Friday, 9 January 2015

Class war on the hop front

Having been to a few hop farms I must confess I've always thought that hop picking looks like a shit job. I could be wrong though, I do know a brewer that takes a holiday every year to go and pick hops. Still, one thing I am certain of is that it was definitely worse when hops were picked by hand. Reading about what East Enders put up with when they went to the hop farms of Kent shows things must have been really tough back home if they though it was an improvement.

When George Orwell did his brief stint as a hop picker in 1931 things were better than they'd been in previous decades but conditions were still harsh:

"When one starts work the farm gives one a printed copy of rules, which are designed to reduce a picker more or less to a slave. According to these rules the farmer can sack a picker without notice and on any pretext whatever, and pay him off at eight bushels a shilling instead of six – i.e. confiscate a quarter of his earnings. If a picker leaves his job before the picking is finished, his earnings are docked the same amount. You cannot draw what you have earned and then clear off, because the farm will never pay you more than two thirds of your earnings in advance, and so are in your debt till the last day.The binmen (i.e. foremen of gangs) get wages instead of being paid on the piecework system, and these wages cease if there is a strike, so naturally they will raise Heaven and earth to prevent one."

The Encircling Hop by Margaret Lawrence includes the list of rules sent to hop pickers coming to the Whitbread owned Beltring farm, one of which is about striking:

"After the tally has been set, and not dissented from, anyone going on strike, or leaving work during a strike, or leaving work before it is finished, will be paid off at one penny per basket"

The fear of strikes and the measures taken to prevent them suggest that they did occur and I finally found an account of one in a book a mate got me for my birthday.

The Hop Bin is an interesting collection of articles covering the history of hop picking in Kent and Sussex. Included is the reminiscences of someone who manged a hop farm in Faversham, which mentions a stirke, and well, well, the workers won it:

"Now I worked for a family company that had been hop growers for about five hundred years. My governor's father was a major, and his father was a 'Sir'. Now they do say that the old grandfather had a problem about what they were going to pay the pickers. The pickers had a strike. And the grandfather went up the hop garden and said 'Don't stop but I'm not going to pay you any more.' Now that night they reckon the pickers went up to the big house and they collared the old chap and they put a rope under his arms and they dropped him in the well and held him just above the water. And they said 'If you don't give us any more money on these hops we'll drop you down into the water'; and he said he wouldn't so they dropped him in the water. When they pulled him out the second time he said he'd give them the extra money. So they evidently got round their little problem by that method."


  1. If anyone asks me to define class consciousness, I'll show them that story - especially the last sentence.

  2. My dad and his family went hop picking in Kent when he were a lad, will have to see what he remembers of it.

  3. Fascinating stuff. The past is often rose tinted regarding working class life. Most drama that mentions hop picking in kent as a working class holiday for londoners makes it out to be a fun jaunt.

    Funny how the minute the working classes got a bob, they knocked it on the head and pissed off to benidorm.

    1. Yes, the 'holiday you got paid for' line doesn't fit at all with the many reports of awful conditions and very hard work. Though they did keep coming back.

      Though hop picking's now mechanised hop farms still get in some seasonal workers that live in caravans on site. They all seem to come from Eastern Europe.

  4. Nothing like a bit of mob rule, eh?

    1. The workers' direct action certainly seems to have been effective.

    2. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but from what I understand of the industry, hop-growing could be a perilous and very hit and miss affair, affected by the vagaries of the weather, disease etc. It’s very much a case of putting all ones eggs in one basket and farmers, like many other businessmen, must at times have suffered from poor cash flow. Hence not paying the workforce in full until the harvest was over.

      I like the quote from George Orwell; a man known to enjoy the odd pint and also a staunch supporter of traditional pubs!