In 1298, London’s coopers – skilled men who made casks – were hauled up in front of the authorities and fined “for contempt of King and Mayor” because they’d single-handedly introduced an ordinance to raise the price of cask hoops to one penny each. The rebellious nature of this first mention in the history books was reflected in the traditional robust apprenticeship initiation ceremony known as “trussing the cooper”. Largely unchanged over the centuries, this process was captured between 1948-1965, in these images from the TopFoto archive.
For at least 700 years master coopers and apprentices were as numerous and indispensable as farmers or soldiers. With a combination of brute strength and delicate craftsmanship, they created the containers that made the world’s storage, transport and trade possible, from beer to herrings. Their craft was so essential for the Navy that coopers were rated as petty officers and reported to the ship’s carpenter, for making and repair. Get it wrong on a voyage and either the ship would be unsteadied by shifting casks or the rum rations would drain away, both of which were regarded as calamities.
Back on land, apprentices would start aged fifteen and train for seven years. Records date from 1488, when twelve were registered on the princely wage of twenty pennies each.
Today you can count the number of master coopers in the UK on the fingers of one hand. One of these, Alastair Simms, completed his five-year apprenticeship in November 1983 and was “trussed” in the ancient ceremony that today’s new model army of business apprentices certainly won’t be expecting. The earliest coopers would have felt right at home, however. First he was bundled into the cask he himself had made. Then he was drenched in water, covered in soot, feathers, shavings, beer and syrup. After being rolled around in the barrel, he was dragged out only to be thrown up into the air three times, then levered back into his barrel before finally emerging, beaming, to be confirmed as the newest master cooper.
After WWII the demand for coopers fell steadily and in 1965 even mighty Whitbread called time on apprenticeships as metal replaced wood. The last Whitbread apprentice to be trussed was James “Jim” Pettengell, 21, from Bromley. As was common, he was from a family of coopers and his older brother George helped train him.
The photographs from the TopFoto archive give enough information to follow part of their story. Two years after the photographs of James’ ceremony were taken, the Pettengell brothers emigrated to the USA with their hard-won skills. They became the master coopers at Colonial Williamsburg from 1967 to 1999, the last classically trained London coopers in the world turned into guardians of heritage at a “living history” museum. From 1971, only four people completed apprenticeships (and, one hopes, their trussing ceremonies) with the Pettengells. Why so few? Well, the long-term commitment was not for the faint-hearted, plus jobs seemed uncertain beyond supplying props for the occasional historical movie.
Fortunately, new demand for craft beers and whiskies together with increasing commitment to both taste and social responsibility are carving new channels for coopers. There were 16 apprentices for a four year course at the Coopering School, Clackmannanshire in 2020. Treacle, soot and shavings optional. Cheers.
By Flora Smith
Article commissioned and published by Perspective Magazine, June 2021 perspectivemag.co.uk. Perspective offers high quality journalism from some of the UK’s best writers. We focus on the issues of the moment, and through our unique monthly surveys reflect the range of views on them.
About the archive
TopFoto is one of the world’s great independent photographic archive, based in Kent since 1927. In 2020 they were awarded a Cultural Recovery Grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to protect their nationally significant collections and adapt to changing market conditions. TopFoto images are available to be licensed for publishing, academic, creative, film and documentary uses. Find out more at topfoto.co.uk