HEREFORDSHIRE HOP-GROWERS’ YEAR
By Mary Horner
It is recorded that no two hop-growers ever had the same idea or did things the same way. However, jobs carried out during a typical hop-
grower’s year prior to 1950 and before machine picking, usually included:-
October After picking, bines cut back to a few inches, old roots ploughed up, all waste burned. Soil farm- manured,
finished drying hop-pockets
November Ground for new yards ploughed and levelled. Positions for new plants marked out with ground pegs
December Poles & wirework checked, repaired or renewed. New hop setts planted out when soil conditions suitable
January Wirework erected over new setts, hedges trimmed, ditches clean, drains repaired. Collection of firewood
started in preparation for pickers use in September
February Wirework finished, top hooks fixed
March Soil in middle of rows ploughed. Soil between plants removed by hand. Hops cut back. Healthy cuttings
selected to fill any gaps. First fertiliser applied
April Ground cultivated and levelled off. Stringing commenced. Women employed to brace hop strings together
with binder twine ready for hop-tying. Long bine runners trained clockwise round string, unwanted bines ripped out
May Hop-tying gang attend to weaker shoots and correct any tangled bines. Deceased heads picked, burnt and
preventative powder applied. Weeds removed. Second dressing of fertiliser applied
June Hop-tying gang ‘leaf’ the hops. Hops treated against mildew, hop/damson aphids etc., By mid-June hops
expected to reach top of wire. Last Nitrogen applied. Cultivations carried out to kill weeds and create good depth of soil over
base of hops
July Continued suppression of weeds. Aphids destroyed monthly and fungicides applied. Diseased plants dug out
August/Sept Weed/aphid control continued. Hop-picking preparations started. Cribs repaired, hop-kilns cleaned,
tools assembled and cleaned, heating pipes and chimney cleaned. Kiln equipment check and lubricated. Sacks and kilns
repaired. Hop-pockets obtained. Regular staff contracted, adverts for hop-pickers sent out. Date of their arrival decided.
Housing for pickers checked and made ready. Food supplies organised, firewood delivered to ‘hoppers’ accommodation.
Cribs put in place.
September Hop-pickers arrive. Weather permitting hops picked five days a week until fields cleared, unless bad weather
calls for weekend work. Hop-pickers paid – exodus begins
GYPSIES AND HOP-PICKING IN HEREFORD
By Mary Horner
Traditionally hops were first grown in Kent in the 1520s, but soon spread to other counties including Herefordshire, where the crop was extensively cultivated in at least 80% of the parishes for over 400 years. Hop-picking terminology varied across the country. A hop garden in Kent was known as a hop-yard in Hereford, a hop-bin in Kent was a crib in Hereford, whereas an oasthouse in other areas was called a hop-kiln in Hereford. In some areas tools and equipment also had different names – although all did the same job.
Most farmers kept enough workers to carry out necessary regular maintenance tasks throughout the year to ensure a good crop. The hop belongs to the same family as Hemp and Cannabis and is a relative of the nettle. Its shoots can reach 20ft in length, but die back to ground level every winter.
During hop-tying and cropping, extra casal itinerant workers were employed, many being Gypsies. For a few short weeks, whole villages and areas were transformed by the great influx of workers. The majority of pickers were women and children, while men were usually employed as pole pullers, whose job it was to cut down the bines for the women to pick into bins. Despite times when conditions were wet, muddy, cold and frosty, many people have very happy memories of those days.
Living quarters were provided for all workers, which varied from farm to farm, some providing barracks, tin huts, stables or barns. Gypsies, however, always provided their own accomodation and camped in row upon row of caravans. One Hereford farmer at Bishops Frome reported that “It was a grand sight to see the Romanies arriving in their wagons with the dogs tied to the back axles, and horses and foals running behind”. At Yarkhill, locals recalled that “There were thirty-five acres of hops (that is hop-acres – 1,000 stocks to a hop acre). Gypsies helped there and would usually arrive with about thirty-six wagons and forty horses”.
A farmer’s wife remembered the Romanies as “Tidy, respectable people who didn’t mix much with the other pickers. They might share a few rabbits, but they were an honest lot. If any pretty girls strayed from their cribs, one of their menfolk soon rounded them up and brought them back. They always had a number of horses and ponies with them, and on Sundays’ horse dealing would go on outside the local pub, the men running up and down the road to show off the good points of their animals. Wads of money were seen to change hands, the money always going to the head of the family”.
Another story reports that one day Granny Smith arrived, two thin plaits looped about her ears and her skirt to the ground, and she brought her family with her to work in the hop-yards. She had four sons with names like Geldin and Jobie and three daughters. The young women often had a baby on one arm enveloped in a blanket, leaving the other arm free to work. They would work very hard at the hop-tying, the whole family taking part and doing two fields to the other picker’s one. Workers were paid by the bushel. In Hereford before 1939, the rate was 12d (5p) for two bushels. A good picker, probably helped by children, could manage 25 bushels a day, but the average was about 16 bushels. On a farm with seven acres of hops, the labour needed during picking was about ten pickers to the acres.
Farmer’s often provided crude equipment for cooking food. For the Gypsies, however, food was cooked outside on an open fire, mainly stews and boiled puddings, with plentiful supplies of fruit and nuts that were close at hand on hedgerows and trees.
Local clergymen and religious groups such as The Hop Pickers Mission, Wesleyan Methodists and the Salvation Army, all made frequent visits to the hop-fields in a bid to save souls.
Minor accidents are frequently reported, one of the most common being wasp stings among the children. Gypsies usually resorted to their own tried and tested remedies for any mishaps or illness that afflicted them.
Bad weather also took its toll on health, because work didn’t stop unless it was extreme. Sometimes the red, stick mud of the Herefordshire soil was inches deep and towards the end of hop-picking it was not unknown to find ice on the hops. Fortunately the Gypsies' vans and tents with their stoves and fires could be very warm but for people in the huts it was hard to keep clothing and bedding dry and free from damp.
The influx of so many people also meant a busy time for local police. One incident recorded at Little Froome tells of a farmer who had employed a large amount of Gypsies. One night someone rang the police to say that murder was being committed down at
the Gypsies' wagons. On arrival the police bundled the troublemakers into their vans, but as fast as they were put in at the front, they got out at the back and carried on fighting!
Pubs in the area did a roaring trade. Local scrumpy cider was cheap and plentiful and pubs did a lively trade. Some local cottages had off-licences that served brew through an open window. Gypsies often took out jugs of ale or cider and spent evenings around their campfires singing and listening to stories.
On many farms the same families of Gypsies returned year after year, and one lady reports that “Their wagons were so spotless you could eat off the floor”. She described the Gypsies she knew as “A tribe of true Romanies who spoke their own language and had a convoy of horse-drawn wagons that was a sight to see”. After the 2nd World War, machinery played a part in the demise of hop-picking by hand. Local Education Authorities campaigned against children missing school to go hop-picking, increasingly fines were imposed on parents who kept their children away from school, which all brought about a sharp decline in pickers and gradually an end to hop-picking as it had been known for many years.
Hop-pockets (bags hops were stored in) held about 15cwt of hops when full. Before the invention of hop-presses in the first half of the 19th century, hops were tramped into the hop-pockets by men. It took 3-4 hours to tramp each bag, and to tramp four bags at 9d each (approx 4p) was considered a good day’s work. While treading, the men became covered in yellow dust, so they were supplied with beer, cider or perry to keep their throats clear!!!
Lorry with hop-pockets ready for market