BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 28th February 2000 (p.1 & p.7), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: COOPERAGE

Cooperage is the craft of making and repairing wooden casks, or barrels, a trade which according to Pliny had originated amongst inhabitants of the Alpine valleys by at least Roman times. As a means of transporting produce, a cask is easy to control by rolling even when heavy. The familiar barrel-shape is obtained by enclosing a circlet of identical vertical curved staves within horizontal hoops, narrower at each end and reaching the greatest diameter in the middle.

Wooden pails - known in the Peak as kits, tubs and churns come together under the term 'white cooperage', while casks are described as either tight or slack. Well-seasoned oak has always been preferred for making tight casks as used for wine, cider, ale, oil, and liquid chemicals. Over the course of the centuries, slack casks have been used for transporting and storing a vast variety of produce from fish, china or fruit to cement. Slack casks have tended to be made from softer woods, mainly fir, and require less accuracy to assemble.

By contrast, tight casks have to be perfectly watertight as well as being capable of withstanding internal pressure produced by fermenting liquids. To this end, the edges of each stave are bevelled to form tight joints with those adjacent. During manufacture by traditional methods, the bevelled staves are first steamed or heated to make them flexible before being arranged in an upright position inside a circular frame. Encircled with temporary hoops, the upper ends are drawn together, formerly by a rope attached to a windlass, then permanent truss hoops - generally made from iron - are dropped into place. The cask is upturned and the process repeated, each end having been shaped with a croze or groove to provide a tight fit for the flat 'heads'.

Early trade directories list coopers as being in business in numerous villages and towns of the Peak. In 1857, for instance, Ashbourne, Wirksworth and Cromford each had two, while single coopers were at work in Youlgreave, Bakewell, Bonsall, Hartington, Tissington, Elton, Stoney Middleton and Wensley. Half a century later their number had been reduced dramatically with only nine in the whole of Derbyshire, including one each at Wirksworth and Ashbourne.

Progress has seen the manufacture of barrels without separate staves, using instead a sheet of wood sawn from a log in one continuous strip. By cutting V-shaped wedges around the ends, the barrel can be shaped to bulge at the centre. In more recent times steel has been used to make both straight-sided and barrel-shaped casks.

One historical anecdote refers to wooden casks put to treasonable use on the outskirts of the Peak District. Secret messages hidden in Burton beer barrels were sent to Mary, Queen of Scots, held in captivity at Wingfield Manor. This desperate tactic was part of the conspiracy which led to the execution of Anthony Babington of Dethick and ultimately of Mary herself in 1587.

From Haddon comes the later story of a massive tree known as 'My Lady's Oak', felled in Haddon Park in 1728. The bark was sold to a Bakewell tanner for £5.15s. then four cords (one cord = 128 cubic feet) of top wood were removed. The remainder, an estimated 960 feet of solid wood, was purchased by Henry Green of Whittington and Thomas Gardom of Baslow for £5.16s. They sold a couple of lengths and the rest was hewn into cooper's ware by Robert Jenkinson, who managed to produce '914 large bottoms, 500 kit bottoms, 460 each of pannel piecings and short ware, 160 piggin bottoms and 3360 kit staves'. After paying Jenkinson almost £6 for his labour, Green and Gardom were hardly left scraping the barrel, financially speaking, as they pocketed a net profit of around £74.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th February 2000.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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