Hop Picking in Kent with Kathrin Böhm

Taking the train from Charing Cross out to the hop fields of Kent we found ourselves repeating a journey that thousands of families, hundreds of thousands of individuals, made each summer from the 1800s right up until the mid-twentieth century. Today, the train provides a convenience and comparative luxury, where in earlier times the journey would be made by carts, lorries, or even by foot. It was the promise of seasonal work—and perhaps a short summer holiday—as well as the desire to escape the smog-filled air and the poverty of the East End of London that drove people out to countryside and made them return year after year.

Hops are the essential ingredient in all modern beers. Other plants such as dandelion, burdock root, and marigold can and have been used in making beer, but from the fifteenth century English brewers and drinkers have preferred hops. It’s the flowers of this vine that brewers use to impart a bitterness and aroma to balance the sweetness of the wort, the mixture of water, malt, and yeast that makes a traditional beer. But hops are a nasty plant to work with; a ‘wicked and pernicious weed’. Their stems are coarse, and the flowers themselves are filled with various acids that, as well as essential to their flavour, can cause dermatitis if frequently held in close contact. From the start of the English hop industry in the 16th century, the work of picking hops was done by marginalised communities; the urban poor, women, children, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers.

It’s the social history of hop picking that excites Kathrin Böhm, founder of international artist group Myvillages, now living and working in London, and currently a UK associate at Delfina Foundation as part of this year’s Politics of Food programme. Two years ago Kathrin and Myvillages started Company Drinks, a new community enterprise based in Barking and Dagenham, the heart of the East End of London, where many hop pickers came from. Company Drinks started out looking at the fruit and produce that could be picked around the East End and how this could be returned to the people living in the area.

Discovering this micro-history of hop picking, Company Drinks decided to get the local community involved in the process, taking groups of Eastenders out on research and hop picking trips that draw on this history of collective work and collective living. Through these trips people have shared and collected family stories and even personal memories of a now nearly-lost industry that remains just within living memory. I was joining Kathrin, along with social historian and history lecturer at University East London Dr Toby Butler, and members of MUF Architecture / Art on a research trip, to learn about the social history of hop-picking and to understand the collective work, gendered work, and the ways that these precarious workers lived.

There wouldn’t be any picking today. While the hop plants, known as bines, have reached their full height, as they’re supposed to by Midsummer’s Eve, they’re only just producing the smallest of buds. Instead, we would be taking a walking tour of the hop pickers’ seasonal accommodation. We met Kathrin and the fellow day-pickers at their own home for the weekend, the older hopper’s hospital, a pub turned Christian mission by Richard Wilson, Vicar of St Augustine’s Stepney in 1910. Setting out from the hospital, it’s not long before we come across the first ‘hopper’s hut’, but it takes keen eyes to spot one. A small brick rectangle with a corrugated roof, rusted and collapsed after around 100 years in the elements, it could easily be mistaken for a pig shed. These huts were a luxury compared to previous accommodation, which had been tents or shacks thrown up by the hoppers or a particularly generous farmer, hugely unpopular, and long since rotted away. In 1926 the Ministry of Health drew up new guidelines for hoppers’ huts—a minimum size of 8 feet (2.44 m) by 10 feet (3.05 m) with a solid wall and roof—this style of hut would fit up to eight adults and children in bunk beds. Though, Toby tells us that some of the huts he’s seen and measured fall well short of even these meagre conditions.

In later years the huts became a little more sophisticated, corrugated metal or breeze blocks, but these remained little more than sheds or beach huts. There was no electricity or water, a single gas lamp was supplied though, and cooking was done in specially built communal cooking sheds. Still, they became homely to the families that lived in them, returning year after year, bringing crockery and glassware, and even wallpapering the insides of the huts. Familial life continued almost as normal. Highly social spaces, with extended families taking up rows of huts, eating, living, and socialising together. For these families and friends this annual get together was their only chance to see one another. Under the heat of the sun we walk further through hop fields, the large leaves of the bines shade us and muffle the chatter. Amidst the criss crossing rows of plants it’s easy to get lost, and it is unsurprising that many old hop pickers had fond memories of summer flings in the fields.

Leaving the haze of the hop fields we walk straight into the yard of Reeds Farm, a working hop-farm, one of the few that hasn’t turned over entirely to fruit or sold land for property. Still, we see signs of the collapse of the hop industry and the social life that grew up around the annual picking. Farmer Jamie takes us into a large shed to show us the hop-threshing machine. The paint is a little flaked and it isn’t running at the moment, but Jamie assures us it runs fine, most of the time. This machine, which fills the entire length and height of the shed, does the job of several hundred labourers—stripping and threshing the bines—and needs only five and a mechanic.

The mechanisation of the hop industry only began in earnest following the second world war. The increasing tax on beers also drove demand down, and hop farmers found more profit was to be made in fruit orchards than hops. The BFI’s Rural Britain archive has early newsreels of hop picking, and later documentaries made in the 60s as the industry really began to collapse. In the films we see the mass employment of women and children, and a few men, who were typically working in factories, but maybe visiting at weekends. In the later documentaries, we hear the testimony of hop pickers who’ve been working the same farms for years. With hindsight it’s heart wrenching to see the pickers, many elderly, who are aware of the coming mechanisation, but with a sense of willing disbelief, don’t yet see how their income or their social lives will be affected by it.

Further from Reeds’ we come across a second field of huts, joined by static caravans. These are different to the first, still occupied, albeit by day trippers and families looking for a cheap getaway to the countryside. They’re supplied with a few electricity lines and some collapsible showers, but are still cooking on barbeques or camping stoves. Sofas and radios now furnish the old breeze block cookhouses. These huts are what remains of an entire social world built up around a backbreaking industry.

We return to the hoppers’ hospital in the evening to meet with Toby Simmonds, co-founder of Kent Brewery. Over a few pints of his own Kent Golden Bitter he tells us that most of the remaining British hop industry exports to the US and Canada, where bitters are gaining in popularity, while the UK imports its hops from these countries, along with New Zealand and even southern France. It’s the result of a mixture of convenience and taste; the American hops, strong and citrusy—perfect for IPAs—are currently hugely popular, and the simple fact is that these varieties will only grow in warmer drier climates than Britain. The North American obsession with English ales comes from a fashion of nostalgia for the Old World.

Returning home that night, most of us were happy not to be staying in the hoppers’ hut. The communal spirit of the seasonal workers that seemed to thrive right up to the brink of the collapse, is tempered by the reality of poor living conditions and low paid work. But Kathrin is keen to emphasise that the work of Myvillages and Company Drinks isn’t an attempt to re-enact history, or to even try and understand what hopping felt—nobody can come close to fully understanding the sights and smells. Instead, it’s offering people a chance to meet their fellow Eastenders, to collect and share personal and family stories, occasionally photographs, and to work collectively and in the end, drink the fruits of their labour.