Thursday, 17 February 2011

A Kentish Hopyard (part one)

The Gentleman's Magazine. What a great publication. It's provided me with some pretty good material. The article I'll be regaling you with over the next few days has some of the best.

The article in question is, as you might have guessed, about the Kent hop industry.In the course of a few pages it covers a lot of ground: the hop pickers, the farmers, and factors and the betting. There's even a mention of Barclay Perkins. What more could you want?

On a linguistic note, it's fascinating to compare this article with one in Dutch, also published in the 1860's. The grammar and spelling used in the English article is much the same as modern English. Some of the sentences are phrased in a slightly different way, but essentially it's the same. Not so with the Dutch. It's three or four spelling reforms distant from modern Dutch and something like a quarter of the words are spelled differently. Then there's the grammar. Not just really weird and cumbersome constructions, but bits of cases that were deleted from the language just after WW II.

"A Kentish Hopyard.

It is well enough to "watch your Allsopp growing" in the tender sunshine of a July morning; but you can never realise the fatness of Kent, till you "gaze on your bags in bloom," and pay your footing to the ruthless hoppers for wandering up their alleys of bine and flower.

"Young and lusty barley
Comes o'er the fields to woo "

in downright earnest, when October has set in. Hoppers have then been at work for more than a month; and the majority begin to weary of rural life, and to sigh for the New Cut or St. Giles'. An owner must be a syren or a boundless paymaster if he can get his hops finished after that date. The Union Jack waves above the vast house-cowls, and a tattered handkerchief on a stick does duty where the orthodox "red, white, and blue " is not forthcoming. Waggons are drawn up in the orchard, and basket after basket of ruddy apples is piled on to them. The thoroughbred scion of an Oaks winner — of which Kent once had three, Mierne, Mendicant, and Queen Bertha, within six miles — almost breaks away from his leader, as a party of hoppers who are evidently not averse to "Eoffs Sparkling Ales," stagger along with the hop bin, borne like a sedan chair between them Byron's query—

"Where are your Pyrrhic dances gone ? "

is soon answered by a peep at the wild revelry, which makes night hideous at the hop supper finish.

Some of them sleep in barns or cattle sheds, which are "feltered up" annually with boards and brushwood to keep out the wind; but a few hop-garden owners furnish a regular set of marquees for their illustrious visitors, who are more necessary than welcome. The gipsy portion are the best workers, but very difficult to deal with. They sally forth at night and do wanton mischief to gates, and let the stock out into the roads; whereas the Irishman is too idle to leave his tent or bothy, and contents himself with potatoes, tobacco, and beer. When a strike is made, the gipsies are quite the masterminds. Either they go to the owner's house en masse to parley, and leave the Irish in the field, pledged not to work under fearful pains and penalties, or they drive them to the house at the point of the hop pole. Irish hoppers attempting a strike on their own account is a very feeble business. "They don't make so clean a job of it as the gipsies do ; they try and look bold, and doddle about a bit, till one or two of them are paid off, and then they turn in again; after the hops want picking, it's rather denoying." So said a simple swain to us, who had observed their habits closely, down to the fact that the Irish will have sixpenny, while others are content with fourpenny ale.

The Milesian mind may show a daintiness in picking its ale, but it shows none in picking its hops. "We'll pick 'em cleaner, maister," is the constant response to all complaints, and they straightway relapse into the lazy old groove. The majority of hoppers work in gangs of two or three to a bin, or a woman will take her children and pick at a basket. Women generally work best, and some of the smartest fingered among them will pick their thirty bushels at a penny or three half-pence her bushel; but twenty-two is a good average. Sometimes they are paid by so many baskets to a shilling; and the quantity required is more or less according as the hops are large or small. Artists compass sea and land for subjects; but a lot of hoppers waiting for their special fourth-class train, seems to have never been thought of.

The station-master has a weary time of it, and he and his policeman must be clever hands at a barricade if they can keep the station clear for other traffic. Hoppers take very little note of time, and if a train goes in the afternoon, the station is in a state of siege from a very early hour, and the

"Little tube of mighty power,
Charmer of my leisure hour "

is glowing all day like a furnace in male and female lips. Most of them carry a can tied to his or her belt, a potatoe pan, a bundle of clothes, and an umbrella; and there would be no luck in leaving the gardens without a bunch of hop blossom for a chimney-piece token. Sometimes a squalid coquette of a girl bedizens her waist with a couple of dahlias, as the old special pleader said, "to give colour." Two or three comrades may be seen round a hop Nestor, whose legs, rendered more wayward than ever by draughts of "Eoff's Sparkling," have failed him suddenly in the road, while an old hop hag of a mate, with her grey back hair all down, has just "lived the distance" to the station barrier, and is feebly shaking her fist at the policeman behind it. Sometimes the men fight furiously, and end up — when it suddenly flashes on them that we "don't malice each other" — with a species of wild dance and bear-like hug. The women are more vindictive; they put down the baby on the road side, and seldom resume it, till they have been credited or debited with a pair of black eyes."
"The Gentleman's magazine, 1868, Volume 1", 1868, pages 532 - 534.

I suppose I should kick off with the casual racism of the author. The lazy Irish and disruptive gypsies. Though they did seem to share one attribute: drunkenness. I was actually quite surprised by this. Not the racism. I've read enough texts from 19th-century India to have got used to that, no matter uncomfortable it might make me. (There are some texts I doubt I'll post because of the use of certain unacceptable words.) No, I was surprised that they weren't cockneys doing the picking.

Yet the pickers longed for "New Cut or St. Giles'". New Cut, now known as just The Cut, is a street in Southwark. St. Giles is more ambiguous. Does he mean St Giles High Street (just around the back of the site of Meux's Horseshoe brewery)? Both are surely in London, implying the Irish pickers lived in the city. Cockneys in waiting, I suppose.

Lazy, violent drunks. That's pretty much how the media has portrayed the British working class for the last 200 hundred years. Good bit of condescension in the phrase "Hoppers take very little note of time". As if they were children with learning difficulties. But the descriptions of the disorder caused by pickers shows just how unrealistic our idealised view of Victorian harmony and order are.

Finally "Eoffs Sparkling Ales". At first I thought Eoff was an OCR error. Evidently not. A quick scan of the web didn't turn up anything about a brewery of that name. Anyone ever heard of it?


Alistair Reece said...

My dad was a hop picker as a kid, going down from London for his family's annual holiday in Kent.

Jeff Renner said...

The 2001 film "Last Orders" starring Michael Caine is partly set in hop fields and hop pickers' cottages. I think it may have been filmed at the hop museum at Maidstone. I worked a couple of years at the Maidstone Beer Festival on that site.

I've grown a half dozen hop bines for 20 years and I am glad I'm not a hop picker. The bines are very irritating, and I end up with itchy welts on my arms. They also are reported to have enough estrogen-like compounds to have caused physiological changes in pickers of old, where they handled the hops much more than today.

The Beer Nut said...

Someone was telling me over the weekend that the main reason Kent was hop country was the availability of large numbers of labourers from the city during the season. But then, as you say, the Irish and Gypsies were likely as much a part of the capital's labour market as the Cockneys.

Mine's a pot of sixpenny, btw.

Craig said...

Cooperstown Brewing Company uses a photo of turn-of-the-century, Milford, NY hop pickers, on it's "Backyard" IPA label. The image looks like it could have come from the same source as the pics in this post!

It's funny to think that while pickers were working in Kent, 3,500 miles away in Central NY, pickers were doing the same job and wearing the same clothes!

Sorry for the lousy pic!

Joe Stange said...

And here I thought Playboy was the gentleman's magazine.

Interesting to hear your thoughts on the 19th century racists. I've been boning up on Mesoamerican drinking habits. Writers in the 1800s like to blame corn beer for the downfall of the Aztecs and Western alcohol for the decline of Native Americans more generally. Although I think the word they prefer is "savages."