Let’s Go A-Hopping
And it’s not like skippin’or jumpin’
Turkey, Heresy, Hops and beer
Came into England all in one year.
Bullet, Perle, Northern Brewer, Goldings and Fuggles are grown in gardens, never fields. They are a member of the nettle and mulberry family and loosely related to the cannabis plant. Their shoots can be consumed as a salad, their golden resins used in tanning and a small bunch of the pungently perfumed flowers tucked into a pillow is said to ensure a good night’s sleep.
But it is the aromatic resins and essential oils found in the papery yellowish-green female flowers from the cultivated European hop (humulus lupus) which, when added to beer, gave it a characteristic bitterness, providing a counterpoint to the rich sweetness provided by the pure barley malt.
Hops were originally brought to Britain by the Romans, but for centuries only a few were grown on a domestic scale; the traditional drink was a sweet ale consisting of water, barley malt, and yeast, sometimes spiced with heather, thyme or cloves.
In 1525, during the reign of Henry VIII, experienced Flemish agriculturists came with improved varieties of the plant, beer making equipment and knowledge, introducing to the British ale drinkers the superior flavour and aroma of hopped beer. The tannin in the petals acted as a type of preservative, keeping the brew around fourteen days instead of two.
Initially there was hostility to the growth industry of these ‘wicked weedes’ for theological reasons. They were looked upon as a Protestant plant because they had originated from the Low Countries where there had been a rise in Protestantism.
Farmers began to realise that drinking hopped beer was becoming popular; two gallons a day ‘was considered necessary for the well-being of man,’ therefore good money could be made from this rapidly expanding industry as an acre of hops was reckoned to bring in more profit than 50 acres of arable.
But hops were tricky to grow, being vulnerable to blight, wilt, pests and damp. An old Kentish rhyme sums it up:-
‘First the flea, then the fly,
Then the mould, then they die.’
The soil had to be right, moist, but not heavy, as E.J Lane explains in his book, The Hop Farmer, ‘It is only when the clay and sand join, shake hands and become mixed up together, that culture pays the farmer well for the expense and trouble of poling.’ A popular saying was, ‘A dripping June puts all things in tune.’
Hops thrive best in south facing, nitrogen rich, well fertilised ground. Farmers often used to bring in large numbers of cattle, feed them well with linseed cake, and use the rich farmyard manure for their hop gardens. Unsold herring or mackerel from Rye fishermen and truck loads of ‘shoddy,’ waste from woollen factories, the price determined by the nitrogen content, were all dug into the ground. As the hops wound their way up the coppiced sweet chestnut poles, reaching upwards of sixteen feet high, they were tied and trained across supporting wires. Being one of the most light sensitive plants known to man, everything in the annual cycle of hops is dictated by daylight length. In Britain, regardless of the weather, they always reach maturity around the end of August and early September. At every stage from planting to picking the whole process was labour intensive.
As the industry flourished, many Kent and Sussex farmers recognised the need for more labour during the 4-6 weeks of autumn picking than the family and local hired hands could provide. And so evolved the idea of ‘hopping holidays.’ At its height between the 1920’s and 50’s, thousands of people, mostly women and children, many from London’s East End, whom locals often looked upon as ‘furriners’ made their annual trek to the countryside for their working holidays. All the household pets came too and that often included chickens, rabbits, even horses and donkeys. Whole families would leave their soot-covered two-up, two- down terraced houses to enjoy the fresh air and the camaraderie. Although hop picking was hard and dirty work, with accommodation in old railways carriages, or tin ‘hopper huts,’ meals being cooked over open fires and eaten outside, this still proved to be a powerful attraction, with family groups returning year after year on the only holiday they could afford. They depended on the money they earned to buy the winter comfort of coal and warm clothes, and three week’s of intensive picking of the pungent flowers from the graceful drooping clusters, could clothe a whole family.
When pickers were needed, word spread by various means. In the Kentish town of Faversham the local Town Crier would walk the streets ringing a bell and shouting, “Oyez, oyez, hear ye, hear ye, hop picking will commence at Homestall Farm on Wednesday morning next at 7.30.”
Some farmers received letters asking for bins to be reserved.
An enquiry to one Sussex farmer stated,
Dear Mr. Thompson,
I hear you be dead. If you be dead I be very sorry. If you ain’t dead will you please let me have a bin for hopping as usual?
Your humble servant,
In early August regular, reliable pickers received invitations from the farmers, the thrilling clatter of hop cards coming through the letter boxes guaranteed an allocation; so popular were these working holidays that a black market developed in stolen of forged hop cards.
When the hops were ready for picking, the roads leading south out of London would be thronged with lorries piled high with hoppers sitting amongst battered suitcases, tin boxes and bundles tied up with rope. Crowds would gather in eager anticipation at London Bridge station where ‘hopper special’ trains ran in the early hours of the morning. Others came by charabancs and those that couldn’t afford transport, would walk, pushing prams and makeshift carts piled high with their luggage. Gypsies arrived in their colourful, horse drawn vardos, continuing with their seasonal farmwork, from helping with lambing, gathering potatoes, turnips and sugar beet, to pea, redcurrant, raspberry and strawberry picking. They all travelled to the hop gardens in any way they could, with one aim in mind, to harvest the crops from late August to mid September and earn as much money as possible in that time.
Accommodation was basic, the facilities primitive; some farmers did no more than spread plenty of straw in their biggest barns and erect thatch partitions. Others provided old army bell-tents or ‘hopper huts,’ which were unheated, small sheds with leaky corrugated iron roofs. Often there was no running water, clothes were washed in a stream, and toilet arrangements were crude.
Any newcomer to the hop gardens would be met by one of the pickers, who would proceed to rub the visitor’s shoes with a handful of hop leaves, and suggest that his ‘footing’ should be paid for with ‘shoe money.’ Old hands, often called ‘scratchers,’ taught the newer pickers the right way to select and pick the ripe ‘cones’.
South Londoner, Brian Lynn, could recall his childhood hop picking days in the late 1940’s and 50’s as being “a wonderful time.”
“My father used to put our huge family trunk filled with pots, pans, bed linen, clothes, chamber pots, hurricane lamp and food, onto a barrow and wheel it down to New Cross railway station on the Friday night. Saturday morning, me, my mother and three brothers would go to catch the train to Pembury station and the barrow would still be there, contents untouched. Other pickers from our area would go by covered lorry. It would stop at the end of the street and the driver would hoot the horn. All the hop pickers would rush out clutching their bundles and climb on. It had no seats, everyone sat on the floor and the tailboard would be pulled up. The dads would go to their jobs during the week and come to the hop farms at weekends. We lived in rough terraced huts with rudimentary beds with bales of straw provided to make mattresses. Mum bought mattress covers and made them very comfortable to sleep on. We brought plenty of food because the only shop around made a mint of money out of us hop pickers. Our diet was supplemented by a bit of sly poaching of the odd chicken rabbit or pheasant. Breakfast was cooked in pots hung over open fires lit by faggots. Little corrugated iron cookhouses provided some shelter in bad weather. One of the first jobs we kids had to do was to collect our faggots from the big faggot stack.
“Hop picking started at 8am, the morning air was often sharp, the grass wet from heavy dew. All the family pitched in and us kids would be dressed in our hop picking clothes, macs if it rained, with our trousers tucked into the tops of our wellies. Some of the little ones would have old socks, or cut down black school stockings, pulled onto their hands by their mums to protect them from scratches from the rough vines. Canvas hop collecting bins stood in each aisle between the rows of hops and we’d all start picking. Periodically a binman carrying a long pole with a sharp knife on the end would come along and cut down the tall hop vines for us. Laying them across the bins we would quickly pick off the flowers, never the leaves.’
Payment was made for the number of bushels picked; even the smallest children could earn a little pocket money by putting their pickings into open upturned umbrellas or small buckets before being added to their mother’s bins. Vocal encouragement from one pushy grandmother was, “Go on Rosie, you lazy little cat, pick them hops up. I’ll warm your ass if I get up to you.” Prams were kept near working mums, toddlers would play around or sleep away part of the long day, for the scent of hops has a soporific effect.
Since hop stains were impossible to remove from clothes, many of the women had ‘wrapper aprons,’ made from old hessian sacks, or they wore overalls, colourful aprons or pinafores. Dark stains on hands were best got off either by washing vigorously with soap and runner bean leaves or rubbing with pumice stone. In the constant push to pick as much as possible people often brewed tea on their meth’s stoves and ate their strawberry jam sandwiches as they went along, even though all the food tasted and smelt of hops. Others, having stood for hours, chose to take a welcome 30 minute break to sit down and eat.
Brian Lynn added, “The fathers who worked during the week would come down at the weekends and we’d all go to the local pub on Saturday nights. Kids weren’t allowed in the bars, so we’d gather outside with our lemonades and crisps, mess around a bit and wait until our parents decided to come home. The dads left late Sunday and we’d go back to playing up mother, fishing in the local ponds, picking blackberries and scrumping apples. My dad occasionally used to slip me a couple of pound notes, emergency money, he called it, which I hid in one of my shoes, but they fell to bits from the damp and sweat.”
Two to three times a day, a whistle would blow, signalling that the Bushel Man was coming along with a measuring basket to check the filled canvas bins. He kept a running record of how many bushels each group had picked, either by marking ‘tally sticks,’ issuing ‘hop tokens’ or filling out their card. The freshly picked hops would then be put into long sacks called ‘pokes’, which would be gathered together, loaded on wagons, and transported to the oast houses. These were round buildings with conical shaped roofs and white cowls, where the delicate flowers were dried and pressed. At the end of the season the sticks or tokens were exchanged for wages.
When each day’s work was done the only entertainment was nightly singsongs around the blazing camp fires, or swapping a bit of gossip. The evenings often ending with lively dancing to the strains of concertinas or tambourines.
After a period of just six weeks the work was finished. On the last day many farmers would invite all their pickers to a traditional Harvest Supper. Apart from spit roast pigs there would be mountains of sandwiches, hundreds of jam tarts stamped out to be filled with strawberry jam, home made cakes, hot sausage rolls, and huge jacket potatoes baked in the ashes of the oast house fires, split open and oozing with butter. There was rough local cider, beer and stout for the adults, squash and lemonade for the children. The women would turn up in colourful summer dresses, the little girls in party frocks, their hair tied back with pretty ribbons. After supper there were often games to be played, then everyone pitched in to sing popular favourites like, ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’ or ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.’
Once the tally sticks, hop tokens or marked cards had been cashed in, usually by the women to make sure their husbands didn’t drink it away, the hop pickers would celebrate their last day by mass invasion of the local pubs. My dad was the landlord of the ‘Hare and Hounds’ in the Sussex village of Flimwell, on the A21, a popular meeting place for the pickers. As an ex -Metropolitan police officer he was made of tough stuff and quickly sorted out any troublemakers. His precious flock of 100 or so chickens grubbed around in an adjacent orchard. They were well protected from number reduction by the presence of 2 bad tempered white geese, a vicious anti-social bronze cockerel that attacked anything on two legs, with back up from 6 loud voiced guinea fowl that would screech in alarm if their territory was invaded.
As the huge Public Bar filled up, and after liberal quantities of strong drink had been consumed, the fun began; through the haze of cigarette smoke and the sharp smell of spilt beer, the dull smell of sweat, the cheerful chatter turned to laughter, singing and dancing. One year, after an over-enthusiastic rendering of ‘Doing The Lambeth Walk’ which also involved much foot stamping, my father hurriedly emerged, ashen faced, from the cellar below the bar, convinced that the floor was in imminent danger of collapsing, as the floorboards were bouncing and buckling from weight above. This came to a sudden halt as the bar door was thrown open, and over the top of all the noise, a screechy voice could be heard singing, ‘I’m only a beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame.’ There stood a lady of mature years, dressed in a colourful frock, with a wooden toilet seat she’d ripped out from the ‘Ladies’ draped around her neck and a tiara of hop flowers in her shaggy hair.
By 10.30pm the pub had to close, that was the rule then, and the local bobby, who’d been hovering around, in case of trouble, saw to that. Sleepy children were gathered up, and with much merriment the pickers made their noisy way back to their respective farms.
And then they were gone; heading home on trains, carts, charabancs or on foot, laden with butter, eggs, apples and blackberries. The hop fields were deserted, exposed and barren, the skeletal bare poles surrounded by heaps of discarded vines. But next year they would all be back for more ‘hopping holidays.’