Coopers Company
Newcastle upon Tyne

The Work of the Cooper

Traditionally, a Cooper is someone who makes wooden staved vessels of a conical form, of greater length than breadth, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper's work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins, and breakers. The word is derived from Middle Dutch kupe, basket, wood, tub and may ultimately stem from cupa, the Latin word for vat.

Everything a cooper produces is referred to collectively as cooperage. Cask is a generic term used to describe any piece of cooperage containing a bouge, bilge, or bulge in the middle of the container. A barrel is technically a measure of the size of a cask, so the term barrel-maker cannot be used synonymously with cooper. The facility in which casks are made is also referred to as a cooperage.

Traditionally there were four divisions in the cooper's craft. The dry or slack cooper made containers that would be used to ship dry goods such as cereals, nails, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. The "drytight" cooper made casks designed to keep dry goods in and moisture out. Gunpowder and flour casks are examples of a drytight cooper's work. The white cooper made straight staved containers like washtubs, buckets and butter churns, that would hold water and other liquids, but did not allow shipping of the liquids. Usually there was no bending of wood involved in white cooperage. The wet or tight cooper made casks for long term storage and transportation of liquids that could even be under pressure, as with beer.

Sometimes - in more modern times - the profession of the cooper is specific to wineries, where the cooper would look after the aging barrels in which the wine is stored.

While plastics, stainless steel, pallets, and corrugated cardboard have replaced most wooden containers and largely made the cooper obsolete, there is still demand for high quality wooden barrels, and it is thought that the highest quality barrels are those hand-made by professional coopers. Examples may be seen in the cooperage at Seguin Moreau, a cooperage which was incorporated into the House of Remy in 1971 for the express purposes of providing barrels made of Limousin oak. Limousin oak is renowned for the rich vanilla-like flavor it imparts to cognac. Remy Martin will then produce Remy Martin Grand Cru in these barrels with a retail cost well in excess of USD $1500 per bottle. Therefore, a single barrel may be expected to hold nearly a quarter of a million dollars worth of cognac, thus providing an insight into the value of a professional cooper.

Sometimes, rarely today, coffin-makers are known as coopers.

Article and photographs based on Coopers (Profession) on

The Coopers of Newcastle

A record of The Coopers Guild first appeared in 1426, according to the date of its incorporation though the Company may have been in existence for about one hundred years before this date. Three barrels and the tools required to make them form the armorial bearings of the company.

Barrels were a vital method of storing goods and anything that needed preserving or storing for periods of time such as fish and butter as well as the more usually imagined commodities of whisky and beer, needed a barrel.

The heyday of coopering seemed to be between late mediaeval times and 1840. According to company records, after this date, company members seemed to start finding alternative employment.

The local demand for barrels supported some hundreds of coopers and the company was one of the largest in the city. At the turn of the 20th century, a skilled cooper could still earn about £5.50 per week, which was double the average wage though with the advent of new methods of storing goods using pre-fabricated, factory-made metal containers, coopering activity started to fall.

The Coopers Guild seemed to develop high levels of social activity. This can be noticed when checking through the business activities of the Guild. Individual Guilds might be involved in participation of events in the city's calendar. Social activities must have developed and there must have been frequent close social relationships between members of the Guild. For instance, marriages within the Blenkinsop family to offspring of other Coopering Freemen have been frequent. The Marriage of John Blenkinsop to Mary Elliott of Chester-le-Street in 1800 was a marriage between children of two Cooper Stewards. The third child of this marriage, Michael Blenkinsop, married Mary Arthur of Heddon at Newburn in 1828 and further demonstrates that coopering work was not a final limit to Guild sociability. Such a relationship developed the pairings of the names Elliott and Arthur with Blenkinsop as a frequently reused name-form as became the Victorian fashion.

The Guild used to largely run itself through its calendar of Yearly Meetings usually held at locations of where beer was available in those days. There is an impressive collection of minutes of the Guilds in the Records Office at Blandford House, the abode of Tyne and Wear Archives. Although most of the early records are written in the almost undecipherable Secretary Hand, records here may be comfortably read post 1700.

The Coopers Company was incorporated into the Gild of Freemen in around 1425.

Our Head Meeting was and is still set on the first Monday following Corpus Christi, a date which normally falls in late May or early June, depending on the date of Easter, and attendances of approaching 150 for a Head Meeting were common.

Social events outside of normal company business were, until recently, fairly common and recent adventures include a visits to Theakston's Brewery, Hexham Races and a particularly memorable Tyne Cruise (due mainly to the somewhat inclement weather).

Strong family names include McGill, Blenkinsop, Oxnard, Young and Arthur.

Most probable date of Incorporation: 1342

Senior Steward:

David J. Hughes
3 Dunholm Close

The First Lady Freemen in 900 years... is a Cooper!

On Monday April 12th 2010, at a ceremony in the Guildhall on Newcastle's historic Quayside, women where admitted to the Freelage for the first time in over 900 years, and the first Lady Freemen to be sworn in was a member of the Coopers Company of Freemen, Ms. Nina Luena Blenkinsop.

In another first for the City of Newcastle upon Tyne and, in particular, The Coopers Company, on July 29th 2010 triplets Dr. Helen Blenkinsop, and her sisters Elizabeth Blenkinsop and Catherine Crocker were sworn in at a ceremony in the Silver Room at Newcastle Civic Centre in front of Lord Mayor Brenda Hindmarsh.

Helen, a clinical psychologist, Elizabeth, a lawyer, and Catherine, a primary school teacher, were watched by their parents as they held a musket and Bible and signed the oath.

Catherine, whose husband is also a Freeman, said: "We're really please and excited to be here. It is an honour to be able to carry on the family tradition."

The family's relationship with the Freemen of Newcastle can be traced as far back as 1757, when the triplets' ancestor John was sworn in on April 21. He was apprenticed to Michael Hymers, a Newcastle Cooper, for seven years and became the family's first Freeman.

Read the full story here.