Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Day with the Hoppers

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TRAVELLERS by early trains may see strange sights, and meet with strange company. As a rule it would be difficult to imagine a place so comfortless and dreary as a great railway station at an early hour in the morning. The dirt and litter of yesterday's traffic are not yet effaced from the platforms and waiting rooms; the dead and cold ashes lie in the yearning grates; hollow echoes attend the slamming of the great doors; the jaded and breakfastless aspect of the third-class passengers proves that they have been roused from bed hours before their customary time of rising, so as to avail themselves of Parliamentary fare; while the sleepy snappishness of inhospitable night clerks and porters attests their impatience to get off duty.
    All these untoward elements combine to damp the spirit, and incline one to the opinion that it is possible to be too early a bird, whatever the quality and dimensions of the prospective first worm. It is not always, however, that the daily business of the railway commences so unpromisingly. Before now it has happened that the peaceful pilgrim in quest of the train that starts at 5.40 AM. has been startled and amazed to find the company's premises besieged by a mob as hideous to contemplate as it would be dangerous to approach - a gaol-cropped dirty crew of foul-mouthed roughs, restrained from committing acts of outrage and violence there and then only by a significant display of staves [-169-] on the part of a small army of policemen in attendance. These were the prize-fighting gangs at whose illegal doings railway directors used to connive; enabling the lawless ruffians to slip away down into the country, and "pull off their little mill" before the constable of the peaceful village they had honoured with their patronage had rubbed his sleepy eyes open. Since the decline of the P.R. this pretty exhibition has become rare ; but there is one equally strange, though not so repulsive, which may be seen at this season of the year almost any morning by the early passenger who takes train at London Bridge.
    As the said passenger contemplated the motley assemblage squatting on the steps and on the path - anywhere till the station doors should be opened - his first impression doubtless would be not that "the beggars were coming to town," but that they were quitting it, pack and baggage, never to return. Else why do they carry with them their household gods, their pots and kettles, and articles of crockery ? Why are they laden with those enormous bundles which are almost as large as beds? Why have they been at the pains this fine morning to carry with them their umbrellas, if they arc merely jolly beggars out on a pic-nicing excursion, and intending to return at night ? Being beggars - and what else can they be, weather-stained, ragged, and shoeless as nine-tenths of them are? - what on earth can they want with umbrellas ? Yet every family group is possessed of an umbrella - a capacious whalebone-ribbed gingham, gartered in the middle, and with a protuberance below the tie as stout as the calf of a man's leg. In some cases, where the members of a family are numerous, two umbrellas may be seen stacked with the rest of the luggage.
    [-170-] Where are they going? Whither is this ragged host bound ? A civil porter solves the mystery. They are hop-pickers; and, the season having just commenced, they are proceeding to Maidstone and its neighbourhood to find remunerative work on the plantations there. The railway company expect this annual migration, and prepare for it. The "hoppers" are not in the least particular how they travel, so long as it dosen't cost them much. In the event of third-class carriage accommodation being scarce, they have no objection to cattle trucks. On these conditions the railway authorities are content to carry them for a little more than the "tonnage" rate at which they convey heavy goods. At a later hour in the day I also took passage to Maidstone, and before I slept, made myself acquainted with as much concerning hops and hoppers as here follows.
    First, as to the garden. The gentleman to whose courtesy I am indebted for my information revealed to me much that, however valuable to any one intending to start a plantation, would not be found particularly interesting to the ordinary reader. He entered into pathetic details as to the various diseases the hop is heir to, and explained that from few of them had the tender plant escaped this year.
    I must confess that I was a little disappointed with the hop, having always regarded it as the type of sturdiness and strength-the noble flower that yields up its best blood in order that strong beer may be brewed, and the dignity and valour of the nation maintained. My friend informed me, on the contrary, that from the very hour of its birth, it is as uncertain as an ailing baby. You can never depend on it from one day to the next, or close your eyes on the pretty tendrils, winding about the poles, in the certainty of finding them [-171-] hale and hearty on the morrow. Blight may assail them as suddenly as croup attacks an infant, and the morning's sun rise on their drooping heads and leaves sickening nigh to death. They are subject to worms. Tiny insects assail them, and turn them black as though they were plague-stricken. They have an awful time of it seemingly. The wonder as regards those I saw was, that after all, they were so good looking and fruitful. It seems that a crop may turn out bad this year, and that one raised from the same roots (which will live and bear for more than twenty years), may next season be all that can be desired. There are many qualities, and each has its distinctive name. There are " Goldens," and "Jones's," and "Grapes," and " Colgates." The first-named are most valuable, and are eagerly bought by the brewers of pale ale.
    A Kentish hop-garden on a sunny summer s afternoon is one of the most beautiful sights in the world. A succession of lovely avenues, walled on either side by the climbing bine that twines each about its separate pole-a stout stick as thick as a man's wrist-to a height of eight or nine feet, which is thickly covered with the honey-coloured flowers. The paths between the rows, thrown into dense shade, are flecked and here and there broadly streaked with spears of bright sunlight that pierce the slighter foliage. A garden as yet untouched is a prettier sight than one undergoing the process of picking. Both were before inc ; but I had come to see the pickers rather than the to-be-picked, and, crossing the road, was at once among the former.
    Hop-picking is piece-work. In that brief sentence may be sought and found the reason why the father and mother hopper find it more advantageous to carry their numerous progeny with them than to leave them at [-172-] home. It does not matter how small a child is - a blind or a crippled child might even earn a few pence in a hop garden. It is a very simple arrangement. The pickers do not perambulate the avenues basket in hand, and gather the fruit as currants or raspberries are gathered. It is all sitting-down work. The picking of a crop of hops involves the annihilation of the whole plantation. An assistant, called a "pole-puller," goes from plant to plant, and, after cutting off the vine close to the ground, pulls up the stick it clings to, and carries the lot bodily to the spot where the pickers are seated. The hops are picked into "bins" - enormous bags of canvass, the mouths of which are stretched on a framework of wood.
    The flowers are not picked directly into the bin, however-it would be too high for the children to reach: here the mystery of the umbrellas was revealed. They were not intended to be used ferrule upwards and in the air but ferrule downwards and stuck in the earth, with their whalebone ribs fully extended. Round this light and portable receptacle the smaller children squatted, while the elder ones selected for them the fattest bunches. A good sum of money may be earned by a man and his wife and half a dozen children, provided they are industrious. The price paid for the labour is not always the same; it depends on the crop. When the fruit is abundant the ruling price is "nine a shilling," which means a shilling for filling a measure capable of holding nine bushels. In lean seasons as high as six- pence a bushel is sometimes paid. Besides this, those who are industrious enough may make a little extra by collecting and saving the "blowers" - the weak and withered flowers that are weeded out from the rest. Such a family as I have mentioned will pick from eighty [-173-] to ninety bushels of flowers in a long day. Very much, however, depends on the "measurer," who, of course, is the master's man. The hop flower is peculiarly light, sixty bushels weighing no more than a hundredweight. When the measurer comes round he is, therefore, jealously watched by the picker lest his great hand should rest on the flowers in the bushel, and in a twinkling reduce a peck of them to the dimensions of a quart. The picker stipulates that the bushel shall be filled loose, and likewise that the top of it shall be "struck" level with the woodwork, and not piled.
    The fragrant flower as it is picked from the bine may not yet be "pocketed." In the first place, it is laden with such an amount of moisture as would speedily produce havoc in the bulk in the shape of mildew. Then again the choicest and healthiest of hops are not entirely free from insects, that would continue to feed on the flower after it is packed. The hops have, therefore, to be treated with sulphur. In his hurried journey by rail through the hop districts the rcader must have observed certain conical erections, shaped somewhat like a brick kiln : this is where the hop flowers are dried and "cured."
    A hop kiln is by no means a pleasant place to enter on a sultry summer afternoon the heat is insupportable, the air is suffocating, the place is filled with sulphur fumes. The kiln has a grated floor, coin posed of a sort of lattice work. Over this is spread a hair cloth, and on the cloth the newly picked hops are heaped to the depth of a foot or more. Underneath the grating there is a pit in which is a fire and the sulphur pan. The choking fumes penetrate the hair cloth and saturate the flowers, which are carefully and methodically kept stirred by the kilnmen, who, with apparent unconcern, [-174-] work in an atmosphere which would reduce a person of delicate organisation to a condition of insensibility in a very few minutes. But the kilnman is an individual envied by one and all of the labourers in the hop vine-yard. The work is by no means hard when one gets used to it, and the wages are good-six shillings a day, and on Saturday night a bottle of gin, out of which the drier may refresh himself on those rare occasions when he feels the brimstone "creeping over him."
    ? Among other peculiarities that make hopping an occupation more attractive than any other kind of fieldwork, is the certainty that whoever employs the hopper and his family will provide them with a lodging of some sort, and charge nothing for it. This constitutes one of the ugliest features of the hopping business.
    Provided the weather is favourable, there is nothing objectionable in the occupation. It makes a charming picture; it is more healthful than gathering roses in a garden. But with the close of the day there is an end of the picturesque. The pickers, big and little, old and young, male and female, fall back into a state of existence that for indecency, not to say immorality, is scarcely to be equalled in the worst of the twopenny lodging-houses to which these poor wretches are compelled to resort when they are in London. Innocent people are apt to wonder how on earth a human creature can content himself or herself with the terribly scanty accommodation afforded by the casual ward of a workhouse; but there are worse places. The shed set apart for the sleeping places of the hundred or more hoppers on the plantation which I recently visited was more objectionable from every point of view.
    Let the reader imagine an extensive barn with a floor [-175-] of earth, and the sky visible through a thousand chinks in the roof-tiles. The only furniture of the place is a range of posts, with staples and bits of rope still dangling to them, showing that in the winter time the place is used for fattening cattle. Two partitions, rather more than knee high, extend across the interior of the building, and divide it into three compartments of about equal size. There is one bed in the place, composed of a heap of straw covered with a couple of sacks, and with a horse rug for a counterpane. It is spread on the earth, and is bordered round with hurdles, and over the bed, on a shelf slung to the wall, are a few articles of shabby crockery and a teapot. This is the sleeping chamber of the foreman of the pickers, but not one of his numerous hands aspires to such luxuries.
    In each of the compartments above mentioned is strewn a litter of straw, certainly not more than six or eight inches deep, and at the complexion of which a costermonger's donkey would be justified in turning up his nose. This is all the accommodation afforded by the hop-grower for his lodgers. The straw is meant for them to lie on, but for reasons of their own they prefer to sit on it, composing themselves for the night by huddling nose and knees together and squatting by the wall. This wall is of rough planking, and extending along its entire length are places rubbed bald of splinters, and greasily polished by the friction of their uneasy shoulders, showing that for many "seasons" the shed had been used as a dormitory. They never take off their clothes, these hop-pickers, except the more fastidious, who will divest themselves of their ragged coat or jacket, with which to make a cushion to sit upon. Sometimes a mother may divest herself of her shawl or gown to make a nest on the ground for her baby. The only rule in [-176-] support of decency - and the married element is generally sufficiently strong to enforce it - is that the married couples sleep in the middle, and the single lads and lasses at the ends.
    The foreman picker had not yet retired, though it was late, and when he obligingly opened the barn door, so that I might get a peep inside, the scene, though ugly, was peaceful enough. Every one was asleep, or pretending to be asleep, and the heavy and by no means sweet air was stirred by the nasal trumpeting of many who had earned sweet repose by twelve or fourteen hours' labour in the broiling sun. But one could not help suspecting that what now appeared was not the worst of it. Was it reasonable to expect decent behaviour among human creatures housed with so much less ceremony than pigs in a sty? And then it was impossible to avoid the reflection that the majority of these hop-pickers were dissolute, lawless tramps, for whom a prison has no terrors except the hard labour, and brazen, shameless women, who, lost to all sense of modesty, delight in nothing so much as mocking it in others. The majority of professional hop-pickers are undoubtedly of this class; but only the majority. Every season scores of decent men and women, just then "hard-up," are tempted by the stories of four and five shillings a day, and join the troop that flock to the Kentish plantations. These, of course, must herd with the rest.
    "Do you ever have any trouble with them ?" I asked of the foreman.
    "Nothing worse than larking," he replied, "and that mostly on a Sunday. They are so tired that they are glad to get to sleep on week days."
    Nothing worse than harking. To be sure that foreman picker may have been a man whose sense of pro-[-177-]priety was so severe that he would construe the most innocent funny remark or practical joke as a "lark." On the other hand, it would not be the least surprising if, in the event of an officer of the Society for the Suppression of Vice putting his head in at one of these dens some fine Sunday night when the hilarity is at its height, he should discover something that called pretty loudly for his interference.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874