FORMER Cradley Heathen Raymond Billingham (now living in Stone, Staffs) sends us his hop picking memories from his childhood, when local families visited the Leigh Sinton district in deepest Worcestershire, at this time of year......
“I chanced upon a couple of old photos of a group of kids that were hop picking in the 1940s..
“I did then what I had been thinking of doing for years, i.e. try to trace the hop farm and see the barns, paths and fields that I fondly remembered. So I went to Leigh Sinton - they say you should not try to trace yesterdays - well, I had little success.
“I spoke to some locals that appeared to be about my own age but they knew nothing of Warren's Farm where we used to pick. They thought that the only farm that may have information was Froggatt's Farm, which lay just off the main road.
“I found two small hop fields behind Froggatt's Farm and looking up the stretching rows of vines I could picture my granny's crib with her and others busily picking.
“My age would be about ten. I had a widowed working mother and my grandmother, Rose Deeley, used to take me "oppin," as much to give my mother a break as anything else. We all hailed from Cradley Heath, my granny from Lomey Town. Every year an expedition would be organised of about forty women and children, and maybe a couple of men. The "oppin" boxes would be packed with whatever we may need there.
These boxes looked to me like the treasure chests pirates used to bury. A lorry would come and collect these. We would follow.
“Warrens Farm appeared to be a medium/small hop farm, and upon arriving in the farmyard the farmhouse would be at one end, together with the oast house. The side of the yard housed two barns, and a high pile of logs stretched outside. One barn was equipped with two large open hearth fires for cooking and heating (thus the pile of logs). This barn contained rough but clean wooden tables and benches - one for each family. The other barn was for sleeping and dressing. A row of straw was laid down each side of the barn, leaving a central aisle. Each family would make a bed from the straw and the 'oppin' box would be laid at the foot. Each "bed" was separated by a space to get into your own family's bed. The floor of the barn was hard dirt.
“The smells were one of the primary memories; the aroma of burning logs and open cooking in the one barn, and the serene atmosphere in the bedroom barn where the lovely smell of straw pervaded your senses, and assisted, if any assistance was necessary, by sleep.
“I hate to think what a health and safety officer would make of these arrangements, although I can't remember anyone smoking in bed.
“At first light, everyone went to the hop field, irrespective of the weather, and worked throughout the day, using packed dinners (lunches). Hops were picked into a crib (a slack canvas sheet spread between a wooden frame). Vines would be cut from the overhead wires by the farmer's employees.
Twice a day a tractor and trailer would visit each crib and a large wicker basket which measured a bushel would be used to scoop the hops from the crib into the trailer.
A tatty man noted your name and number of bushels you had picked.
Crib owners were chastised if too many leaves were in evidence. At about 6.30pm everyone trudged back to the farm.
“Some people I have heard remarking what a nice holiday it was for Black Country people. This was no holiday. It was bloody hard work, taken because people needed money for necessities. The children, like myself, did enjoy it as a holiday, making little contribution to the capacity of the crib, but the women toiled.
“Back to the barns, the fires were lit and cooking commenced.
Everyone seemed to get on, even us kids. I can remember no arguments.
Afterwards it was the bed barn for us kids, with the women following later. The very few men slept in a very small barn under the oast house.
“This was the routine every day (except Sundays, when some of the women's husbands visited. How they managed the journey I've no idea. No motor cars were evident. I suppose they caught the train to Worcester and the local bus thereafter.
Quite a trek in those days).
The week was further interspersed by a visit from the travelling butcher and grocer. On Sunday the Clergy visited, trying no doubt to save a few of our Cradley "Heathen" souls.
“Work up and down the rows seemed interminable, but gradually the picking was completed (about 2-3 weeks). The women collected their wages with their black hop stained hands, and were returned to their homes after their "holiday."
“This was two to three years before mechanised picking was introduced”.