Me Hop Picking in Kent Fuchsias
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Much has been written about the annual migration of Londoners to the hop gardens of Kent but it wasn't just the folks who came down to Kent by train from the East End who relied on the hop picking season to earn a few pounds.

During September the local women (and children) worked in the hop gardens too, although rarely in the same ones as the Londoners. Hop picking provided a much needed boost to the family income. The whole family, except father if he was already in regular employment, went hop picking. Each year our new school uniforms were purchased from money my mother earned. We children received no payment, all the money went to buy clothes and other essentials for the family.

hop garden before picking begins Picking would begin at the beginning of September and last up to 4 weeks. On a cold, misty morning we'd leave the house at 6 a.m. to walk across the fields to the hop gardens. (In Kent the fields where hops grow are known as 'gardens')

The hops 'bines' grow from a crown producing tendril-like growths. Up to a dozen of these growths are encouraged to grow up strings which are stretched up to a network of 10/12 ft. high poles and wires set out in rows across the field. The mature hop garden has rows and rows of green tunnels (alleys) along which the pickers worked.

The hops were picked into a large 'bin', approximately 7 ft long, made from two ends, crossed poles of wood, joined by two side rails, extending at the ends to form 'handles, which supported a long sacking bag. One bin would be used by an entire family or, with a sacking divider half way down the bin, shared with another family group. Mother, Grandmother and all the children worked. Only babies were exempt from picking!! As soon as they could hold a branch they were old enough to pick, often into an upturned umbrella or biscuit tin if they couldn't reach into the bin! The bins were moved along alternate alleys, giving each picker two rows of bines.My family hop picking

At the sound of the measurer's whistle picking began with the pulling of bines. A good hard tug on a bine will break the strings and bring the course hairy branches crashing down to the ground (often showering everyone with dew or raindrops as well as thick yellow pollen).

The pulling of bines was often accompanied by the crying of children as the pollen and water came into contact with tender scratched skin.

The bine was laid along the side rails of the bin and the hops (the flowers of the plant) were stripped off and thrown into the bin.

Care had to be taken not to pull leaves off with the hops as they had to be picked out (cleaned) from the bin before the measurer and tallyman arrived to remove the hops by scooping them out with a bushel basket. Each basket full of hops was counted and noted in the tallyman's book against the name of the picker. When it was known that the measurer was working his way across the hop garden the pickers would bury their arms deep in the hops, lifting and dropping them back into the bin (fluffing them up) in the hope that they would take up more room in the measurer's basket. He, of course, knew that trick and would shake the sacking bin to settle the hops down again before he began to scoop them out!

As each bine was stripped the heavy bin was lifted and moved down the alley. Meal breaks of sandwiches and tea/coffee from flasks were taken in the middle of the day and family groups settled beside the bins. No matter what was in the sandwiches they were always tainted with the bitter tang of the hop pollen!

hop garden at the end of the picking Once the children had picked their quota they were allowed to wander off through the hop garden and surrounding fields to play.

By noon the misty morning had often cleared to a bright, hot, sunny day. Hot children grumbled about wearing wellington boots and raincoats were dropped beside mothers working in the shady alleys.

Through the afternoon the hop garden rang with the sound of children at play and mothers gossiping across the bins to their friends and neighbours.

At 4 p.m. the call "Pull no more bines" was heard and the day's work was over. Coats, bags and children were gathered together in preparation for the trek back home in time to prepare the evening meal before dad arrived home from work. Weary children were bathed and tucked up in bed for a good sleep before the 6 a.m. start to another misty morning in the hop gardens.

Oast & barn near Matfield, Kent By the late 60s the old ways were gone. The bins disappeared. Machines had taken over the work of the hand pickers. The shreaks and cries of children playing and women chattering were echoes in the wind as it blew along the empty alleys, drowned by the putter and roar of tractors as men pulled the bines and heaped them onto trailers to be towed to the machine sheds.

Now the bines are hooked onto conveyor chains and passed between ripping wires which strip hops and leaf alike from the bines. The only job left for the women is to sit alongside a conveyor belt on upturned boxes and stools, picking out the shredded leaves as the hops and litter pass by on the way to the drying oasts. They can no longer hear the gossip of their neighbours over the clatter of the machinery. Children are not allowed in the sheds so they are left at home in the care of grandparents or older siblings.

When I wake on a September morning to see the mist swirling across the fields, I know in my heart that by noon the day will be fine and sunny and my mind wanders back to those "Hopping mornings" of my childhood.

(c) Connie Evans - September 2000