The lowly hop is all around in Kent, in the fields, on pub signs, on linen and on all manner of things in souvenir shops. Its origins seem a little uncertain, some sources saying that it is indigenous and originally used as a herbal remedy, while others tell of it being brought from Flanders. At one time, the new shoots of "wild" hops were sought in the hedgerows to be used as a vegetable on the table of local labourers. Wherever it came from, it found its home here in Kent and has prospered as a cultivated variety since the time of Henry VIII. There were concerns about its introduction into brewing at that time although it seems to be fairly widely accepted by the reign of Elizabeth the First. The City of London made an appeal to Parliament at the beginning of the 17th Century against the use of hops claiming that, "this wicked weed would spoil the drink and endanger the lives of the people". There were also complaints about hops during the Commonwealth period but then there seems to have been complaints about most things during that time. There were even suggestions that the production of cider would be more healthy than the growing and addition of hops into ale. That would have turned Kent into another Somerset - heaven forbid!! However, like most things that produce income and make people wealthy, the hop had its foot-hold and remains to this day, still endangering the lives of people like me! One of the main benefits of growing hops in Kent is not only the soil but the fact that the sweet chestnut grows abundantly and quickly in Kent. As the hop is a vine and needs to be trained up something to grow at its best, the fact that there are ample supplies of sweet chestnut trees that can be cut for hop poles is an added benefit in Kent.
These days hops are cut and picked by machine but it was not so long ago that all this was done by hand. I rather think that the change came about in about 1960 when the machines started taking over. Prior to this hopping was very labour intensive from planting to harvesting. From the cutting of the poles, "stringing" of the actual field, at one time done on stilts, to the harvesting, all manner of local and casual labour were employed. With the coming of the railways, more and more Londoners fed into Kent during the picking season and lived in camps of wooden huts adjacent to the fields. At one time the railways would actually put on special hop-picking trains to distribute all these casual labourers and their families into the Kent countryside. I have often wondered how many baptisms of London children took place in Kent over the years. It might not be a significant number but possibly an area to investigate for those genealogists who are missing a connection where the family is known to have lived in a poorer area at one time and the birth would have taken place in late Summer. There's some that might say that baptisms would have waited until the workers returned to London but the "Victorian" way of doing things, especially if a child was sickly, was to have the baptism completed as soon as possible. Following WWII, when life started to become more prosperous (or perhaps train travel became more expensive!), the exodus of Londoners to Kent dwindled and the slack was taken up by local Kent families until the machines arrived.
A real "hop-picking" morning is a familiar saying for anyone who has lived in Kent in the typical farming areas. A morning when the sun rises a shimmering fiery orange globe from the low mists which roll around the willows along the banks of the River Stour. When the smell of the damp soil is pungent and the spiders webs hang heavy with dew in the hedgerows and sparkle with the brilliance of a thousand diamonds. Overhead there is the sudden swish from the wings of the speeding wood pigeons as they set out to feed in the corn stubble and the melodic song thrush can be heard pouring out his heart to the World from his vantage point on a nearby chimney.
The air is crisp and the light breeze cool, a portent of the frosty mornings yet to come when the long grasses at the edge of the fields will be adorned with the clinging lace of hoar frost bending their tops to the ground. The hop fields are fragrant with the heavy smell of the hop flowers and the bines are so thick with leaves to the point where the poles that support them, which are so obvious on the landscape in the Spring, can no longer been seen. Surrounding the hop fields are the rows of poplars with their twisting, fluttering leaves that whisper back to the wind. Inside the hop gardens themselves, under the canopy of the bines which compete with each other to reach the sun and the light, there is a sinister darkness only broken occasionally by a sudden stabbing shaft of light where a bine has broken or failed to grow. The rows seem endless, the narrow hills on which the plants were started, disappear into the distance and the dark and the sounds of the outside World fade away, muffled by the intense growth of the bines. There is a hush, a moment of peace, almost ethereal.......
At one time Kent had over thirty thousand acres devoted to the growing of hops although what that figure is today, I have no idea. I suspect somewhat less although if someone would care to enlighten me, I would be obliged. Certainly, since the sixteenth century when the hop was introduced to England, Kent and beer, it has been an important commodity and vital to the local economy. As a writer by the name of Thomas Tusser once said in his abstract about hop growing:
Meet plot for a hop yard, once found as is told,
Make thereof account, as of jewell of gold.
Now dig it, and leave it the sun for to burn,
And afterwards fence it, to serve for that turn.
These days, like so many other things, hop picking is fully mechanised which means that a whole legacy of words and phrases have disappeared from the local language. What child now knows what a bushel is? It is, for the aid of the uninformed, a measure of quantity being eight gallons and was the size of the baskets in which hops were hand picked. These bushel baskets were then placed into bins. Sections of the hop gardens were looked after by "bin-men", a kind of foreman, who would as a badge of his rank carry a long pole tipped with a sharp hook which he would use to cut the bines away from the hop-twine that supported them. At regular intervals during the day while picking was in process, the contents of the bins would be collected and emptied into hop-sacks to be taken to the oast house for drying. This process would be supervised by the "tally-man" who was usually the farm bailiff and would keep a running total of the number of bushels picked by each person or family. As a child in the hop gardens, you would be in trouble if you got caught misbehaving by one of the bin-men, but Lord help you if you were caught by the tally-man!
Prior to mechanisation, most of the picking was done by local casual labour but it wasn't so long ago that hundreds of Londoners would make the trip into the Kent countryside for about three weeks every year to stay in small wooden shacks or huts on the hop farms to do the picking. It was an annual vacation for which they got paid.
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