My hop has climbed into my apple tree and is frankly out of control and not likely to yield any harvest. Having lived in Herefordshire for a time though, the hop harvest has always held a certain fascination for me. Driving into Hereford would mean passing field of hops carefully cultivated over tall frames and so harvestable, unlike mine. The hop harvest was due, like all agricultural events, at set times of the year. In 1891, the months for the harvest were June, August and September, the hay harvest first, with a month’s grace until the corn harvest, and then hopping a fortnight after this. So we are still too early this year at the moment, but the report remarked that hopping was the most important of the harvests in areas where all three were carried out, Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Nottinghamshire, partly as there was generally more fine weather in September and partly because it was the last harvest and so also of a celebration. It is odd to think that our weather patterns, or at least the conception of our weather patterns, probably haven’t changed much.
Hopping in Kent has always been known as a way that people living in the East End of London could get out into the countryside for a couple of weeks, the time it took to complete the harvest, and have a working holiday. However, it was noted in 1843, that the ‘London importations’ had then vanished, the farmer using local men and their families. By 1891, Londoners were still going to Kent and Surrey but it was noted that farmers were particular about their labour, only employing people they knew were decent or no outsiders, so maybe this aspect has been over exaggerated for the nineteenth century. It was commented in 1891 that ‘London weaklings’ used to be ordered down for hop picking for medical purposes although this was now out of fashion. Local people still believed in the benefits though.
Green smock frocks were traditionally worn in Kent, and in 1843, a newspaper report noted that the hop harvest was such a rural event that new smocks, new corduroys and new half-boots were purchased to ‘regenerate’ their wardrobe. The thought of being paid good money, around 5 shillings a day in 1891, and the air of celebration presumably meant that new clothes were justified.
The harvest work was divided into pulling and picking, pulling exclusively for men as it needed a certain amount of strength and a good smock frock. Pulling up the poles and extracting the bine, required a specific technique and as the newspaper remarked, ‘Hence the need for a smock, for the bine, bruised by the pressure, stains irretrievably any ordinary clothes’. Although a new smock might have been purchased, they were used very much as working garments, and presumably their green colour was most practical with the ready staining. In 1843, it was remarked that hop flowers stained the hands as much as walnuts did, so a dark colour was seemingly preferable.
Once pulled, the hops could be picked, which was family work, from young to old, working around an oblong basket about three feet high. The celebrations came in the evening around the hop kiln when the hops were dried as quickly as possible to preserve their aroma. Stories, song, drinking and dancing to fiddles, oboes and pan-pipes, then took place after a hard day’s work, especially if a ‘Lucky Bough’ had been found. This was where all the leaves and flowers grew on only one side of the stem, as if twisted into this position. If found it was considered a lucky talisman, both to the finder and the harvest in general, and the ‘hearth over which it hangs’ and ended up dried ‘ is sacred’, a tradition carried on in country pubs today though I haven’t yet checked to see how many of these bines are actually ‘Lucky Boughs’. The hay harvest around here has just started – think I’m off for a pint of beer to await the hop harvest…