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Hops and Hop Picking

 

Although most of the farming was given over to the rearing of livestock many of the farms grew a few hops and had an Oast House. For most working class families the annual hop picking was an important event as this was a means of earning extra cash which was used in many cases to provide winter clothing for the children.

Hop pickers

In this part of East Sussex the school holidays were later than in other parts in order to accommodate the parents who wished their children to help with the picking. It was customary for families to go to the same farms each year and the farmers would send farm vehicles to transport them to the hop gardens. Although not as many in Kent, some families came down from London each year and spent the hop picking period living in 'hopper huts'. One or two local publicans benefited from their visits because on Saturday evenings they would frequent certain pubs for a 'knees up'.

In the stocks

Hops were picked into bins and there were six bins to a set, some families had whole bins whilst others preferred half a bin. Some hops grew up poles and some grew along bines suspended between the poles. Each set had a number of poles and bines to pick before moving on.

There were 'pole pullers' who cut down the bines and pulled up the poles for the pickers. The picked hops were measured out by the measurer using a bushel basket and put into pokes. The tallyman entered the amount picked in his large book and on the picker's card, the tally was usually announced at the start of the picking. About 50 years ago the tally was five bushels for a shilling (5 new pence).

Although it was hard and dirty work it was also a social occasion. Families working alongside each other exchanged stories and jokes and the latest village gossip while the children, during the mid‑day break, ran off together to collect nuts, blackberries and bullaces and some to scrump the farmer's apples. At the end of the break many came back very reluctantly to pick hops into boxes or upturned umbrellas.

The cries that echoed the gardens were "All to Work", "All off' when all the hops in the set had been picked and hops in the bins had to be measured before moving on; "All to dinner`; and then at the end of the day, "No more poles to be pulled today"

The hops were dried in the kilns in the oast house. The hop dryer had to stay in the oast house for several weeks until all the hops had been dried and pressed into large sacks called 'pockets'. His job was a very important one, the price of the hops depending on how well he had done his job. To relieve the boredom some of his friends would visit him on Saturday evenings to partake of a few jars of cider and sing a few songs.

The Vidler hop farm

The best day for the children was pay day when the pickers went to the farm manager's office to collect their dues.

With the introduction of the hop picking machine hand pickers were no longer required and only a few people were employed to pick out the leaves when the hops arrived at the oast house. Very few farms grow hops today.

Extract from a "Georgic" published in 1908

"Meantime from the gay harvest throng apart
High in the oast the drier plies his art.
The loaded wains arrived, he bids them pour
The yellow affluence on the topmost floor,
Heavy with the dews of Heaven. Anon, below,
He stirs the furnace to a tempered glow
And feeds the flame with sulphur's brightening blend.

From the moist flowers the drowsy fumes ascend.
Then hour by hour amid the dwindled heap
For the last proof his feeling fingers creep:
And as the shrivelling stalks show hard and dry
The cooling chamber claims the rich supply.
Thus all conspire to win the common good
With varied skill, but kindly brotherhood.
October brings the toiling garden rest
The oast's last yield is in the canvas pressed.

The last red embers in the kiln expire,
The last tired labourer's hand receives his hire;
To labour and to wealth alike be given
Exchange of thanks: from both the praise to Heaven."

Illustrations from "The Garden of England" postcards and the Cosham Collection

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