COOPER

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th July 1997, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called COOPER?
(Part One)

There is a list containing forty occupations out of which the most frequently occurring surnames have evolved. The sequence varies slightly but "Cooper" is never far from these heading the list. Its prominent position is only to be expected because from the earliest times and indeed well into the present Century a cooper was an important member of every community. It was to him that our predecessors went for their tubs and buckets.

Although vessels made of metal were not unknown during the Middle Ages, they were largely restricted to those purposes where no other material was suitable, and in particular, cooking utensils, where there was direct contact with fire. Advanced technique in metal-work did not develop until the 1600's and metal containers designed for everyday purposes had either to be cast or beaten-out. And anything really large had to be assembled from smaller pieces and usually rivetted.

Consequently where vessels were required for carrying water or preparing foods or storing beverages, the choice of materials was limited. Pottery and glass were certainly available and sometimes used but they were easily broken. Leather was another alternative and leather buckets and bottles were by no means uncommon, but they could never be much larger than what the size of the hides permitted. This left only wood and great skill was shown by the craftsmen who assembled the parts which went into the making of pails, tubs, barrels, casks and vats.

Within the trade itself there was considerable specialisation. Curved and bulging vessels destined for the storage of wine, beer and other liquids had to be constructed with meticulous accuracy. Not only had the long side- pieces, called "staves" to be cut and curved equally all round, but laterally, the radius of each adjoining edge had to correspond with the inner and outer circumference of the barrels. Precise cutting of the grooves at each end was needed to receive the bases and lids and the hoops, if made of metal, as they usually were, had to be shaped in order to rest neatly along the outside curved surface.

Those craftsmen who constructed vessels of this nature were designated "wet coopers" and so were distinguished from "dry coopers". They also made similar types of container but since they were not designed to hold liquids, a tight and exact measuring-up was not vital. Straight-sided vessels, such as churns and other domestic utensils fell to the "white coopers". Strangely enough, none of these designations seems to have generated a specific surname, as, for example, in the case of "Cartwright" or "Goldsmith".

The ultimate origin of the word "cooper" can be traced to a language once spoken thousands of years ago in Central Asia and it took the form "kupa". Basically this word related to the notion of a thing being "hollow" or "curved" and this idea can be detected in words such as "cup", "cave", "cove" and "cupola". In Classical Latin it emerged as "cupa" meaning a "cask" and in the Latin as spoken in the Middle Ages, a maker or repairer of wooden vessels was called a "cuparius" and this passed into English under various forms of spelling.

Unfortunately these varieties have become inextricably confused with surnames of similar spelling but of different origins. These can only be dealt with satisfactorily in a separate feature, which is to follow.

Illustrations of the different spellings abound: in 1415 a York Mystery Play was promoted by "XX Coupers" and in a Latin Dictionary compiled in 1450 the word "cowper" is given as the equivalent of "cuparius". A saying current in Tudor times was: "If you talk of a cooper, I'll tell you the tale of a tub". (1589).

From describing one who manufactured casks and barrels the word "cooper" extended its meaning to include people engaged in the wine-trade - sometimes more specifically referred to as "wine-coopers".

The work also attracted another meaning. Coopers were men who were employed to supervise cargo on the River Thames and they were notorious for breaking into containers and stealing whatever they found useful - rather like certain baggage-handlers at certain Airports at a later date! Anyway in the 1700's to say that somebody was a "Cooper" was, in a way, on a par with a similar turn of phrase, "Isn't he a right tinker!" However this usage did not gain currency until the Mid-Eighteenth Century and it is unlikely to have been the basis of any surname.

The earliest reference to the name occurs in Surrey for 1176 where mention is made of a "Robert le Coupere". The considerable variations in spelling are very early evident. In 1181 there is a "Selide le Copere" (Norwich); in 1296 we learn of a "Geoffrey Cowper" in York. In London (1378) a man called "Walter" is registered under both "Cuppere" and (later) as "Couper" while yet again in York, we find "John Copper" (1424).

After "Cooper" the most commonly encountered variation is "Cowper" and there is sometimes a dispute as to how it is pronounced. The best authority is that of the celebrated Poet, William Cowper (1731-1800) who insisted that his name was spoken as if written "Koo-per".

Of the form "Cooper" the name is widely distributed and there are no apparent areas of concentration. The Local Directories list about 600. In addition to "Cowper" there are "Coopper", "Copper", "Couper" and "Cupper" The name went over to the United States hence Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) "Last of the Mohicans". and also Peter Cooper (1791-1883) who organised much of American Industry. The name has appeared frequently in politics but the names of the Stage Personality Gladys Cooper (1888-1971) and Gary Cooper (1901-1961) are better remembered, especially by our older readers.

To be continued...

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th July 1997.

Are you called COOPER?
(Part Two)

This name has already been the subject of a previous article. There it was shown to have been an occupational name and that there were considerable variations in the spelling. These variations, it was explained, were not always based upon "cooper" meaning "one who makes barrels" but almost as often upon other words of similar form.

These forms have generated surnames in which the original spelling has been supplanted by lettering derived from "cooper". Specific examples will make this point more clear.

Families who are able to lay claim to Scots ancestry and whose name is "Cooper" or one of its permutations, might very well once have been called "Cupar" from the place of the same name in the County of Fife. It lies nine miles to the West of St. Andrews.

The exact meaning can no longer be ascertained, but it is believed to be of Pictish origin. Attempts to relate it to the word "cope" or "copp" - which occurs in several place-names - is, in this case, questionable. It means "top" in the sense of "summit", whereas "Cupar" lies in a river valley (River Eden).

This fact is very evident in that not only does the railway line from Edinburgh to Dundee follow this route, taking advantage of the level terrain, but also that the Town itself stands at the junction of at least five highways. It provided the surname for a man identified as Salamone de Cupir (1245) and it was once heavily concentrated in Fife until about the 1400's and then spread.

If bearers of the name have records which show that their name was written "Couper" or "Couper" then this may very well be where their name originated. The spelling "Cowper", especially if there is a Scots connection, may also be significant.

A source much nearer home, here in Derbyshire, is a village in Lancashire called "Copp". It lies due south of Great Eccleston at the apex of an imaginary triangle projected from Blackpool and Fleetwood. Here its meaning can definitely be established as that of "hill" or "ridge". It is directly related to the words which gave us "cup" and, by extension "cooper", as was described in the previous article. It can quickly be identified also with the German "kopf" meaning "head".

Here the geography endorses the designation. The settlement is within the 50 foot contour line and "Copp" itself stands on an elevation given as being 81 feet above sea-level. Here, the "hill", which in reality is a [arrow ridge, can be liscerned, justifying the tame. Hence a native noving away from 'Copp" could conceivably have been dentified among his new neighbours as "the man from Copp" and, later, as "Copper", which under he influence of similar sounding names could lave modified into 'Cooper" etc.

Although it is not immediately obvious, the surname based on "copper" - that is to say, the metal - also began as a place- name. In the Ancient World the principal source of that mineral was the Island of Cyprus. It was at first known as "the Cyprus metal" or "Cyprium" but by the dates of the later Roman Empire the word had modified into "cumprum".

The passage into English took many forms. The poet Chaucer referred to it as "coper" (1386) and Mallory used "coupar" (1485). Of considerable interest is an inventory of the ornaments of a church in Staffordshire (1552) which includes a "crosse of cooper".

The special interest lies in that there is evidence that both in North and South Wales and in parts of Staffordshire, copper was mined and worked to some extent. Limited as these native sources must have been, there must have been sufficient copper available, either within the Island, or, possibly, imported, to provide work from which relevant occupational names could have emerged.

On one side of the country, in Worcester (1275) we encounter Juliana la Copper and on the other, in Suffolk, there is met John le Coppere and William le Copperer (1327). From down south in London (1212) there is both Richard Coppersmid and Robert Coppersmith And to way up North, in Westmoreland, there is Hugo Coperman (1202).

It must, of course, be a matter of individual research by persons whose surnames can be related to this source, to establish positive facts.

Finally mention might usefully be made of the influence of immigration from the Continent. Refugees at different times settled here and frequently translated their foreign names into an appropriate equivalent. Names such as Kupfer, Kupper, Cuypers, etc. can all be quoted as examples and the form "Cooper" was frequently adopted.

Even taking into account all these innumerable permutations on the name "Cooper" not only in English but in Foreign Form, no outstanding namesake emerges. The only name much encountered in English reference works is that of Albert Cuyp (1620-1691) of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. He was an artist who specialised in the representation of cattle and horses.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th July 1997.

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