Until the 1950’s, H&G Simonds was a vertically integrated organisation with almost every business function managed ‘in-house’. This included the traditional manufacture of the casks needed to store and transport draught ale. In the early days, brewers used so much timber that they were often also Timber Merchants. The name ‘Cooper’ dates from the 14th century when many families took their trade name as their family name. The Coopers yard was located at the very back of the brewery, next to the horse’s stables and backing onto the canal. See the view in the Timeline images of 1895. Coopers were a small but elite department of highly skilled craftsmen, whose trade was steeped in tradition and with at least a 5 year apprenticeship. It had its own specialist vocabulary with ‘bellies and bungs, cants and chimbs’ involved in making wooden staves, usually of oak, heating them to soften for pliability, trussing with metal hoops, dressing out and then topping with a heading knife. Hey presto a barrel – but all made by eye with specialist tools that have not changed in 500 years and the barrels were always the same volume! These images from our archive demonstrate the key stages in barrel making. They are sadly not the same barrel or even quite sequential, but do show the process:
Often joining the trade straight from school at or before the tender age of 16, they served 5-7 years as an apprentice Cooper, until they were capable of producing whole barrels to exacting standards. Young Coopers then had to undergo the initiation ceremony known as ‘Coming Out’ or ‘Rolling Out’ to become a ‘Journeyman Cooper’. These images record the process for 21 year old Maurice Cooper following his 7 years apprenticeship. He was initiated at the Reading Brewery, in March 1953.
Maurice is manhandled into the barrel that he has made, by his colleagues.
Maurice is covered in a ‘muck’, usually made of ‘Pompey juice’ which is the goo that collects in the bottom barrels as they are steam cleaned, with added soot, feathers, shavings & even beer. They are then rolled ceremoniously round the Coopers yard before the outside of his barrel was hammered by a dozen strong-armed coopers.
They help him out, to be christened a qualified Journeyman Cooper, a practitioner of the ancient craft of barrel making.
My father, Duncan Simonds, then Managing Director, presents the proud but mucky lad with his ‘Coopers Indentures’.
Maurice, now smartly suited, stands with his proud father, Maurice Butler senior on his left. They are joined by Mr Ron Staunton to whom Maurice junior has been apprenticed for 7 years!
Coopers past and present at the celebration. Front row on the right is Ron Champion who was there from 1930’s to 1970’s. Next to him is Terry Winterbourne. I am told that the last two Journeyman Coopers to pass out were Roy Hodges and Terry Winterbourne.
That still left the barrel to be steam cleaned and put into service! When the Coopers Yard was demolished in about 1979, there was no call for Coopers at the huge new ‘Reading Brewery’, then the largest in Europe, which used only aluminium kegs. But the tools were saved and put on display there, where they remained for 30 years till its closure in 2009.
When they were passed to a brewery museum – I think in Staines? Can anybody fill this gap or offer better images please?
The End of Wooden Barrels
When the switch was made from wooden casks over to metal casks – the story goes that there was a meeting to come to a decision on what casks were best, chaired by the head brewer Mr Hollibone and it was split 50/50. Mr Hollibone as chairman had the casting vote. The meeting took place in a first floor room, above the brewery yard. He opened the window and rolled the Aluminium cask out followed quickly by the Stainless cask and then asked for them to be collected and taken up to the meeting. The Aluminium cask split and the Stainless cask was intact but dented, so he said; ‘well its the Stainless casks then!’
For the record: Wooden beer casks are denominated by their volume in gallons – though this did alter slightly down the ages:
Pin 4.5 gals,
Kilderkin 9 gals,
Firkin 18 gals,
Barrel 36 gals,
Hogshead 54 gals.