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Black Country hop picker lived in luxury

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 31, 2014

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I HAVE been following with great interest your articles about hop picking which take me back more than 70 years, when during the war I enjoyed hop-picking on two separate occasions, one in primitive conditions and the second in complete luxury.

I had never been away from home before when, with my widowed mother and three younger brothers, we joined other families from Friar Park, West Bromwich, bound for Suckley, just outside Worcester in 1939.

It was the first year of the war and there were military personnel everywhere, on the trains and on railway platforms.

On arrival the farmer picked us up with his horse and cart and took us to our primitive accommodation. We slept in a long wooden shed which was divided into sections with wooden planks about one foot above the floor and extended across the entire width of the shed.

These were covered with old hop bines to form a mattress with the boys, girls and grown-ups occupying separate sections.

In a small copse behind the shed was a 12-foot narrow trench surrounded by poles with potato sacks hanging from them for privacy, to serve as toilets.

Inside, there was a pole across the front of the trench to sit on and one across the rear to rest your back on and to prevent you falling backwards.

In a garden a short distance away was a small wooden shed which sold all daily provisions, which the women in turn prepared over the open fire at the end of the shed.

As the hops were not ready we were engaged picking the in-season fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries etc., and in between stripping the growth from the bottom of the hop-vines to encourage top growth.

On the first day I went into a fruit field and in the corner was a gaily-coloured gypsy caravan. Standing at the top of the steps I could see a most elegant and very tall lady. She was like a Greek goddess with a dark coloured complexion and wearing an immaculate white starched full-length apron. To my amazement she greeted me with a smile.

At weekends we enjoyed our new-found freedom by exploring the nearby Malvern

Hills.

My second experience was in 1944 when I was working in a brass foundry and a request was received calling for volunteers to go hop-picking in the Kent area of Tenterden and Benenden where there had been a heavy crop of hops but insufficient labour available to collect it.

I volunteered and with other average 17-year- olds we assembled at West Bromwich Railway Station where we met our group leader.

On arrival in Kent we were housed in a luxurious country mansion where the very large rooms had been partitioned off to make small comfortable rooms to house six of us in each.

I was selected to be a section leader.

After breakfast each morning before leaving for the fields I was required to collect packed lunches from the kitchen for the members of my section and distribute them in the hop fields at lunch time.

For my extra duties I received 2s.6d. (12.5p) a week extra.

I remember one afternoon when we were working in the fields the sky turned black with large heavy-laden bombers heading for Europe.

One weekend a group of us walked from Benenden through the villages such as Battle into the seaside town of Hastings, but we were prevented from going near the sea because all the sea-front was sealed off with barbed wire in case of invasion.

I cherish the memories of both occasions, the second in particular because that's where I experienced my first romance and we corresponded for many years.

Sadly, I am the sole survivor of my family and a pal who went with me to Kent died more than 30 years ago.

Sam Williams,

20 Elms Avenue,

Littleover, Derby, DE23 6PG.

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