Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Kentish Hopyard (part three)

Today's the last instalment on the article "A Kentish Hopyard". It covers that most strange phenomenon: betting on the hop duty.

"Judge Maule, who drank porter to "reduce my wits to the level of counsel's," might have modified this obiter dictum, if he had known all the stirring Borough betting associations which cling to the Barley Bride in her course from the blossom to the pewter. "The pavement near the Town Hall," says a writer, "was the Tattersall's of these peripatetic philosophers ; and every hop county sent its speculative contingent on a Monday. They would meet at ten o'clock and bet till one ; then fly to Mark Lane, and have another bet or two there, amongst the corn-stands. If the May-fly came, speculation would begin about the 30th of the month, and be at its hottest in July. Fully a hundred and fifty men would have books on the crop; and the great brewers would send their commissioners to back or lay against the duty. They always looked upon Tattersall's with contempt, on the short and not unreasonable ground that 'if you back the duty it always comes out fair ; but a horse may tumble down, or be squared, or a thousand things.' And who can gainsay their preference ? Year after year the names of Kenward, Harriman, Monk, Clements, Goble, Trimmer, &c, ruled the market; and those did best who always made Kent their guide. Father and son often follow the same trade. There is a story of a father remonstrating with his first-born upon the practice, and offering to settle £100 ayear on him if he would leave it off. 'That would never do, father,' was the reply: 'I win £200 a-year off you." And 'I'll bet you £50 you don't,' was the rejoinder. Those who 'backed the duty' (i.e. to be over a certain amount) won seven years out of ten, and their loss was the most provoking when, in 1855, they braced themselves up to back £400,000, and it only fell £2000 short of it. One great hop factor always laid against the duty, and was only on the right side twice in twenty years. He was a good man for the farmer, as the more he laid against the duty, the more he 'rose the price' of hops. He always speculated, as a factor, for a short crop; so much so, that when others were backing £100,000 duty unlimited, he would be laying against £60,000 unlimited, and trusting to his double pull to get through. With a less daring outlay, the system might have answered, as what was lost in bets might have been more than made-up by sale commissions. On one occasion, when a great grower had a large quantity of hops to sell, he laid two factors £500 each, when hops were at £5 10s., that they did not reach £7 per cwt. The knowledge of the bet sent up the market, and thus the grower dropped £1000, and yet won £500 on the transaction by the enhanced price of his hops. One man's losses alone have been known to reach £30,000 in a year ; and one annus mirabilis saw a factor leave off with £60,000, a triumph which he celebrated by a dinner worthy of Apicius, and half-guinea whist points after. Hop-bettors generally whetted their tusks each Monday with a rubber at whist on the railway journey to town, and the dinner-table was also a favourite 'Change. They would bet upon anything, and one of them was once so uplifted by good cheer and loyalty, that he laid £100 to £1, before the cloth was drawn, on the taking of Sebastopol.

"The crop of 'Sixty was a wretched one, and it is a cherished tradition of the Borough, that a speculator, who did not believe the signs of the times, bought largely at £7 per cwt., and held till they were down at 25s. The most careful men seldom opened their mouths on Monday, unless they had first-rate information, or had made a Kentish journey of observation the week before, and determined to back their judgment; and one first-class judge would make £5000 a-year this way, by almost invariably backing the duty. The great secret was always proclaimed on November 5th in the Gazette. On December 1st the bettors met to compare books, and I O Us for the losses were handed over, made payable for New Year's day; but five per cent, was always deducted for ready money payments. Old speculators yearn for those days once more, and Guy Fawkes only seems like the wan ghost of a duty they adored. Some of them tell tales, which lengthen at each repetition like the sea-serpent, of the smashing blows which were dealt against the duty by their metallic heroes, and the equally daring defence; and regard the Borough as a very Waterloo in which they fought and 'bled.' "
"The Gentleman's magazine, 1868, Volume 1", 1868, pages 536 - 538.

I realise now, checking the dates, that the article was behind the times. Hop duty was abolished in 1862, putting an end to this bizarre form of speculation.

Hops are a very variable crop to this day. Unsuitable weather and disease can drastically reduce of the crop, causing the price to rise sharply. There were huge fluctuations in the price of hops during the 19th century. Betting for or against the duty seems to have been a method of mitigated the risks involved in the trade. And it was fairer than gambling on horses.

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