As recently as the 1950s, countless Black Country folk looked forward to September.
For many women and children, it was their favourite month, as they eagerly awaited the day when carts, wagons and trains transported them to the Herefordshire and Worcestershire hop yards. As the annual hop-picking season arrived, it gave Black Country folk a chance for a welcome change of scene and much needed fresh air. And, it was the only “holiday” they were likely to have all year.
Since the late 18th century, hundreds of families from Birmingham and the Black Country had travelled to rural areas like the Teme valley to pick hops. Even though the work was hard, it was often the only time they got to venture outside their local community. And, for cash-strapped families, it was a chance to earn some extra money.
In the early days, they travelled down to Stourport, hitching a ride on the many working boats on the Midlands canal network. From there, they’d be met by the hop farmers and taken to their destination in horse drawn carts and wagons. In later years, the Black Country hop pickers took steam trains to Stourport or Bewdley.
Several months before the migrations, hop growers would visit Black Country towns to select agents, usually local women, who they employed to round up willing groups of workers from their own area. For each adult picker they signed up, the women were paid a shilling; and for each child they received sixpence.
By the early 20th century, hop picking “holidays” had become a fixed tradition in the Midlands’ industrial regions. The annual mass exodus involved so many children that many schools remained closed until their pupils returned from the hop yards. Not that the kids minded too much! Their thoughts were on the adventures they were having, climbing trees and scrumping fruit from the farmers’ orchards.
When the big day arrived at last, the women made sure they’d packed their “hoppen” boxes or trunks with everything they’d need for the six weeks away. Sometimes they used tin boxes or old tea chests, stuffed full of clothes, tea kettles, tin pots, pans and utensils. If there was enough room, a few blankets were rolled up, and some grub to last them until they’d earned their first week’s pay.
Very often, friends and neighbours pooled their resources. Then, for a few pence, a local tradesman would transport the families’ goods by horse and cart to the local railway station.
There was a general understanding that the women would pay the carters on their return journey, out of their hop picking wages. In the early days, the journey to the hop yards could take all day. And, even when rail travel was the norm, the hop pickers had to endure long hours of waiting as their trains were shunted to one side, to let the regular trains through.
When the women and children reached the growers’ farms, mayhem ensued, as the families scrambled to get the best accommodation. But, the best they could expect was usually just a sleeping space in a barn, loft or stable. On some farms they slept on hessian sacks, stuffed with straw, in bell tents or in temporary barracks.
The living conditions were pretty basic, but at least there was fresh air in abundance and camaraderie. Pooling their meagre resources, the women cooked meals over an open fire or on a primus stove. For the most part, they were cheerful affairs, accompanied by jokes and banter and a good old-fashioned sing song. The hop pickers also sang to keep their spirits up while they were hop picking.
For many of the younger workers, especially the young women, it was an opportunity for a bit more freedom than they were allowed at home. And, with so many of the hop pickers being women, strength of numbers meant the chaps crossed Black Country matriarchs at their peril. Frequently, the poor chaps found themselves being tongue lashed or on the receiving end of the women’s practical jokes.
Some of these had evolved from old hop picking traditions. Generally speaking, the customs involved a good natured battle of the sexes.
And, as men and women were away from home and their other halves, opportunities for “playing away” were legion! One custom in particular, known as “cribbing”, was frowned on by the hop growers. This involved women grabbing hold of any chap who happened to be in the vicinity, and throwing him into the hop cribs. The cribs were wooden frames, hung with sacking, into which the hops were thrown. To gain his freedom, the chap had to kiss all his female captors, and give them some money for drinks.
At the end of the hopping season, the chaps got their revenge by dumping the women into the hop cribs. Not to be outdone by the men, the women would gang up and throw one of the chaps into the crib. Then, they threw a woman in on top of him, covering the couple in hop bines. Like many old work-related customs, the fun and games contained much sexual innuendo and raunchy banter, usually instigated by the women. In fact, another aspect of hopping customs often involved the reversal of traditional gender roles, allowing women to take more liberties than they would at home.
When hop picking was over, celebrations were in order. As late as the 1950s, workers celebrated the last load of the season. On some farms they held an age-old ceremony of hoisting the last and best pole of hops, saved especially for the occasion. Wearing hats decorated with rosettes, flowers and hops, the workers processed to the farm house, to the beating of a drum, where a special feast awaited them.
Everyone ate and drank their fill, with singing and dancing high on the agenda. Many of the hop pickers did a “turn”, singing a song or telling jokes and stories. And, it was at such sessions that one of the Black Country’s finest traditional singers learned some of his repertoire.
Former Quarry Bank chain maker, George Dunn, learned several old songs from hop picking knees-ups. George was born in 1887, and was a well known singer at local pubs, and always popular at parties. His songs cover typical Black Country themes, such as hard work as well as favourite pastimes, like dog racing, pigeon flying and drinking. Sadly, George died in1965, but he would definitely have recognised such hopping customs as choosing the King and Queen of the hop pickers.
Once the couple were chosen from among the workers, the woman was kitted out in men’s clothes and the chap dressed in women’s clothes. It was all good natured fun, the Hop King and Queen given free licence to send everyone up, including themselves.
Generally, a cracking time was had by all. But, aside from the beer and cider drinking, singing and dancing, hop picking was backbreaking work. Also, it was quite common for hop growers to exploit pickers, often paying the women and children very low wages. The growers’ wives also charged the pickers for their food and drink. So, many women found they were hardly any better off when they returned to the Black Country. Some ran up debts with the growers, returning without even the few pence to pay the local carter.
Nevertheless, the annual migration continued, unabated. When they got back, they quickly forgot the hard work and rough living conditions. Instead, it was the fresh air, freedom, fun and camaraderie that sustained them until hopping time came round again next year.
After World War Two, the hop yards gradually became more mechanised. And, by the 1950s and 60s, the demand for hop-pickers virtually ceased. By the same token, the nation was growing more prosperous, and more of us were able to take paid holidays. As the annual exodus to the hop yards came to an end, another old piece of our heritage disappeared.