Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - A Maidstone Flitting

[... back to menu for this book]




A STRANGER arriving at London Bridge by midnight train in September, might have been amazed at the curious spectacle that met his gaze on every side. It might pardonably have suggested itself to him that by a stern decree, the Corporation of London had resolved on the banishment of all beggars, and that here they were, bag and baggage, waiting for the train that at dead of night should smuggle them off to some remote and unfrequented part of the country. Squatting on the pavement in family groups, with their household goods in their midst, the stranger's first impression about them would be that, whereever it was the poor souls were being packed off to, the climate was of a moist and rainy nature, since, however meagre the equip-[-139-]ment, it was necessary that it should include at least one umbrella. Not a mere toy affair, a plaything shield against a shower, but a substantial circumference of tough material, on a frame of cane or whalebone, and of the dimensions, when expanded, of a small garden tent. The greater the number of children attached to each party the more numerous, with few and remarkable exceptions, were the umbrellas. There were some of the parties quite unprovided with this pluvial protection, but in lieu of it-though goodness only knew how it could be made useful as a substitute - they were equipped with wicker clothes-baskets, such as laundry folk use. These answered a useful purpose at present at any rate, and served as convenient stowage for the pots, kettles and domestic crockeryware.
    Such was the abundance of this sort of goods, to the exclusion of all other-excepting bundles tied up in sheets and shawls, which might contain something that was to do duty as bedding - as to throw doubt on the banishment theory, and hint rather at soń7te gigantic pic-nic, an outing of the entire tag-rag family, or a feast on some far away common. There were, perhaps, better grounds for this last suggestion than for the first, for they had come amply provisioned. Where the families were large, consisting of parents, grown-up sons and daughters, and little children, the impedimenta included so many loaves of bread that they stuffed out a good-sized sack, except for a foot or so of space at top, which was filled up with saveloys, dried cod-fish, hocks of bacon, and other such cheap and toothsome delicacies. As a matter of fact, the speculations and the supposititious stranger would have been equally at fault as well as regards the pic-nic theory as the banishment, of which he might have convinced himself at a glance had there been light enough for him to perceive the great yellow placard stuck against the station wall. That at once furnished a key to the mystery. It announced to all whom it might concern that the season of hop - picking was just about to begin, and further made known that, provided hop-pickers had no objection to assemble and take their departure at the uncomfortable hour of three o'clock in the morning, the railway authorities felt no objection to convey them to the chief centre of their prospective industry, which was Maidstone, at the rate of two shillings a head.
    It is not much saved - not more probably than sixpence or nine-pence each - but the chief advantage is being first on the ground. There is "room enough for all may be," since, all told, there are perhaps not more than a thousand hoppers in waiting for the train, and it is well known that the Kent picking alone, if it is anything like a crop, will give employment to from twenty to twenty-five thousand extra hands during the season. But there are earlier and later sorts of hops, and there will not be work for everybody at first, at all events, so "the sooner to work the quicker to win." It is not a promising morning to start on, at such an hour, and such an expedition. The sky is pitchy dark, excepting that now and again it is lit with quivering flames of sheet lightning, and at unfrequent intervals mutteringsof thunder is heard. Starting at three o'clock - the reason why is not so clear to the uninitiated as to the railway company - the [-140-] less distant fields will be reached by half-past four, when it will still be dark, and should it be pouring with rain as well, it cannot but prove terribly bad for the scores of little children - many so small that they have to be carried in the arms and on the shoulders of their elders - who accompany the motley company, since no arrangements can be made or "hop house" privileges claimed until a hiring takes place. And here it may be not out of place to mention that although considerable improvement has undoutedly taken place in the treatment of the poor hop harvesters by those who employ them, there is ample room for better arrangements still.
    There is really no reason why the leading growers who may require each seven or eight hundred "hands", and who are of course aware that nine-tenths will be supplied from London and its immediate vicinity, should not have their agents in town, to whom application for work might be made, and the people engaged, being provided with the regular metal ticket denoting their "number" on the books, as well as the "hophouse" or other sleeping accommodation to a share of which they are entitled, could thus proceed straight to head-quarters, with a clear understanding and with no further difficulty. The town of Maidstone would be exceedingly thankful for some such arrangement.
    I was informed by an innkeeper of the place that on the night of the following Sunday, or rather the early morning of Monday, to look out of one's windows into the High Street below was a sight to spoil the remainder of one's night's rest, even if the perpetual clatter of feet and clamour of tongues did not effectually provide for future wakefulness. The High Street of Maidstone is broad and long, but roadway and pavement, side streets and back streets were crammed with a crowd numbering several thousands, chiefly women with large families of big and little children, wandering about and waiting for daylight that they might see about them, and resolve where to go and what to do.
    "If they can stow away for a few hours in a gateway or side entrance of course they do it," said my informant. "There is the gateway that leads to my stables. A matter of fifty of 'em got in there, and when I got up, about six, there they were, with the youngsters asleep on the bundles, and they'd got a fire in a corner of the yard and were boiling their kettles and making coffee and washing themselves, quite at home. But it was worse I am told over at the Mitre (a large hotel near the market place). They always swarm there because of the large archway and the flights of steps, and there they were, as thick as bees in a hive, two or three hundred of em, sleeping higgledy-piggledy, worse than a common lodging-house. And it isn't as though you could get rid of em by turning 'em out - rid of em entirely I mean. They leave that peculiar smell behind em when they herd together in numbers - like they do at the Mitre - that it seems to hang about the place for days afterwards, which in the case of an hotel can't be said to be pleasant."
    I quite agreed with him, and only that it might have tended to unpleasantness between the townsfolk and the railway company, would have suggested that, since [-141-] the company had such great advantage in bringing down thousands of its hopping customers in the middle of the night, it might in fairness be asked to find some kind of housing or shelter at the station for them, at least until the town was awake and alert to take care of itself. This, however  -as I shall have something more to say on the matter bye-and-bye - is somewhat premature.
    Returning to the pilgrims of the hop-grounds who have not as yet left London Bridge Station, it may be remarked that their midnight dawdling about the streets, hours before the train is ready to take them. away, would not be so bad if they were all in robust health. Such, however, is very far from being the case. It is notorious that implicit faith in the curative power of hops "all a-growing and a-blowing," and ready for the hand of the picker, prevails largely among all classes of the labouring community. There is scarcely a known disease, if the belief is trustworthy, that the fragrance of a hop-garden is not good for. It is famous for those afflicted with lung disease, while for patients just recovering from contagious maladies, such as smallpox and fever, there is nothing in the world like it. Likewise, it is a sovereign remedy for children whose ailment has no particular name, but who are "drooping." Court and alley dwellers use the word in a sense beyond the practical. They speak of a child's "drooping," with the same air of mystery as in the old witch time mothers spoke of the children who were believed to have been "whispered to," called away by the "good people," or fairies; whereas, and in fact the poor little creatures are really withering and fading just as plants fade and die when they are set to grow in a meagre soil, and shut out from sunlight.
    I saw one stout and cheery Irishwoman who had "squatted," with her little family of five, and her kettle and bundles and umbrella, on the public pavement approaching the station, with as little ceremony as though she was at home in her own apartment, and she hugged in her brawny arms a poor little mite of a child, whose narrow white face looked all the more woeful on account of its being set in an old satin hood, orange-coloured, with green ribbons.
    "We'll be in time, I trust surr," said she, after a few civil words had passed between us. "I hear as how Ellis, of Farleigh, began his picking on Saturday, and he'll be along the first in them parts, and I'd like to be in them gardens, as I've worked in them ten years."
    "Then why didn't you start a day or two earlier?"
    " Well I'll tell you why, surr; this poor sickly babe of mine has never been well since its birth, it has got what the doctors call a male-for-mintion in its head, which it'll never get the better of, and I couldn't come before bekase [-142-] I had a bit of a feather pillow in parn, and couldn't get it out till my husband came home on Saturday night, and I wouldn't bring the darhint from home widout a summut aisy to lay its poor little head on while we was working at the bin."
    To court the company of John Barleycorn's bosom friend and boon companion while he is in his full-blown glory, is said to be particularly advantageous to those who have "gone wrong," working at pernicious trades, at lucifer-matchmaking, artificial flower-work and manufactures in which copper or lead is largely and carelessly used. And so it comes about that amongst the waiting throng are a good many who are not going hopping just for the sake of what may be earned, but in search of better health as well.
    It seems a pity that all such individuals are not rich enough to accommodate themselves, generally, at all events, as regards costume, to the commonalty. There is no reason why a respectable man should adopt downright rags because the majority of the brotherhood to which he temporarily attaches himself have a tendency this way; but imagine an individual hoping for a peaceful existence in hop-picking society, who wears a chimneypot hat and starched collar and cuffs, and who carries a neat brown paper parcel, that from its size and shape proclaims itself a change of linen, including, possibly, a night-shirt, and a relay of cuffs and collars. A man of middle age, sickly-looking, and who may have been a clerk whose health had at last utterly broken down through incessant years at the desk, and who now, having obtained that rarity of many years' promise, a fortnight's holiday, had desperately resolved to brave every peril and inconvenience he might have to encounter, and "go in" for a spell of hop-picking, that being the most economical and certain way of setting up a dilapidated constitution, as proved by the berry-brown and healthy-looking throng that may be seen tramping home from Kentish parts when the season of hops is at an end.
    A respectable-looking man is he, and evidently already all abroad in such company; but he is not to be daunted at the mere threshold of his venture. He has seemingly, at this early stage, discovered that a tall hat is hardly the thing, and, by way of compromise, and to conciliate popular prejudice, has given his a devil-may-care tilt to the back of his head, as though he despised it, and would of the two rather it fell off and got battered a bit. Likewise discovering, now that it is almost too late, that he should do in Rome as Rome does, he has taken to a short clay pipe, and nervously anxious to make friends of the three or four Spitalfields innocents who have marked him as fair sport and prey, and who are making much of him in their midst as they all sit on a doorstep, he has produced his decent flask, [-143-] leather covered, and with a plated cup, and the villains are drinking his carefully provided medicinal brandy out of it, winking and grinning over his head, and making ominous signs concerning the tall hat, which betoken that its symmetry and lustre have but a short time to survive, It is to be hoped that the misguided man is provided with money for a return journey, for so surely as he sits there his timid good nature will not save him. The grudge they owe him for his collars and cuffs, and more especially for his tall hat, is too deeply planted. Ere he is six hours old in Maidstone they will make spoil of his brown paper parcel, go "odd man" who shall have the empty flask, make a football of his objectionable hat, and afterwards rend it into fifty pieces, and in all probability wind up the little game by chevying their luckless victim bareheaded and breathless to the railway station, where he will thankfully take refuge in the booking office, and there abide until the train arrives to carry him back to London.
    It must not be imagined, however, that the ill-advised individual last mentioned was the only representative of respectability visible among the crowd that as three o'clock drew nearer swarmed towards the station. As might be judged from their appearance, there are a large number of really decent women, with their children, who make the journey, and combine profit with pleasure in a few weeks' ruralising amongst hop gardens. I spoke with one woman, who had a daughter about fourteen and three younger children with her, and she informed me that her husband was a porter at a City warehouse, earning eighteen shillings a week, and that five years ago, being out of work, they took their children with them and went to Cobham, in Kent, "hopping," and did so well that ever since, come the time, though now the husband was in work, he was quite agreeable that she should go.
    "It does all good," said she, "and I generally manage, if I am away a month, to bring home about four pounds, which helps us along in the winter time. Of course, there are all sorts go; but a woman has but to keep to her own sort, and she won't take any harm. It just depends who you are picking for. It is much better to go to where there are a lot of big growers in the same district than to an out-of-the-way place, where there are no hop-houses, and where the make-shut system is still carried on. By hop-houses I mean the regular buildings that the large growers have had put up on their land this last few years for their pickers to lodge in and to bide in all the day when it is wet. Where there are hop-houses half-a-dozen decent women can sleep together with their young 'uns, and it don't matter much who lodges each side of you any more than if you were at home in your street in London. It's all right when you get down there - to Maidstone I mean; but it certainly is miserable work waiting about the station here with the children in the middle of the night."
    I certainly was of the same opinion, and hardly knew whether, contemplating the patient waiters as the clock hand crept slowly round from a quarter to half-past two, to be glad or sorry that the public-houses were not still open, were it only that the poor woman who bore a double burden [-144-] of baby - one in a bundle at her back, and the other at her bosom - might obtain the refreshment of a draught of beer. They were not entirely shut out from creature comfort however. The gutter hotels, as they are sometimes called - the street coffee-stalls, for  which the Surrey side of London Bridge has long been famous - were doing a brisk trade, and might possibly have done a better, had not the proprietors (made wise by experience probably) deemed it necessary to deal deliberately, and with one eye on their goods and the other on the coffee-can, with a class of customers who in many cases would slip off without paying when they heard the station bell ring, and perhaps aggravate their offence by carrying off handy additions to their travelling kit in the shape of coffee-cups and spoons. At last the bell did ring, and leaving my friends scrambling and crushing in at the doors to get their tickets, and crowding through with a tremendous uproar that sounded ten times louder in the hollow stillness of the station than it otherwise would, I made my way homeward.