From the 16th century, Kent was an important centre for hop-growing. Hops are dried in oast houses before being used to make beer. By the 20th century, an estimated 250,000 men, women and children travelled to Kent each summer for the annual harvest.
Hops grow on flexible branches called bines, in fields traditionally called 'hop gardens'. The bines are grown along strings and wires attached to poles up to 12 feet (3.65 metres) high. Workers using stilts attached the strings to the highest wires. During spring, the vines had to be 'twiddled' to encourage them to grow on the strings. Mature hop gardens had rows of 'alleys'; tunnels formed as the bines grew together on the wires overhead.
Hops were harvested in late August and September. Picking began at dawn. The picked hops were put into large bins or baskets. First, the bine would be pulled down from the strings. It was then laid on the bin and the hops - which are the flowers of the plant - were stripped (picked) off. Pickers had to be careful not to drop leaves into the bins. The hops were weighed by the 'tally man' and calculated by the 'bushel' - a unit just over 35 litres in modern terms. Pickers could be paid anything from eight old pence to a shilling per bushel.
The bins were moved down the alleys during the course of the day. After lunch, children were often allowed to play in the fields while their parents continued working. Work usually finished around 4pm.
The harvest attracted many seasonal workers to Kent for the summer. About one third of these were men, women, and children from the East End of London. Hop-picking also provided an important additional income for local people. And many travellers moved into the area for the chance to earn good money. Most of the East Enders were women who left their casual jobs in the City to work in the country for a few weeks. They brought their children, who were on school holidays, with them. Fathers who had work in London would often come to join their families at the weekend. Sometimes whole families moved to Kent for the summer, living in makeshift pickers' huts. Often these were made of corrugated iron, without electricity or running water. Cooking was over open fires in front of the hut, and water was collected from a pump or well. Pickers often brought their own bedding and cooking equipment with them.
The hop-picking heyday was in the 1920s and 30s. Improved work conditions in general - including more holidays - meant that a hop-picking 'holiday' was an option for working-class families. As well as the money, a few weeks in the fresh country air was recognised as beneficial particularly to children. In August and September, the train companies even operated 'Hoppers Specials' to carry people from London into Kent. The family atmosphere and the fun of sitting chatting around the cooking fires in the evenings was a big attraction for Londoners. There was some local hostility to the pickers: Londoners were blamed for starting fights in pubs with the locals, and some local councils complained about the strain placed on medical services. However, mostly the farmers were pleased to invite families back year after year.
After the Second World War, machines took over much of the work previously done by hand. With many jobs also beginning to offer paid holidays, the popularity of hop-picking holidays declined. By the 1960s, the annual migration from London for the hop-picking was all but over.
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