| For Black Country folk, September was once the most eagerly awaited month in the calendar, for it was then they - the women and children, mainly - left home for a working holiday picking the crops of the hop fields of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, just as London's East Enders flocked to Kent for the same reason.|
The people left in droves, mostly travelling by horse and cart or train. In some towns, the schools re-opened late after the summer break because so many children were away, earning a little money and having the nearest thing they would ever have to a real holiday.
Many went back to the same farm year after year, and would spend their time surrounded by neighbours from their own Black Country town. Leigh Sinton near Malvern was one one of the areas that Cradley people went to.
These times lasted until the 1950s, when rapid mechanisation changed everything.
The machines had been invented from the 1930s and onwards, but during the depression years plentiful cheap labour from the towns was still available, so their introduction was slow. After the Second World War, economic reconstruction meant that pickers became harder to get as the years went by.
Hop picking died out quickly in the Black Country, but the tradition is still preserved today with farms inviting pickers to visit on an “open weekend”. These days the pickers pay the farmer for the pleasure of re-living the “holidays” of their parents and grandparents, with the money invariably going to a local charity or cause.
This article is about just such a pilgrimage by a group from Cradley Then and Now in September 2004.
But first let us set the stage with some memories of “hop picking holidays” : -
An excerpt from When I was a Boy, by Clifford Willetts O.B.E. (1896-1980):
The hop-picking season was the highlight of the year for the poorer families. This was in September. School holidays coincided with the hop-picking season, as otherwise the schools would have been half empty. Hundreds of Cradley families made the exodus to places like Leigh Court, Leigh Sinton, Bransford, Newnham Bridge, Tenbury, Knightwick, Whitbourne, Callow End, Bromyard and Hereford. These places were household names in Cradley.
The pickers took with them cooking utensils of every size and shape. The most important was the “hoppen box”
. This was a tin trunk which held all the clothes.
Prior to the season, the hop grower paid a visit to Cradley to choose a woman whose job it would be to marshal the pickers. These were paid a shilling hiring fee, which morally bound them to the grower. There was no legal contract as such, but the agreement was always honoured.
On the great day, they made their way to Cradley Station to board the train for their destination. The train was so long that the phrase “as long as a hoppen train”
It took nearly the whole day to get to the required place, as the train was always shunted into a siding to make way for the regular trains. On arriving at the station, there was a stampede to the farm to get the best accommodation. At the best this was a stable, a cow shed or a loft, which had been whitewashed by the farmer.
These people lived in poor conditions for a whole month, sleeping on straw beds and cooking their meals over stick fires. Strange though it may seem, they accepted these primitive conditions gladly.
There were rewards. Orchards were raided, and few returned without a good supply of fruit.
There was the nightly visit to the pub, perhaps a mile away from the farm.
The visitors, as they were called, relatives and friends, paid their visit on the second week. To hear them singing the popular songs of the day, as they walked along those country lanes was an unforgettable experience.
The hop pickers called it their holiday. It had a twofold purpose; it was a change from their environment, and they claimed it built them up for the rigours of winter. They also had what to them was a fabulous amount of money. This enabled them to buy new clothes and household articles, which otherwise they could not afford.
Sam Taylor, who was born on 5th February 1915 at 5 Intended St, Cradley, has also recorded his memories of hop-picking:
The only other holidays we had were at Christmas, Easter and a month in September when many of the poorer people went to the hop fields to work picking hops.
A change from the usual humdrum life, hop-picking - which lasted through the month of September, give or take a week according to the weather - was always looked upon as a holiday. It was also a family tradition; whole families went to pick hops for the same farmer every year.
The hop fields were situated over an area from Newnham, Pershore, Worcester, Malvern to as far away as Hereford.
For most hop-pickers, this was the only time in their lives that they went on a train, and the greatest distance that they travelled from home. About two weeks before the departure to the hop fields the farmers' agents would come round to hire the pickers and give what was known as "hiring money". At a shilling for an adult, and sixpence for a child, this was a kind of contract between the farmer and the picker. If it was a good season some farmers would pay a little more to poach the very best pickers.
On the night before leaving there would be great excitement packing the “'opping box”. This was generally a large tin trunk, survivor of many trips to the hop fields, or a new one made from a Tate & Lyle sugar box fitted with rope handles. The boxes were packed with kettles, pots, pans, blankets and enough food to last for a few days until some money had been earned.
They would then be closed and locked, with coats and other clothes placed on top and tied on with a piece of clothesline to keep them secure on the journey. The boxes would then be put outside to wait collection by a local tradesman with his horse and wagon, who would take them to the local railway station. He usually charged sixpence, which he received only when he fetched them back home at the end of the hop-picking season.
Most hop-pickers were no better off after the hop-picking, as what little money they had accumulated while they were away would have to be used to pay off the “strap” for the goods they had to take with them, to buy the children some more clothes to go to school, and to settle debts. They would soon be back on the same old treadmill of work and sleep, but at least they had had a change of scene, and would be looking forward to going again next year.
I have no idea how long my maternal grandmother, Annie Beasley (nee Tromans) went hop-picking: I only know when she stopped, which was sometime about 1956-7. I never went to the hop fields, but my sister and I went with my Gran and her sister Aunty May (who had her own car) to see the farmer to arrange when the hop pickers would be needed. The farm was at Suckley, although I think she also went to Leigh Sinton.
We seemed to travel a long way, and the only thing I can remember about the farm is being frightened of the dogs.
My Gran would pack her “hoppen box” - a large green tea chest - and my grandad, who drove a lorry for the sheet iron works - would collect all the other ladies' boxes and take them to Cradley Heath Station.
Grans' pickers all lived near her. Most of them lived in Drews Holloway South (known locally as “the building”), and they would travel by train from Cradley Heath.
Grandad Albert always came to our house for his tea while Gran was away. I never heard much about what happened while they were away, but the hoppen boxes always came back full of damsons and plums for jam.
The Cradley Then and Now “hop picking Sunday”
was therefore a chance for my daughter (Sarah) and I to see for ourselves what happened.
One of the many songs by master musician Bev Pegg
is about hop-picking:
Oh put down your 'ammers,
And damp down your fires;
The gaffer is here with the pay.
And we'll have to tell him,
We're off next week
On our hop-pickin' holiday.
So clear out the corn markets,
Stock up your ale,
Young maidens, your dreams have come true!
We're Cradley Town boys,
Hearty and hale,
Worcester girls, how do you do?
Like lightening, we pick 'em
We don't 'alf work hard, and he's right;
But if he wants to see
Just how brisk we can be,
Let him watch us on Saturday night!
From Cradley Boys and Worcester Girls
, recorded on “The Foundry Ditty and the Industrial Air”
(Beaujangle Records, 1980)Listen
to a brief excerpt from Cradley Boys and Worcester Girls
format, Real Media
format or Windows media
See Bev Pegg's web site
for further information on his personal appearances and recordings
Sunday, 5th September 2004 was Hop Sunday at Claston Farm, in Dormington (Hereford).
At noon on that day, a coach party from the Cradley Then and Now group set off from Park Lane Cradley for the hop fields.
For the younger members, it was a chance to see for themselves how their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents had spent their “holidays.” For the older members, the memories came flooding back of happy times, hard work and long hours spent in the hop fields. Below is a photograph from the late 1930's:
| ||Hop pickers c. 1938. David Taylor, Elsie Pearce, Dorothy Farmer, Winnie Pearce, Ellen Taylor, Eileen Bowcutt, Meriel Taylor (photograph supplied by Nigel Brown)|| |
And from the Cradley Then and Now September 2004 excursion:
| ||Hop pickers, 5th September 2004. Winnie Brown (nee Pearce), Sylvia Shaw, Jill Guest, Nigel Brown and Margaret Clifton picking hops at Claston Farm|| |
Winnie Pearce, (fourth from the left in the first photograph) became Mrs. Winnie Brown (shown first from the left in the 2004 photograph). See also “Winnie Brown's wartime memories” on this site.
After a drive through the lovely scenery of the Malverns we arrived, only to find that the tractor that was to have transported some of the older members on the short walk to the hop fields had broken down. As it was such a hot afternoon, a few of them decided to stay in the shade of a huge "conker" tree drinking tea and eating homemade cakes. The local beer made from the hops was also available to sample, as was apple juice pressed from local apples.
| ||Albert and Vi Head with Glenys Dunn|| || |
| ||Jill Guest and Jackie Tibbetts|| |
The rest of the party made their way to the nearby hop fields to begin picking at several cribs which had been set up at the edge of the field.
| ||Barbara Johnson, Jean Bunn, Mary Knowles, Jessie Taylor, Van Wood and Terry Johnson|| || |
During the afternoon a service was held by the minister of the local church and the Chaplain for Agriculture and Rural Affairs.
Memories of different hop fields were exchanged over the cribs, with stories of meals cooked over open fires and sleeping in the barn.
Jean Bunn warned against getting too many leaves in with the picked hops, as “the farmer wouldn't like it”.
Jessie Taylor wanted to know when the “lardy cakes” were coming round and whether the “Banana Man” would come. She remembered coming with her brother, who was thought to have tuberculosis (her mom was told the change of air would do him good). He got a new bike, but she got nothing.
Esther Boot recalled coming with her grandmother. Esther had to keep count of how many baskets were picked to make sure the pay was right, as her grandmother could neither read nor write.
| ||Barbara and Terry Johnson|| || |
It was hot, dusty work, and we only picked for a short time. The sight of the rows and rows of hops made one realise what hard work it must have been when the sun was shining; and even when it rained, the hops still had to be picked. The children sat under the cribs and picked into basins to try and keep dry.
After a short tour round the drying sheds to see the hops being bagged up to go to the brewery, we returned to the rest of the group outside the barn, some to sample the local beer, the rest to try the tea and cakes.
This is the third year that Mr. Davies of Claston Farm has held a Hop Sunday, all the proceeds going to the local church.
Our thanks go to Patrick and Sylvia Shaw (formerly of Quarry Bank, now of Tenbury Wells) for telling us about this event, and joining us there for a very pleasant afternoon.