'A Kentish hop-garden, in the month of September, is one of the prettiest scenes to be witnessed in any part of the country.'
Thomas Frost, author of In Kent With Charles Dickens.
To this day the autumn hop picking season provides a potent image of Kent rural life. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries workhouses were considerably less busy at this time as families and people of all ages were able to participate. Nonetheless, there was considerable variety in their experience. In East Kent hops were measured in 5 bushel baskets, taking up more or less space depending on how sharply the basket was jerked; in West Kent the hops were scooped out of bins and into the baskets, with the compression of each scoop determining the measure.
The autumn hop picking season also saw a culture clash between diverse groups of people as local farming communities were joined by ‘ladies’ picking for charity, gypsies and tramps, as well as the religious campaigners come to keep an eye on their morals. But of all these unlikely co-workers, the most visible were the Londoners who came for a ‘holiday’ or simply to escape from the slums for a few weeks and earn money in the process. The sharp division between villagers and seasonal workers is apparent in both nineteenth and twentieth century accounts. Oral history suggests that at the turn of the century ‘If one word could be singled out to describe most effectively what the villagers thought of Londoners, it would be “dirty”’.
With a characteristic splicing of verve and sharp observation, Dickens wrote in The Uncommercial Traveller about the prevalence of casual labour in the countryside surrounding his home at Gad’s Hill:
They crowd all the roads, and camp under all the hedges and on all the scraps of common-land, and live among and upon the hops until they are all picked, and the hop-gardens, so beautiful through the summer, look as if they had been laid waste by an invading army. Then, there is a vast exodus of tramps out of the country; and if you ride or drive round any turn of any road, at more than a foot pace, you will be bewildered to find that you have charged into the bosom of fifty families, and that there are splashing up all around you, in the utmost prodigality of confusion, bundles of bedding, babies, iron pots, and a good-humoured multitude of both sexes and all ages, equally divided between perspiration and intoxication.
On their ‘Canterbury Pilgrimage’ of 1885 American visitors Joseph Pennell and his wife, the writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell, came across: the large army of hop-pickers who, every autumn, come from London to make the Kentish roads unsafe after dark and the householder doubly watchful. Whitechapel and other low quarters are nearly emptied at this season. It is pleasant to know that at least once a year these people escape from their smoky, squalid streets, into green places where they can breathe pure air, but their coming is not welcomed in the country.
The presence of Londoners – or perhaps strangers in general -continued to be a source of tension in the early years of the twentieth century, as local author Bessie Marchant’s 1904 Yew Tree Farm makes clear. The story of three sisters who take up farming on their own account, the book is largely preoccupied crop and sheep management as well as the mechanics of negotiating prices at market. Hop picking appears only briefly, but tellingly the narrator the flags up a decided tension between local workers and those from further afield:
'The hop-pickers at Pegsden Court Lodge were limited in number to fifteen baskets, which number was regulated by the drying capacity of the oast-house. The pickers too were all villagers, the wives and families of Mr Tremont’s workpeople, with various additions from the small-shopkeeper class, and his own daughters, no ‘foreigners’ ever being imported to work with the Court Lodge hop-pickers, who in consequence considered themselves quite superior beings, giving themselves airs, and speaking of going hop-picking to set up their health for the winter, just as other people might talk of a trip to the seaside, or a continental tour.’
But later fictional accounts repeatedly invoke the language of nostalgia, a rhetorical move that allows the contemporary worker to disappear into an imagined tradition. In a novel published in 1916, it is understandable that Eden Phillpotts should create an idealised rural community in the Weald, in which ‘Broad and beamy matrons, slim girls, grey-beards, grandmothers and bright-eyed children clustered together with smiles and cheerful looks. All wore a brave, morning face, and preserved that immemorial holiday aspect proper to the picking.’ A year earlier even the sceptical Somerset Maugham had assured readers that for the East Kent hop pickers coming from villages such as Ferne near Folkestone (going presumably to Canterbury) ‘The work was not hard, it was done in common, in the open air, and for the children it was a long, delightful picnic; here the young men met the maidens; in the long evenings when work was over they wandered about the lanes, making love; and the hopping season was generally followed by weddings.’ The picking season provides an idyllic interlude for Philip Carey, originally from Whitstable, who returns from London for a working holiday.
It took the incisive language of a George Orwell to deconstruct these airbrushed set pieces. In 1935, as Europe moved towards another world war, he sent a young middle class woman to see for herself in his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter. The narrator comments almost brutally that ‘The stems of the bines were covered with minute thorns which within two or three days had torn the skin of your hands to pieces. In the morning it was a torment to begin picking when your fingers were almost too stiff to bend and bleeding in a dozen places; but the pain wore off when the cuts had reopened and the blood was flowing freely.’ But for some the discomfort was apparently worth it. One former pupil from Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School in Canterbury remembers with fondness how the girls were allowed out early on a Friday to join the hop picking.
Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller.
Marchant, Bessie. Yew Tree Farm: a story of a separate career. London: SPCK, .
Maugham, Somerset. Of Human Bondage. London: Vintage 2000.
Orwell. A Clergyman’s Daughter. London: Harvest, 1936.
Pennell, Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell. A Canterbury Pilgrimage. London: Seeley and Company, 1885.
Phillpotts, Eden. The Green Alleys. London: Hutchinson & Co. Undated.
Winstanley, Michael. Life in Kent at the Turn of the Century. Folkestone: Wm Dawson and Son, 1978.