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FROM the coal-heaver, who with the back of his dirty hand brushes the grime from his lips ere they are allowed to salute the chaste rim of the shining pewter measure that contains his "heavy wet"- (and no one ever yet saw a coal-heaver engage at his pot without this preliminary) - to the wing-whiskered swell who imbibes Bass's or Allsopp's beer-calling it "bittah bee-ah," we are nine-tenths of us interested in the subject of hops. As is popularly supposed, hops and malt enter equally into the concoction of the national beverage ; but the welfare of the latter ingredient is not nearly so much an object of anxiety and solicitude as is the former. This comes of undeviating faithfulness. Our barley we are sure of. The crop may be light, lightish, or heavy, and the price may vary a few shillings in the price of a "quarter" of it, but that is a matter to be settled between farming folks and brewers. It does not, or it seems not to, affect the public at large. Dear wheat means dear bread. If Mark Lane puts the screw on to-day, by to-morrow evening every baker in London is charging an extra penny per quartern for his loaves but there are no such fluctuations in the retail price of beer. The working man gets his quart of it for fourpence, sixpenny ale is never sixpence-half-penny, and the price of "bittah" is as fixed as the corks that secure
[-195-] the creamy nectar. So
long as barley is true to us we are sure of malt and of beer in abundance; its
quality is another matter, and for this the fickle hop, and not the patient
barley, is held responsible.
Never sprang there from the brown bosom of Mother Earth a plant so "inconstant, insincere." It is a wonder of wonders that hop-growers live to be such jolly, ruddy, prosperous old gentlemen as we discover them. Their trials and afflictions are enormous and increasing. From the moment when the unfortunate little emblem of bitterness thrusts its weak head into the world, its miseries and the tribulations of its grower begin, and the grower, unselfish in his grief, allows the public to share it with him. Surely as the autumn comes may be read in the newspapers frequent bulletins of the health and growth of the bantling, and invariably are they hopeless, and melancholy, and dejected. Painful indeed must be the existence of the growing hop! Before it is a month old there is a horrible whisper of "mildew" abroad, and should it be nipped in its infancy it would surprise nobody. Then we are startled by an alarm that the little hop is drowning - that the long-continued rains have drenched and overwhelmed it, and that it is as good as gone - nothing can save it but a long, long continuance of hot, sunshiny weather. Then comes the sun-shiny weather, but, alas! as it never rains but it pours, so the sun never warms but it scorches; and here is the hop, the suffering hop, that is but weakly, having outgrown its strength during the rainy season, having its innocent head baked on its shoulders, and that while it is a mere husk, and empty as an egg-shell. Now it is mysteriously blighted, and in a manner that the oldest grower in Kent never before saw the like of and cannot make out at all. Now gloomy rumours of smut prevail; and barely is Humulus Capulus so far recovered as to appear with a clean and cheerful face after the last-mentioned unpleasant visitation, than is issued a startling statement of a [-196-] plague of flies! Flies have seized on the persecuted plant, they are eating its head out, and nothing, as we are informed, can preserve our darling - our tall, graceful, young queen of beer, from a premature and horrible death.
Then ensues the very natural consequence - the unfortunate hop-growers are ruined, or very nearly, and to enable them to exist at all the hard-hearted and exacting Government must remit part of the hop duty - or, at least, extend the time allowed for paying it. Deputations of growers wait on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to this end as regularly as the postman waits on his customers for a Christmas-box, and until the faces of the poor petitioners must have become quite familiar to him. Several of these unhappy tillers of the soil he must remember when he was last in office, and as he listens to their tale of long-suffering and distress, he must feel increased pride in his countrymen when he sees them bearing their burdens on such broad backs and with jolly countenances.
Whether it arises from its inability to read newspapers, or from any other cause, is not ascertained; but it is certain that there is, at least, one class of persons whose confidence in a tolerably good crop of hops is undeviating. Where the individuals comprising this class spring from it is hard even to guess, but all through the latter part of the month of September, and even for a week or so in October, they may be seen on a Monday morning at London Bridge Railway Station waiting for the train specially set apart for their cheap conveyance to the distant hop-gardens.
Not knowing their purpose, the early traveller on the line in question must be considerably astonished at the strange spectacle. It is as though the vilest stews of the metropolis had been skimmed, and that here was the skimming. At a glance it is evident that the stews in question must have been Irish stews. To say nothing of the characteristic type of rags, [-197-] especially of hats and bonnets, and the unmistakable physiognomy and brogue, no company of tatterdemalions but an Irish company would have exhibited such an amount of good humour at six o'clock of a damp and chilly October morning, breakfastless, and with no better sitting or standing for their naked feet than the cold paving-stones. Not that the majority of them were without shoes, but it is not the economy of the Irish tramp to wear his shoes under such circumstances. The saving of shoe leather entered into his calculations when he resolved to ride to Maidstone; and since shoes are only good for walking in, why should his feet be cumbered with them when for many a mile he has no walking before him? So he carries them slung across his shoulder, along with a few items of bedding, and perhaps a second "slop" and pair of breeches, done into a sizable bundle, and tied in an old patchwork counterpane ; while his wife - if he is a family man - is laden with, in addition to the baby, a stock of cheap London grocery and bacon; the biggest boy carrying the cooking kettle, the barely- closed lid of which reveals the shoes and boots of the small fry, securely packed within, and only to be worn when stern necessity requires.
The fare charged to Maidstone for these hop-pickers is the very reasonable one of two shillings ; "children under twelve half-price"- a piece of liberality which seemed to cause considerable trouble and vexation to the unlucky official ruling at the turnstile that led to the departure platform. It was this individual's duty to examine the tickets the pickers had received in exchange for their money, and certainly the bare-faced attempts to pass off marriageable young men and women as "under twelve" was enough to provoke a man whose duty is inexorably regulated by railway time. "D'ye mean to tell me that she isn't more than twelve?" exclaimed the bewildered ticket examiner of the mother of a strapping wench of seventeen at least, and who, with an air of charming, childlike [-198-] simplicity, held out a half ticket for the officer's inspection - "Why, she's big and strong enough to carry a sack of coals." "Big, collicther, dear, but not shthrong," explained the little girl's mother, coaxingly - "she's outgrowed her strinth, poor soul, and a feather ind 'ud knock her down." "Then what is she going down for if she is too weak to work ?" The cute collector thought he had the old lady there, but she had done battle in the same suit before to-day. "Shure, collicther, dear, you are no family man, or ye wouldn't ax the quistion; did yer niver hear that the bitter ov the hop was strinthenin' to invilades? But it isn't the dirthy shillin' that shall baulk the baby," continued the old lady, perceiving that the officer was not to be convinced- "I'd rather be the t'other half iv her out of pocket;" and with a knowing wink at the "baby," away she went to buy the other half ticket.
And so, after countless skirmishes of a like character, the whole number pass on their way to the train; and I see no more of them - (I can hear them plainly enough, though the carriage I occupy is a long distance from them - I can hear them chanting ditties, both comic and sentimental, and laughing and "chaffing," as though bound on a holiday instead of to a bout of hard drudgery) - until Maidstone is reached, and they troop out at the station gate and take the road like folks who are not at a loss for the right way to go. This way undoubtedly was the way towards the hop fields, so I, too, took the road, expecting merry, if not select, company all the way along.
But in this I was mistaken. I speedily discovered that it was only when herding together, with nobody to look and nothing to be made by dissimulation, that they indulged in a natural flow of spirits. Soon as they were on the highway they broke up into gangs of three or four-some loitering, while others went ahead, so as to divide the chances of the road fairly amongst them ; and became halting, whining beggars, implor-[-199-]ing of every passer-by the "laste thrifle in the wurrld, yer honner, for the blessed God's sake," to save them from "dhroppin' down," they having tramped it all the way from London. And really they were enabled to put on an appearance so fagged and wobegone - an air so eloquent of dustiness and footsoreness, that I have little doubt that in a walk of a mile or so they were able to cadge at least half their passage money.
Did the reader ever see a hop garden? It is a curiously pretty sight. I never saw a vineyard, but should imagine that a hop garden was its exact counterpart. A great level plain that at a distance looks completely and thickly covered by slender flowing pillars, all green and gold, but which on closer inspection prove to be a succession of fruitful walls, with a path about six feet in width between each. These are the hops on the straight ranks of poles, each one planted in a little mound about a foot round and a foot high. In each mound three roots are planted, and under favourable circumstances flourish and make such a grand display of foliage, and twine and bind one pole's covering with that of its next neighbour, that it is like a weaving of leaves and fruit through the entire length of the row, and, with the sun shining through the interstices, throws odd-shaped, quivering patches of light across the shadowy path, making a picture not easily forgotten.
There are many different kinds of hops, differing much in price. There are " Goldings" (the best), and "white bines," and "grapes," and "Joneses," and "Colgates," the last-named the most prolific, but accounted the rankest. The picking is "piece work." Part of the hop-grower's stock-in-trade consists in a vast number of enormous wicker baskets, and these you see in the rows where the pickers are at work. They work in gangs, and to each gang is attached a "pole-puller," whose business it is to cut the plants close off at the roots, and then, pulling up the pole, convey the lot bodily to the "bin" [-200-] or basket, where the pickers are at work. The price paid depends on the leanness or fatness of the crop. At a plentiful harvest "nine a shilling" is the prevailing tariff - that is, nine bushels a shilling ; but in bad, "thin" seasons work at such a price would be little better than starvation for the poor picker, and as much as sixpence a bushel has, as I was informed, been paid. Some growers allow perquisites in the shape of prematurely ripe and weakly flowers, which are known as "blowers," and are used in the brewing of small beer. Several times in the course of the day the "measurers" come round with their great bags and bushels, and the produce of the picking deposited in the "bin," round which the gang squat, is "told." This is a part of the proceedings watched jealously by the pickers. It seems that there are two sorts of measurers, known respectively as "duff" handed and "feather" handed, and the picker very much prefers the latter. The "duff" (heavy) handed measurer is generally a "master's man," - that is to say, he studies his master's interests, even to the extent of cheating the ragged labourers ; and in teeming the flowers from the bin to the bushel, will dexterously lay so heavy a hand on them that they are crushed down and flattened ; whereas a "feather" handed measurer will pile them in fairly and lightly, topping off with a flat strike, heaped-up measures being against the laws that regulate hop-picking. Very few single men or women, or even married couples without children, are to be met amongst the pickers. It is the family man that makes good harvesting. Any baby of three years old is clever enough to strip the flowers from a hop bunch, and there you may see them, too little to reach the "bin," squatting round a big open cotton umbrella, playing at pork, and making fine fun of it, and all the while they are putting a penny in mamma's pocket. An industrious family of seven or eight in a fair season will earn as much as eight or nine shillings a day.
Out of this, all they have to provide is food. Firing for cooking purposes is yielded by the neighbouring woods and hedges, and the labourers are lodged at the cost of the growers. And this is the worst part of the whole business. The place they are housed in is generally a barn or shed, used in the winter for sheltering fattening bullocks. Sometimes the floor is boarded, sometimes bricked. Beds there are none, nor even straw, except of the lodger's own lucky finding. If the pickers do not bring a blanket with them, they lie bare, except for the rags on their backs; and there they herd, little children, grown boys and girls, married and single, higgledy-piggledy, without even a lantern light, till morning and the stick of the "foreman picker" hammering at the barn door rouses them.