl.com/ ksr5w3c. See also the Worshipful Company of Coopers website ( www.coopershall.co.uk) for some history
and information on how your ancestor may have been able to gain admittance to this London livery company.
Fortunately, details of Scottish workers should be easier to find because north of the border, coopers and hoopers continued working long after the industry went into decline elsewhere. You can find out about Scottish coopers at www.tradeshouse.org. uk/14-incorporated- crafts/coopers, and there is an interesting article about the profession on The Scotsman’s website at http://tinyurl.com/meaubw8. In addition, the National Library of Scotland has a number of records relating to the Leith, Edinburgh and District Coopers ( http://tinyurl.com/ycfny9s7).
RAISING A BARREL
America led the way in producing machine-made barrels, but in Britain, handmade ones were considered the best. Firstly, the wooden ‘staves’ would have to be bought from woodland workers who had roughly pre-shaped them. After being left to dry, they
To keep the industry running, it was necessary to regularly take on new employees, including youngsters
A cooper making barrels and casks at Whitbread Brewery in the 1930s.
18th century draymen carrying a barrel made by a ‘wet cooper’
‘Trussing up’ using temporary wooden hoops
The process of ‘topping’ using a cooper’s short handled adze
Shaping the ‘head’ or barrel top