Sixty years ago, as the summer drew to an end, thousands of families from London’s East End would be preparing to descend on the hop fields of the garden of England. Hopping – the harvesting of the key flavouring ingredient for beer – was a chance for urban workers to exchange the impoverished and polluted city for a few weeks in the countryside. Every September, special trains delivered the workers from London Bridge to Kent.
But hop picking was no vacation by modern standards. Stripping the prickly hop vines was gruelling physical labour that left pickers’ hands covered in cuts, as well as stained black from the vines. Wages were low, and children worked 10-hour days alongside adults. The accommodation was no holiday camp either: people were housed in overcrowded tin huts, where they shared cooking facilities as well as the latrines.
Yet for those who could afford it there was also fun to be had. As George Orwell wrote in his diary in 1931, “There were uproarious scenes in the village on Saturdays, for the people who had money used to get well drunk ... I have no doubt the local residents thought us a nasty vulgar lot, but I could not help feeling that it was rather good for a dull village to have this invasion of cockneys once a year.”
But as cheap imports of the crop grew, alongside mechanisation of the Kent hop harvest, the century-old tradition of a part of east London decamping to the hop fields started to wane, finally disappearing in the 1960s. In any case, London youth were no longer as eager as their parents to spend their leisure time toiling on a farm. The era of hopping was over.