In this day and age, the beginning of September spells the start of the school year, but back in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s things were completely different as hundreds of Black Country children and their families left their urban lifestyles behind for two or three weeks to enjoy the wide open spaces of the Worcestershire and Herefordshire countryside; because at the start of September it was time to go hop-picking.
The hop-picking season was the highlight of the year as far as poorer families were concerned, giving them the chance to earn some extra cash in wonderful, healthy surroundings, and although it was hard work, hoppicking became a important social event.
Over the years Bugle readers have done us proud with a steady supply of stories, memories and photographs for a subject that has always caught the imagination, and Sylvia Shaw, formerly of Quarry Bank but now living in Burford, the most southerly place in Shropshire, has in the past been particularly generous with her memories.
Last week the Bugle was given the opportunity to visit Burford Mill Farm where farmer Ray Morris has three large fields devoted to the growing of hops, and in the company of Sylvia and her husband Patrick we were able to witness the harvesting of the crop from the hop fields right through to the oast house where the hops are dried.
When hop-picking was at its peak, the start of the new school year in the Black Country had to be put back as the annual exodus of people, aboard buses and trains, began, following wellworn tracks to places such as Leigh Court, Leigh Sinton, Bransford, Newnham Bridge, Knightwick, Whitbourne, Callow End, Bromyard, Hereford and Tenbury Wells, destinations that became household names here in the Black Country for generations.
Sylvia remembers catching a bus from Quarry Bank and getting excited at the prospect of returning to the hop fields. For her mother Annie it would be three weeks of hard, physical work, but for Sylvia and the other children on the bus the journey south was more like going on holiday.
“We went to Cooper’s Farm every year, not far from Tenbury, ” recalled Sylvia, “and Mom would always try and use the crib from the year before, our home for three weeks, and because it was at the back of the barrack block we enjoyed a certain amount of privacy.” The Black Country pickers took with them cooking utensils of every size and shape, and one of the most important items was the “hoppen box”, a tin trunk which held all the clothes.
Prior to the season getting under way, agents working on behalf of the farmers would visit Black Country towns and choose women whose job it would be to marshal the pickers in the fields, a job which would earn them an extra shilling.
The living conditions on the farms were very primitive, but from a child’s perspective, everything about the hop-picking season was an adventure as Sylvia vividly remembers.
“Mom would bring sheets and pillow cases, the cases we would stuff with straw and we would sleep on a straw mattress.
Because our crib was at the very back of the barrack block, we’d build a bostin’ fire just outside, big enough to carry a large pot, and when Dad came to visit on a weekend, we were able to enjoy our own private party.” Today, very few beers are made without hops, the ingredient that gives it its flavour and, more importantly, keeps it from going stale. The first documented link between hops and brewing comes from Picardy in northern France in 822, and the first hops grown in England was sometime between 1511 and 1524. Before that date the most common and preferred drink amongst Englishmen was ale, a type of beer brewed from malted barley, originally bittered with gruit which was a mixture of herbs boiled prior to fermentation. But later hops replaced the gruit blend and became evermore popular as a crop to cultivate.
Kent was the first county to grow hops on a grand scale, but the practice soon spread elsewhere.
By 1655 hops were being grown in at least 14 English counties, with Kent accounting for a third of the total crop, and just over 200 years later 40 English counties had farms growing hops. In 1878 the industry hit a peak of 71,789 acres, but tastes in beer were changing. Imports of hops increased from Europe and the US, who were able to supply a sweeter variety, and with restrictions on brewing introduced during the First World War, by 1918 there were just 16,000 acres left under cultivation.
In the early 1930s mechanisation became an option for farmers to save on labour costs, but the introduction of machines was slow and coincided with the worldwide depression. However the economic crisis created a lot of cheap labour, especially in the towns, and so began the historic link between Black Country people and hop-picking.
Part two of this story continues tomorrow Sunday September 23rd.