England’s Vanishing Arts

Last Friday the i featured England’s last cooper, Les Skinner, 72  who is about to retire and sell his business in Liverpool. The trade was once at the heart of Britain’s trade, as they produced barrels for food and drink, whale oil so was a huge industry, and one of the last of the guilds in the provinces.

“A barrel is a wheel… Even if it weighs half a ton, you can roll it,” said Mr Skinner. Cutting the wood, normally chestnut or oak, making he staves and jointing and hammering it all together, normally takes up to 5 hours for  a40 gallon barrel and costs around £450.

Mr Skinner, who at one time employed 6 men, has kept the business afloat by making decorative barrels and supplying Hollywood with props, including casks needed for films such as Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Assassin’s Creed. His work will also feature in a new film King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, due for release later this yer.

His 5 year indentured apprenticeship certificate still sits proudly on the wall of his workshop, which will close when a buyer is found for the site on Canal Street in Bootle.

Around 200 coopers still trade in Scotland, but once he retires it leaves only 1 other cooper in England, Yorkshire-based Alistair Simms.

Mr Skinner added: “It’s a shame, really, I talked my son into going into something more technical and permanent. It’s hard, physical work.”

Other trades at risk:

Tanning – demand for leather continues, but most of the work has moved abroad where labour costs are lower. Also, it’s a really smelly industry so not popular with neighbours.

Clog making – Jeremy Atkinson in Herefordshire is thought to be England’s last clogmaker in England.

Roof thatching- a few thatchers remain in Wales – heritage industry employs some, others on repairing old cottages. When poor people gleaned the fields, straw was a free roofing material.

Trug making – Sarah Page of Herstmonceux, Surrey, learnt from older villages how to make trug baskets. They have a chestnut frame and willow boards. She knows of only 6 others, and expects the trade to die out. 

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