Hop Pickers

From the archives of my mother’s memory bank our family history includes hop picking in Kent in the 1950’s. She gave me two photographs of her sisters family and filled in the gaps in her own unique way. Thankfully other, family historians have brought this part of my family history to life. To them I offer my thanks, should they ever stumble across this post!

A family of 5 young children with their mother hop pick in Kent in the 1950's. Everyone is smiling and they are surrounded by hop vines.
Hop Picking in Kent in c 1950

Hop Picking In Kent

Today, some in my generation look back to the 1950’s as the “good old days” Then there are those who are able to set aside the comfort of nostalgia to add a “but” to the memories. Hop picking in Kent seems to straddle the reality of both. I don’t believe those happy smiles of my Aunt and cousins are anything but real. The nights may have been cold and listening to the rain on a drafty tin roof would soon lose it’s appeal after a couple of days. Then, if the morning brought clear skies and sunshine, the children would burst out of the huts to run free among the vines and the clean fresh air. So different from the pollution and smog left behind. Then, their dirty skin could take on the sweet smell of the hops and turn a warm shade of copper. Ahh, nostalgia!

Image of train pulling into an open station. The platform is filled with adults and children. Their destination is the hop fields of Kent.
The Hop Pickers Special Train
credit N W Spinks

Back to reality and many stories about hop picking in Kent began with getting on the Hopper’s Special. For the thousands of East Enders who made the annual pilgrimage the choices of how to get there was either in a special train or open backed army trucks. My husband can remember these rolling up to be instantly filled with noisy children, frazzled mothers and men trying to look like they had everything under control. The necessities of life needed for the Kent hop fields were packed into old prams and boxes or stuffed into the back of trucks with a child sitting on each as a mark of ownership.

Of course women will tell you that this is not at all how this exodus started. Around August was the confirmation by Hop Cards in the mail that signaled the escape to the country was a reality for another year. The farmers would allocate huts, keeping families or even streets intact. Previous experience was valued as was an unofficial record of “good behaviour”

After the hop cards came the real work. Everything from cans of beans, Spam, old clothing and blankets had to be put way into “Hopper Boxes” Not an easy task if you take into account that “spare” clothing for poor, working class families was unknown. My own recollections included one pair of shoes, a “Sunday Best”, a school uniform and a play dress. As much of the food preparation and day to day living happened outside the Hopper Huts, old pots and pans were sort after. Jumble sales and pawn shops worked hand in hand. My mother explained that sometimes items went in and out of pawn shops on a weekly basis!

Photograph of a middle aged women outside a Hopper Hut in the hop fields of Kent. The hut is of corrugated iron. The woman is standing beside a washing line attached to the hut.
A Hopper Hut

Hopper Huts

Accommodation in the hopper huts was basic even for the East Enders. Maybe for the women this may have meant less housework? But, if there was any spare time it would have been spent in the hop fields. I have no doubt if they were asked they would have replied that, “A change is as good as a ‘oliday!” I know when we were camping with the kids there was a certain amount of freedom from the mundane that was a welcome change. The first job for the transplanted Londoners was to fill large sacking with straw for mattresses. As you can see in the video below it was a happy, communal effort! Toilets were outside and bathing was of the tin tub variety. Which may not have been so different from what they had left behind. Most huts were made out of corrugated iron which meant cold nights and hot days. Mum said that some women took a few “specials” with them to make it more like home. A little bit of wallpaper, left over curtain material provided them with the illusion of home comforts.

Hop Picking Life

It is impossible for us to really understand the interlude that hop picking had in the life of Londoners. It wasn’t an easy life and as the prices for hops fell in the 1950’s, the pay was low. But, good or bad, thousands regularly left their homes in London for the Kent hop fields. A holiday? A change of scenery? A chance to earn a few extra pennies? The opportunity for the children to enjoy fresh air and green grass? The reasons are as many and varied as the people who went. I believe the hop fields were a time of adventure for the young and, for adults, a brief interlude where social communities were strengthened. Mothers and children were joined in a combined activity that today’s parents would envy. The following quote sums it up.

“We were greedy pickers. “We had to borrow money from a money-lender to come down and we had nothing left at the end once we’d paid for our food, but it was a lovely holiday.”

Hop Picking in Lamberhost” Sept. 2015 by Gentle Author

Kent Hops

The process of hop picking relied on “man” power rather than machines. Men on tall stilts would drop the vines for the women and children to strip of leaves before they went into their bins. A cry of, “Dirty ‘ops” (which added to the weight) was the tally-man announcing to everyone that your picking was not up to standard. The tally-man would then measure and record how much each family had collected. The hop pickers had their own rules in the fields and even though their was a level of competition it had strict boundaries. The pay was not high but it did allow for a few treats for the children and probably a few beers for the adults.

The Good Life in the Kent Hop Fields

Hop Pickers Bible

Most families went to the same hop fields every year. In this way the owners reduced the number of slower, new pickers. From the many photographs of the hop pickers you will notice the absence of men. Having full employment in the city meant their time in the Kent hop fields were reduced to week-ends. Whether they contributed to the tally is debatable. A child picker, Vi Charlton recalled…….

“It was a matriarchal society,” but the men would come down at the weekend and drink away the money the women had earned in the week.”

“Hop Picking in Lamberhost” Sept.2015 by Gentle Author

Hop Picking Bible

Rules for Pickers

“All pickers to pick the hops well and to their employer’s satisfaction, and to be subject to the regulations herein set forth and after the tally has been set they shall remain until the picking is all finished. To pick hops clean from strings and poles and free from bunches and leaves. To be in the hop garden and remain there at the appointed hours. For every breach of these regulations to forfeit one bushel of hops

.

Three line extract from a farmers rules for hop pickers
Extract from Jack Thompsett’s Den Farm, Collier St, Kent

Rules for Hop Field Binmen

In keeping with the times there was no such thing as a “binwomen” If a man from the city was in casual employment this was his opportunity to gain an extended period of employment.

“To be in the hop garden in the morning at the time appointed, and not to leave the hop garden during working hours without consent. To furnish hops to the bins. To look after the pickers and require them to pick their hops well and to see that all hops are picked up from the ground. To get all heads down which may be left on the wires or poles. To attend to and assist the measurers”

Extract from Jack Thompsett’s Den Farm, Collier St, Kent

I can’t help thinking that the clause that dictates that their wages would stop immediately in the case of any strike action by the hop pickers was perhaps the reason that strikes were not a common occurrence in the Kent hop fields!

Hop Pickers and George Orwell

An image of the cover of George Orwell's novel "The Clergyman's Daughter"

I hasten to write that George Orwell is not a part of my family history. However, many years ago I read his book “The Clergyman’s Daughter” As a political writer he wanted to make sure that his understanding of a hop pickers life was told in a true and fair manner. To do this he spent time as a hop picker in Kent. I clearly remember thinking that I was a part of his story through the stories Mum told me. She told how I ran wild around the fields looking like a little gypsy. I had unmanageable curly hair (still do!) and was often mistaken for one of the Romney gypsy’s who were also part of the hop picking community. I would only have been three or four years old at the time and my mother spoke about how she was worried I may get “takin’ off” by them. The two communities did not integrate and the fifties was not a good time in the history of cultural differences.

His novel was a fair recounting of life in the Kent hop fields with no sugar coating. But, he too saw that, in spite of the poor sanitation and low wages, there was something to be valued. As he wrote;

On the last morning, when we had picked the last field, there was a queer game of catching the women and putting them in the bins

Sept.1931 in the Orwell Diaries

With the arrival of machinery and better wages the hop fields of Kent no longer ring to the sound of Cockney songs and children’s’ laughter.. Fortunately, this part of family history is remembered with the reality of what is was but in no way is diminished by it. If you have a memory to share or would like to comment please add it below.

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