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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2003
Berkshire Family Historian
March 2003

Hop picking holidays
Eileen Burcher

The escape of the urban poor from London to the hop fields of Kent gave many families a way of spending time in the clean air of the countryside away from the smoke and overcrowding city life in London. Southern Railways laid on special trains to take thousands to the hop farms, but many more families went by open lorries. The pickers worked either in family units with parents, grandparents and children, or with neighbours. They provided a source of cheap labour for the farmers. Picking would begin in August and continue through September until early October, depending on the weather. The number of migrant hop pickers reached 100,000 at its peak with half the workforce made up of women and children. These are the post-war memories of Eileen Burcher, a child from south London, and are typical of a time now past.

Like all children we eagerly awaited the long summer holiday from school, but unlike many children of my generation we had something special to look forward to: the hop picking season. Every year the same five families from our street in south east London gathered outside the local pub waiting expectantly for the lorry to take us to the hop fields on the Kent-Sussex borders. There would be around 16 children ranging from two to 14 years of age together with mothers, aunts and grandparents. Our fathers had regular jobs so they stayed at home, visiting us at weekends.

The journey (usually in an uncovered lorry) was uncomfortable but we never complained, we were all so excited. It would be our only trip away from home as our families were unable to afford a real holiday. We usually travelled during the early part of the day so that on arrival we had time enough to settle in. We brought with us all the essential items for cooking and eating, as well as blankets, sheets and pillows. The farmer only supplied the basics: the huts we lived in and straw for our bedding.

Our ‘home’ was made from corrugated iron huts, which looked like extended garden sheds. There were about ten or twelve huts joined back to back, each measuring about nine feet square. There was a bench of wooden struts stretching along the back wall for our beds.

After unpacking, we collected wood, stones and bricks to make cooking fires. Usually each family had its own fire, although some families would share a fire, taking turns to light it. The first evening’s dinner was always special with baked potatoes thrown into the flames and perhaps sausages washed down with hot tea. There was no opportunity for privacy, as there was a gap between the walls and the roof of the huts (which in later life I assumed to be a form of ‘air conditioning’). Conversations were carried out in whispers. We often heard raised voices unsuitable for children’s ears. We all giggled under the blankets trying hard not to reveal that we could hear.

Hop picking at Sedlescombe

Hop picking at Sedlescombe, Sussex, c. 1900

Before settling down to sleep we would pay a visit to the ‘earth closet’. This was set in the woods away from the huts and made from a corrugated iron enclosure surrounding a large hole dug in the ground with a wooden seat over the top. It was not the most pleasant experience. I remember that most of us would wait for the morning light before we would dare to venture into this unpleasant and often noxious territory.

At 6.30 in the morning we clambered out of bed and after breakfast, everybody went into the fields to begin picking. Across the hop field row upon row of young chestnut withies, some twenty feet tall, had been erected with strings criss-crossed to the ground below. The strings made a diamond-paned lattice which held the growing hops. To a small child it seemed like a maze of heavy green drapery stretching out to the sun. In the warm summer days it would be cool between the rows, but when it rained, as it often did, the plants would drip water and gathering hops would be uncomfortable and miserable. One of the farmer’s men would be asked to use his hook to cut from the overhead wires the hop bines which were placed over the bin to be picked. Moving from field to field was very difficult for small children as each row of bines had been planted in a raised mound, and there was a trench between each row. Walking up and down these trenches with our short legs was tiring so at the end of the day we would all be exhausted.

Each family would be allocated a ‘bin’ with a number which they would have to fill. The bins were made up from a wooden cross frame with a hessian liner in the shape of a cradle. I helped my mother by picking ten large bowls before I could play. We made sure that no leaves found their way into the bin as the tallyman was very strict when he came to measure each bin by the bushel. I have no idea how much my mother earned, all I know is that she was tired at the end of the day. Sometimes the pickers were able to sit on the side of the bin or on fold-up chairs. During lunch and afternoon breaks we would look forward to refreshments brought to us by The Salvation Army or local people selling tea.

In the distance a distinctive line of oast house roundels stood above the trees and we would look forward to hearing the bell followed by the call ‘pull no more bines’ which would mean that the oast house was full. We would then have our pickings measured and rush back to the huts, collecting wood on the way to make a fire ready for cooking dinner. I was always expected to make tea for the formidable Aunt Lou and Mum, and then prepare the vegetables, which the farmer would sometimes leave for us. It was the responsibility of the kids to pick the best vegetables, or we would receive a thick ear.

Sometimes, when it rained, we would gather round the fire in a makeshift shed, and the adults would tell stories or jokes. On Saturday evenings we would dress up and walk to the nearby village and sit outside the pub while the adults would have a drink and a sing-song.

At weekends our fathers would come to join us. All week they would be working and I suspect that while they enjoyed the weekend break, they would be relieved when they had to return home on Sunday evening. We really had a great time during those weekends and somehow I felt a little safer when my father was with us. The dark nights in those huts were, to me, quite frightening but the days more than made up for it.

Once a week the children had to appear before the nurse who combed through our hair for ‘nits’. I would dread it as my mother used to say it was degrading if any were found. As a young child I never knew what 'degrading’ meant, hut it sounded bad. It was such a relief when my brother, sister and myself were told we were clear of this dreadful thing.

There was another occupational hazard while we were staying on the farm. We were informed on arrival that we could have any of the fallen apples from the trees in the orchards, but we were not allowed to go scrumping. The farmer would take severe action if any child was found shaking the apples from the trees. Needless to say, this particular rule was regarded as a challenge and we often came back with armfuls of shiny new apples.

I have always been grateful for those hop picking times. I met so many people and characters, and I still remember them today. It was an experience I would not have missed for anything, but I cannot imagine my own children or grandchildren would enjoy the same experience.

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created 30th May 2003