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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).


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

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