Sylvia told us that 1932 was the year her mother began to go hop picking, and that must have been right at the beginning of what became an annual exodus.
These days hop growing in England has shrunk to a mere 2,400 acres, and the familiar sight of a hop field in the Worcestershire and Herefordshire countryside is fast becoming a thing of the past.
On our arrival at Burford Mill Farm the harvest was in full flow. A tractor pulling a trailer was moving slowly along the rows of hops cutting the branches down until a full load was achieved, and this was then taken to a nearby machine which was fed at one end with the hop trails intact, and after several processes came out the other end on a conveyor belt as individual leaves.
This product was then put into giant sacks for the short journey to the oast house where the contents were emptied out onto the upper floor and dried out.
The aroma of the drying hops was strong but pleasant, and George Harper, who was in charge of the drying process, explained how once the hops had dried they can quickly gain moisture from the atmosphere, especially on a rainy day, so it was a delicate balance to bag the hops at the right time. He also told us about the nature of growing hops out in the fields.
“To get the best out of a crop a lot of preparation has to be done first, but even then we are dependent on the vagaries of the weather. We may have had a decent summer this year, with a lot of sunshine, but actually last year’s crop will be better than this year’s by about three days of harvesting.” Sylvia’s sense of smell was in good form and the whiff of the drying hops recalled fond memories of years past. She then told the tale of the bushel mon.
“The bushel mon was in charge of the amount of hops each family was picking, but if he day like yo, he’d sock yer hops, compress them down with his elbow so you had to pick more for the same amount of money.
So it was in everyone’s best interests to stay on the good side of the bushel mon.” The strong perfume given off by the pile of drying hops proved the perfect agent for jogging Sylvia’s memory even further.
“We’d buy milk and bread off the farmer and the rabbit man always came along with plenty to go round.
At weekends some of us kids were let off duties in the hop field and we often took walks, exploring the countryside, perhaps doing a bit of scrumping, and always playing conkers, ’cause we knew where to find them. I’m sure we did a bit of larking about as well,” and Sylvia demonstrated this by holding a hop sprig up to her ear, pretending it was an earring.
“Sundays were different and almost always a rest day for everyone, unless bad weather had scuppered a day in the week, in which case the farmer would want the hops picked as normal. Every Sunday morning we’d have a visit from a missionary, sometimes two, and we’d always end up singing The Old Rugged Cross.
“Then there was the Sister of Mercy, a nun with the flying wings for a head piece, a lovely woman but we never did find out where she came from. She was there to administer ointments and plasters to those of us who had picked up cuts and bruises along the way. There’d be neighbours there we knew back home, and it made the hop fields feel like a Black Country fode” Sylvia was aged about 10 when she last went hop picking in the mid 1950s.
“Machines were starting to replace labour in the fields, but there was also a clamp down at school. Parents were threatened with prosecution if they didn’t send their kids to school at the beginning of the autumn term and the days of the Black Country hop pickers were over.”
Did your family go hop-picking in the autumn? Share your memories and pictures of those days, contact jworkman@black countrybugle.co.uk or write to the address on page 2