The Cork-Cutter’s Trade

Cork, obtained from the bark of a type of oak tree that flourishes around the Mediterranean and Portuguese coast, was valued for a variety of uses including as a wine bottle sealer and for the inner soles of shoes. In England, the first cork-cutting workshops started to operate in London at the end of the 17th century. The interest in cork-cutting spread and, during the 18th century, workshops were established in many towns throughout Britain (1).

A manual printed in London in 1753 gave a description of the cork-cutter profession: (2)

Cork-cutter.   The Cork he cuts is the bark of a tree we meet with in Spain, and other warm countries; few serve apprentices to this trade; Women are chiefly employed in it, and will earn above a shilling a day in cutting them, at so much a dozen.   Fifty pound will set up a Cork-cutter.

The 1804 publication of The Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts observed that for the cork-cutter’s work "the knives used in the operation have a peculiar construction, and they must be exceedingly sharp" (3).

Illustration of
a Cork-Cutter

The Book of Trades, or
Library of the Useful Arts
London, 1804.

In the above illustration the items hanging from the ceiling are flotation devices or life jackets designed to assist a wearer to keep afloat in water. The text to accompany the illustration stated:

The cork waistcoat is composed of four pieces of cork; two for the breasts, and two for the back, each nearly as long as the waistcoat without flaps. The cork is covered, and adapted to fit the body. It is open before, and may be fastened either with strings, or buckles and straps. The waistcoat weighs about twelve ounces, and may be made at the expense of a few shillings.

Trade cards give an interesting record of the cork-cutter’s business.

Trade Card for the London cork-cutting shop of
Ralph Hassall, showing a sign of three brushes
Ralph Hassall, Cork-Cutter,
At the Three Brushes and
Half-moon over against
Red Lion Court, in Watling
Street, makes and sells all sorts
of Corks, at reasonable rates,
Wholesale or Retail.

date: 1730–1765

from Museum of London
collections online

The 1854 Post Office Directory of Berkshire had an entry for John Dunn, ‘cork cutter, cooper &c.’, 127 Broad Street, Reading (4). His trade card displayed below has an illustration that shows the two trades of the cooper’s work and the cork-cutter’s work side by side.

  Trade Card for John Dunn (late Okey), Cooper and Cork Cutter,
            127 Broad Street, Reading.
            Dealer in Brushes and Door Mats;
            Baskets and Tannery Ware in General;
            Churns manufactured on the premises.
            engraved by Osborne of London.
    from John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera ,
    Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

To give some more story behind this trade card: John Okey, the previous owner of the business, passed away in early 1845 (5). A notice printed in the Reading Mercury on 8 March 1845 gave assurances that the business would continue to operate to a high standard under the direction of his widow Mary Ann Okey: (6)

Mary Ann Okey
(Widow and executrix of the late John Okey)
Cork Cutter, Cooper, &c.
127 Broad Street, Reading,
Begs to acquaint the Nobility, Gentry, and others,
customers of her late lamented Husband, that she intends
carrying on the Business in all its Branches as heretofore,
and respectfully solicits a continuance of that patronage
and support conferred on her late Husband for Thirty Years.
The Manufacturing Department shall be attended to by efficient
workmen, in the hope to give general satisfaction; and, as
usual, a competent Brewer will be at all times ready at a
few days notice to wait on Families requiring one.

In 1849 Mary Ann Okey remarried (7); her new husband John Dunn took over as the manager of the Broad Street shop, as described on the trade card.

  The Corker Family of Cork-Cutters


(1) An informative review of the cork-cutter profession is given by Cheryl Bailey, "Bark’s Requiem: the forgotten trade of corkcutting", Family History Monthly, January 2004, pp. 22–24.

(2) The General Shop Book: or, The Tradesman’s Universal Director, printed for C. Hitch and L. Hawes in Paternoster Row, London, 1753 (Google book online).

(3) The Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts, Vol. 1, 1804, London, pp. 144–148.

(4) Post Office Directory of Berkshire, 1854 (Google Book online).

(5) John Okey, aged 61 of Broad Street, was buried at St Mary’s Church, Reading on 17 February 1845 (Berkshire Burial Index, Berkshire Family History Society).

(6) British Library Newspapers online.

(7) FreeBMD website.

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