Saturday 29 April 2017

Man, 72, to roll out final barrel leaving England with just one cooper

Les Skinner, 72, who is the oldest cooper in England, at his cooperage in Bootle, Liverpool
Les Skinner, 72, who is the oldest cooper in England, at his cooperage in Bootle, Liverpool

It is a skill dating back to the Romans but England's oldest working cooper is bowing out, leaving the country with just a lone barrel-maker.

Les Skinner, 72, is looking to sell up after six decades in the business in Liverpool, one of only two coopers keeping the dying industry alive south of the border.

Once a mainstay of trade as the world's spirits and spices passed through the port of Liverpool, plastic, aluminium beer barrels and containerisation have seen the demand for new barrels, and the repairing of old ones, collapse.

Mr Skinner started as an apprentice in 1960, when Liverpool alone had dozens of coopers for the thousands of dockers unloading the ships before mechanical handling took over.

"A barrel is a wheel," Mr Skinner said.

"Even if it weighs half a ton, you can roll it."

Cutting the wood, normally chestnut or oak, making the staves and jointing and hammering it all together, normally takes up to five hours for a 40 gallon barrel, and costs around £450.

Mr Skinner, who at one time employed six men, has kept the business afloat by making decorative barrels and supplying Hollywood with props, including casks needed for films such as Robin Hood and Assassin's Creed.

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

Around 200 coopers still trade in Scotland, some directly employed by the distillers, but once Mr Skinner retires it leaves only one other cooper in England, Yorkshire-based Alastair 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."

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