PETER FROST remembers the annual trips to help out with the hop harvest that formed part of working-class life for decades
My late father-in-law Fred was born in 1911. His dad died in the first world war trenches and his mum had a hard struggle to raise her family in the mean streets of Paddington.
Yet the whole family always managed a long country holiday in the countryside of Kent, the garden of England.
No it wasn’t secret wealth, nor some charitable benefactor. The family did what thousands of London working-class families did between the wars and indeed right up until the 1960s.
They joined the army of working-class people who went to harvest the hops that were such an important ingredient in the making of good English beer. They went ‘opping down in Kent.
Fred remembered it in a wonderful song.
We alway go a ‘opping
a ‘opping down in Kent
The missus and us kiddies
All living in a tent.
They all say ‘opping’s lousy
and we believe it’s true
we only come down ‘opping
to earn a bob or two.
Now the ‘oppings nearly over
and all our money spent
sometimes we wish we’d never gone
A ‘opping down in Kent.
The whole street would go with Fred. Mum, grandma, his sister as well as many neighbours. The hop farm would arrange the transport by lorry, by train or if they were really lucky even by charabanc.
Hops don’t grow in fields or orchards. Traditionally they are always grown in hop gardens. The fast-growing annual vines scrambled up a network of very tall poles and ropes and when the hops were ripe the vines were cut and pulled down by men on impossibly high stilts.
The vines were stripped of the hop flowers by hand by huge gangs of women and youngsters. The hops would be dried over coal fires in the distinctive conical oast houses.
The London hop-pickers camped in bell tents or crude huts. They slept on straw palliases, ate rabbit or perhaps – when the land owner wasn’t looking – pheasant stew cooked over a wood fire, washed down with plenty of local ale, cider or ginger ale for the children.
There was fresh milk, eggs, butter and cheese from local farms and good fresh local bread and home-made pickle from the farmer’s wife.
This was luxury food, very different from Fred’s family’s normal meagre diet back home in Paddington. No wonder that for many of the hoppers and for Fred it was the time of their life.
Not all the facilities were salubrious, as Fred remembered with a chuckle – and again in another verse from the far from polite ‘opping song.
When you use the karsey
Just be careful where you sit
You’ll have to watch your balance
Or you’ll fall down in the shit.
Still, right up until his death he would remember those wonderful summers in the countryside away from the dirt, grime and unrelieved poverty of working-class London. These were summers when it seemed the sun always used to shine.
For the hop farmers, and often the farms were owned by the big brewers, this was cheap seasonal – and sometimes underage – labour.
Today the few Kentish hops that are still grown are picked and stripped by machine. Most English beer is made with imported hops or more usually with compressed hop pellets or hop extract.
Our brewers find bigger profits using Czech or Oregon imports. Oast houses are mostly now expensive residential conversions.
But cheers, Fred! We are still singing that wonderful song.
There are a large number of places in down in Kent where the spirit of hopping still lives on. Kent Life is a living museum at Sandling near Maidstone. There are many hop related displays – go to http://www.kentlife.org for more details. The Hop Family Park at Paddock Wood was once brewing giant Whitbread’s own hop farm and one of the biggest in the world.Find out more at http://www.thehopfarm.co.uk.
This article was first published in the Morning Star, November 2013