Orwell and other writers' treatment of hop-picking

Writers on Hop-Picking
By Ron Bateman

Reproduced from The Orwell Society Newsletter, No 1, available by post – in print form – to members of the society (membership page here).

Many people who either grew up or have ancestral roots stretching into south or east London are likely to be familiar with stories about ‘hopping.’ Such tales refer to the annual migration of thousands of Londoners to the Kent hop-fields every summer to enjoy the country air and to earn a few extra shillings. Inevitably, with the passing of time, eye-witness accounts of this fascinating micro-element of our social history will become increasingly difficult to find, and this makes it all the more fortunate that a valuable cross-section of reminiscences are available through the eyes of some of the great writers of the twentieth century. Interestingly, the chronology of these accounts reflect some interesting changes with regard to the sections of society the pickers were drawn from, the changes in their working conditions and the regulations to which the pickers were bound.

In his hugely successful autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham wrote of a hop-garden as one of the sights connected with his boyhood, and regarded oast-houses as ‘the most typical feature of a Kentish scene.’ Maugham, who grew up in Whitstable in Kent, was referring to the 1890s, when much of the picking was still done by local people. He sketches ‘hopping’ as an easy, carefree time when after-hours activities were as important as the job itself: folk looked forward to it for months as the best of holidays, arriving in carts with bedding, pots and pans, chairs and tables; the work was not hard, and for the children it was a long, delightful picnic. At night it was a pleasant sight to see a line of fires with families grouped round them. Families often had the same hut every year, long, low sheds divided into little rooms about 12 feet square, with beds consisting of a thick layer of hop-bine, on the top of which, was a coating of straw and a blanket.

The organisation of ‘the hoppers’ was done with almost military precision. As a rule, they were up by five in the morning and were divided into bin companies, usually of around ten pickers. Each company had a bin-man, whose duty it was to supply it with strings of hops at their bins (the bin was a large sack on a seven foot high wooden frame and long rows of them were placed between rows of hops). A call-off by the sounding of a horn was made for breakfast at eight, then again for dinner at twelve. Hoppers talked and laughed as they picked, sitting on chairs, stools or boxes, with baskets by their sides. At intervals the measurer went his round from bin to bin, accompanied by the booker, who tallied-up numbers of bushels picked. As each bin was filled it was measured out in bushel baskets into a huge bag called a poke; and this, the measurer and the pole-puller carried off and put on the wagon. Calling-off time depended on the drying capacity of the oast-house. After the picking was over, the men strolled down to the pub for a well-earned beer, while the younger men would meet the maidens and wander about the lanes making love. The hopping season was generally followed by weddings.

Maugham wrote of the resentment of local pickers towards the intrusion of those whom they regarded as ‘foreigners” from London. The ‘respectable country folk’ looked down upon the ‘foreigners’ as a rough lot and generally shunned them. The women would boast that they could pick twice as fast as ‘them foreigners’. They also tended to brag about the number of bushels they had picked in a day, but complained that you could not make money now as you did in former times when you were paid a shilling for five bushels. Each year the rate had continued to rise until it was eight or even nine bushels to the shilling. Good pickers could no longer earn enough in the season to sustain themselves or their families for the rest of the year. By the late eighteen-hundreds, ‘hopping’ had come to mean no more than a free holiday, with no real profit to show for any labour.

By 1902, American sociologist and Call of the Wild author Jack London had arrived on
the hopfields of Kent. In his study of east-end poverty entitled The People of the Abyss,
he wrote:

“So far has the divorcement of the worker proceeded that the farming districts, the civilised world over, are dependent on the cities for the gathering of the harvests. Thus it is, when the land is spilling its ripe wealth to waste, that the street folk, who have been driven away from the soil, are called back to it again.”

London had joined what appeared to be an annual mass migration of tramps from
the slums of Whitechapel and Stepney, all hoping for employment in the hop-fields.
He estimated that Kent now required eighty thousand tramps to pick her hops and out they came – from the slums, the ghettos, dragging their squat, misshapen bodies along the highways and byways, obedient to the call of their bellies.

Already, a poor summer and terrible storms had severely reduced the yield, and for
weeks, notices had appeared in the newspapers: tramps plentiful, but the hops
are few and not yet ready.

Jack London first made the acquaintance of a ‘hopper’ in the queue for the dosshouse
or ‘spike.’ When asked how much he might make through hop-picking the man
replied that plenty of people are too slow and made a failure of it; ‘to succeed a man
must use his head and be exceedingly quick with his fingers. He and his old woman
could do very well at it – working one bin between them for years and not going to
sleep over it’. ‘I ’ad a mate as went down last year, it was ’is fust time but ’e come back wi’ two poun’ ten in ’is pocket, an’ ’e was only gone a month, ’e was quick, ’e was just naturally born to it ’e was’.

London was shocked that a man who claimed to be ‘naturally born to the job’ could
earn just $12.50 for a month’s work, in addition to sleeping out without blankets.
When the picking finally began there was another hailstorm that stripped the hops
clean from the poles and pounded them into the earth, while the hoppers sheltered
from the stinging hail in their huts. Deprived of the opportunity to earn a few pennies,
they turned away from the ankle-deep carpet of sodden hops and ‘padded the hoof’
back to London. It was not to the starving vagrants, but to the owners that newspapers
devoted columns of sympathy, where losses amounted to between eight and ten thousand pounds.

On another farm, London and his buddy were assigned to a bin recently deserted
by two other men owing to their inability to earn a living wage. ‘Don’tcher pick too
clean, it’s against the rules’ warned one woman. London was told he would get a shilling
for seven bushels; if he wanted a ‘sub’, he could only have advanced to him a shilling
for twelve bushels. This was a method of holding the picker to work, especially if the crop ran bad. After working for three and a half hours London and his pal had earned
fourpence-farthing a piece – a little over a penny an hour.

In August 1931 George Orwell set out for the hop-fields on foot from central London,
begging for food and sleeping in doss-houses en route. Eventually, he managed to
cadge enough money for the tram to Bromley then progressed on foot to Sevenoaks,
stealing apples, plums and potatoes and cadging broken bread whenever they passed
a baker. They arrived at a farm, but were refused a job as the farmer could not provide
them with sufficient accommodation. Government inspectors had been scouting
around to see that all hop-pickers had proper accommodation. This prevented hundreds
of unemployed people from getting jobs in the hop-fields and meant that farmers
could only offer jobs to people who lived locally. Orwell writes that one woman was
given a job on the pretext that she had accommodation, but she was actually living in a
tool-shed in somebody’s garden; she slipped in after dark and out again before daylight.

When Orwell did find employment, he quickly became alive to the dodges: “The experienced pickers swell the bulk of their hops by putting in just as many leaves as the farmer will stand for. They pick like lightning and shake all the hops up so they lie loose in the bin. We were generally on our feet ten hours a day.”

Other hardships were plagues of plant lice and the damage to ones hands, stained
black with hop juice which only mud would remove. After a day or two hands cracked
and were cut to bits by the stems of the spiny vines. Orwell observed that the laws
about child-labour were ‘utterly disregarded’ and some of the pickers drove their children
pretty hard and claimed to have seen children as young as six drop down and fall
asleep on the ground. There was also a song that women and children used to sing –

Our lousy hops!
Our lousy hops!
When the measurer comes round
Pick ’em up, pick ’em up off the ground
When he comes to measure
He never knows when to stop
Ay, ay, get in the bin
And take the f***in lot!

The pickers were paid twopence for each bushel they had picked. ‘A good vine yields
about half a bushel of hops and a good picker can strip a vine in ten minutes.’ Unfortunately, the hops varied enormously, being as large as small pears on some vines and hardly bigger than peas on others. The bad vines took longer to strip and were generally more tangled and it sometimes needs five or six of them to make a bushel, and there were all kinds of delays, for which the picker got no compensation. Then there was also the question of measurement. Orwell noted that the hops were soft like sponges and it ”was easy for the measurer to crush a bushel of them into a quart if he chose. With all these difficulties one can’t earn 30s a week or anything near it. The piecework system disguises the low rate of payment. I calculated that I earned about 9s a week.”

New pickers had been given a printed copy of the rules, which were designed to
reduce the picker to a slave. According to these rules, a farmer could sack a picker without notice on any pretext whatever and pay him off at eight bushels a shilling instead of six. If a picker left his job before the picking was finished, his earnings were docked the same amount; “you cannot draw what you have earned and then clear off because the farm will never pay you two thirds of your earnings in advance and so you are in debt until the last day“, wrote Orwell. Also the bin-men were paid wages instead of being tied to the piecework system and these wages ceased if there was a strike, naturally they moved heaven and earth to prevent one. Many of the illiterate pickers brought Orwell their books for reckoning up. In a number of cases he noted that mistakes were made in favour of the farm, which had a mean little rule that complaints would only be dealt with when all the pickers had been paid-off, meaning those with buses or trains to catch never claimed what they were owed.

The hop-pickers observed by Orwell appeared to be of three types – East-End costermongers, gypsies and itinerant agricultural labourers with a sprinkling of tramps.
The local home-dwellers picked at odd times, merely for the fun of it, and on the last
morning there was a queer game of catching women and putting them in the bins. Orwell outlined his experiences in his essay Hop-picking, and also drew heavily upon them when constructing his second novel A Clergyman’s Daughter, in which Dorothy, the novel’s central character, attempts to escape from her life of drudgery and falls in with a crowd of street urchins ‘paddin-the-oof ’ down towards the hop-fields of Kent, begging for scraps along the way. When they eventually arrive at the hop-fields, they encounter a Mrs McElligot who opens their eyes to the stark political realities of the day that impinged upon the casual labourers in search of work in the fields.

“In de ole days when you come down hoppin’ you kipped in a stable an dere was no questions asked. But dem bloody interferin’ gets of a Labour Government brought in a law to say no pickers was to be taken on widout de farmer had proper accommodation for ’em.“ This was characteristic of Orwell’s early development as a novelist where the general storyline was often overwhelmed by the politics. Yet his descriptions through Dorothy of life among the pickers stand as valuable reminiscences on their own merit.

“It was exceedingly easy work. Physically, no doubt, it was exhausting – it kept you on your feet ten or twelve hours a day, and you were dropping with sleep until six in the evening – but it needed no kind of skill. Quite a third of the pickers in the camp were as new to the job as Dorothy herself. Some of them had come down from London without the dimmest idea of what hops were like, or how you picked them, or why. One man, it was said, on his first morning on the way to the fields, had asked, ‘where are the spades?’ He imagined that hops were dug out of the ground.”

The novel continues with highly detailed descriptions of a typical day spent hoppicking,
including a selection of hop-pickers songs that were ‘as much a part of the atmosphere as the bitter scent and the blowsy sunlight.’ Orwell spent 17 days in all picking hops.

Throughout that time, he kept a diary which provides a fascinating record and was only finally published 29 years later under the title of ‘Hop-Picking.’ In their early biography The Unknown Orwell, Peter Stansky and William Abrahams illuminated ‘the exceptional qualities’ of this example of his earlier writing; particularly the ‘sense of happiness that pervades it’. Despite all the squalid details – the bed-bugs, the faecal stink, the vile food, the ill-paid, exhausting work and the sordid living conditions etc, etc, one still takes away the impression from Orwell’s account that it was an enjoyable, rather than a miserable experience.

By Ron Bateman, reproduced from The Orwell Society Newsletter, No 1


One thought on “Orwell and other writers' treatment of hop-picking

  1. Reading this brings to mind my own experiences of hop picking. In the mid to late sixties and newly married, I worked on a large mixed enterprise farm in Herefordshire, which had a substantial acreage of hops. (1 hop acre= 2/3rd’s statue acre). Hereford and Worcester were well known for their hops. The principal of growing hops was similar to Kent, with detailed differences, taller posts and wires and stringing was done from the ground with long poles and not on stilts, as in Kent.
    The pickers came mainly from Birmingham and surrounding areas. They would descend round about the middle of Sept. Many,if not most were unemployed, evidenced by a mass desertion every Thurs. to sign up again for the dole! They lived in the sheds on the farm “en famille” and work would start at 7.30 in the morning ’till 5/5.30 in the evening. They were a pretty rough lot, but I don’t recall any major problems in the hop yards. What happened at night may have been a different story! Unlike Kent in the thirties, most of the work was by mechanical means. Tractors and trailers were driven down between the rows of bines, which been cut from the base prior to them being pulled down from the overhead wires by the tractor and trailer, the trailer having a substantial post at the front where 2 people stood and around which the bine was wrapped. There may have been as many as a dozen units in the yards. This did vary depending on how many got out of bed in the morning and precious few on Thurs.! The tractors and there loaded trailers would then drive to the picking shed and the bines were then fed into the picking machines. The waste was left outside to turn into green manure and the hop “flowers” would be dried, packed into large hessian bags and dispatched to market.
    I have no doubt that the tradition in Hereford and Worcester was no different to Kent in the transition from manual labour to more mechanized ways of doing the job. The ritual of hop picking being the same in both areas and worked by the same types of working class people. I will always associate “autumn mists and mellow fruitfulness” with hop picking and the unique smell of hop flowers, which can transport you in an instant, if you come across it by chance. Incidentally hop picking was of such importance financially to the income of the farm that all else took second place. It was a high octane 3/4 weeks that griped everyone involved, except the casual staff, who had a more laid back attitude.
    During the 70’s and 80’s most of the hop yards were pulled down due to the high cost of production and the cheaper imports of hops from elsewhere. There is a move afoot to replant the traditional hops of yore, but they are being grown in the manner of vines. To construct an original hop yard would be prohibitively expensive.


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