Coopers of Stornoway

The key to the expansion of the Herring industry in Stornoway was the ability to prepare,pack and despatch the catch at great speed.

Fundamental to this process was a ready supply of barrels and this could only be achieved with an army of skilled Coopers.

The containers these men made were perfectly suited to the task in these days before mechanisation. A barrel could easily be rolled, stacked and stored ,whether on land or aboard ship. Being made of metal-banded wood, they were strong and resilient, yet well-able to absorb the shocks incurred in their voyages abroad.

An examination of the number of Coopers residing in Stornoway at the time of each census has much to reveal:
             No.     Head    Son    Brother    Bro-in-Law    Nephew    Boarder    Lodger    Other
1841 –   13
1851 –   18         13         1          0               0                 0              0              0             4
1861 –   18         10         3          0               0                 0              2              3             0
1871 –   57         22       18          0               0                 0              8              7             2
1881 –   81         35       18          0               0                 1            14            17             0
1891 – 132         48       27          2               1                 1            22              2            29
1901 – 158         81       19          6               2                 2              9              3            36

The growth in the number of those reporting their occupation as ‘Cooper’ is clear.

The variations in the proportions of ‘Heads’ and ‘Sons’ do not appear particularly significant but what does stand-out are the proportions of ‘Boarders’ and Lodgers’ in the years 1871 (26%), 1881 (38%) and 1891 (18%). In fact, if we allow ourselves the luxury of including the ‘Others’ of 1891 and 1901 as non-domiciled Coopers, then these years return 33% and 30% respectively. This suggests that somewhere around one-third of those practising the craft might have been travelling Coopers, following the fleets around the coast to ply their trade?

In amongst the Stornowegian Coopers of 1881-1901 was my Grandfather’s Uncle, aged 22 in that first year, and, when he retired from being Fishery Officer, my Grandfather himself became a Cooper in Glasgow, although he must have had previous experience of the craft as that was a pre-requisite of performing his Officer role.

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