Last cooper at Royal Clarence Yard returns to former navy area

Philippa Dickinson, Heather Ewing, Michael Whitaker and Terry Hinkley outside The Old Cooperage at Royal Clarence Yard
Philippa Dickinson, Heather Ewing, Michael Whitaker and Terry Hinkley outside The Old Cooperage at Royal Clarence Yard
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THE last cooper of a yard that provided the Royal Navy with their rum has returned to his former place of work.

Michael Whitaker, 82, built the casks to store rum at Royal Clarence Yard up until 1970 when the ration of the spirit to sailors was scrapped.

It was really good being back at my old workplace, although a lot has changed since my time. ‘There used to be casks of rum everywhere you would look around at the yard although what they’ve done now is great.

Michael Whitaker

And he returned on Sunday during Gosport Open Heritage Days and was given a tour of his former workplace, which is now occupied by Indigo Fire Systems.

Mr Whitaker, who still lives in Gosport, said: ‘It was really good being back at my old workplace, although a lot has changed since my time.

‘There used to be casks of rum everywhere you would look around at the yard although what they’ve done now is great.

‘I served as an apprentice at the cooperage for five years and then worked there for another 16 years. There were only two of us who were there when it did close because of the end of rationing.

‘There was never any room to have a lazy day. It was hard work as we used to be paid by every piece that we made.

‘When we were close to closing, we also did work to help restore HMS Victory and it’s great that my work is in the history across the water.’

Mr Whitaker joined the cooperage as an apprentice in 1949 aged 14 and stayed until it closed 21 years later. He then pursued a career as an engineer in Southampton.

The cooperage at Royal Clarence Yard celebrates its 250th anniversary this year and was founded before the area was used by the navy for making its rum.

Royal Clarence Yard is now the home of many thriving businesses and Royal Clarence Marina is also starting to flourish with Art’s restaurant opening.

Philippa Dickinson, secretary of Royal Clarence Yard open days, said: ‘I managed to get in touch with Michael by chance when I met his brother.

‘We had a great day on Sunday as the sun came out and it was fascinating that Michael still has all of his original documents that his dad had to sign so he could start his apprenticeship.

Terry Hinkley, who grew up in the area, said: ‘The area was used to make rum because there were lots of natural springs in the area.

‘The area used to be jam-packed with barrels, full of smoke and always smelled of the burning fires.’