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Farming Hop Gardens at Southmoor.

Mary Blanchard.

Mrs Mary Blanchard née Holmes was born in Bentley, Hampshire. Mr Holmes, her father was a farmer and he owned several Hop gardens at Bentley. Here in Kingston Bagpuize, Edward Strauss was endeavouring to grow hops on his estate. In the first instance, he had tried to grow them at Kingston Hill Farm in 1919. Traditionally hops grow in a 'hanger ', that is, an area where there is a valley with a wood for protection. Growing hops at Kingston Hill Farm, for some reason, was not a success and so the growing was tried off the Hanney Road on the Bullock's Pit Estate. Trees were grown around the gardens for shelter, and the hops prospered.

Later financial troubles beset Edward Strauss. In 1936, he lost a lot of money. He had tried to 'corner' the world pepper market. Although a bachelor, he had an expensive family of nephews and nieces who lived with him, to maintain, and he had needed to make some money quickly. Unfortunately for him and Kingston Bagpuize, he lost all his money and had only one way left, and that was to sell the estate. This was done in 1936 and the whole was auctioned off by Knight, Frank & Rutley, in the Carfax Assembly Rooms, Oxford on Wednesday 20th May 1936.

A Hop selling Merchant in the City [of London] was a Mr Pike who heard that Edward Strauss was selling his estate, which included his Hop Gardens in Kingston Bagpuize and Southmoor. Mr Pike contacted several people together with a view to forming a company. This new venture became the Berkshire Hop Company.

Mr Strauss' Agent, a Mr Tanner lived at New House. An Agent's work was more or less that of what was later called a Foreman. Mr Tanner was a very far seeing man. He was already irrigating his strawberries - by the means of a fire engine!

After the sale of the estate, and when the Berkshire Hop Company had taken over, the two men in overall charge were Mr Holmes [Mrs Blanchard's father] and Mr Pike. They visited the gardens every now and again, returning to their work in London and Hampshire, and leaving their Agent in charge. Mrs Blanchard's husband, Jim was then working for Lord Hudson, who was the Minister of Agriculture during the War. They came to the area in 1956.

The cultivation and care of the plants used to be called 'Hills' as in Kent. In some hop growing areas there were different types of 'stringing'. There is known to be, 'Worcester work': 'Butcher work', [which is like Worcester work],: 'Four string work' and 'Umbrella work'. At Southmoor, they used Worcester work type of stringing. Hop plants follow the sun and therefore grow in a clockwise direction, not like Runner beans which when trained up, grow in an anti-clockwise direction. It was well to know this about the way hops grew, when 'training-up'.

Regional names

At Southmoor too, they use a mixture of Kent and Hereford names in the hop processing. Names such as 'Oasts', well known to most people, is a Kentish word but here we use the Herefordshire name 'Kilns'. We also call them Hop 'Gardens', again derived from Kent, whilst in Herefordshire the hop growing areas are called Hop 'Yards'.

The hop workers were paid by piece work, i.e. so much a bushel. They picked into a bushel basket holding 7 or 5 bushels. The pickers were paid 2d or 3d a bushel, which, whilst this seems so little, the average wage was also low. If employed in a business at this time, one may well have been earning about £3. to £3.10/- a week, with annual increments on your birthday of usually 1/- a year.

The Hop picker’s Special

When the season began, most of the pickers, who came from London, would be notified by someone who was in charge of this duty in London, who was probably Mr. Pike. They then caught a 'Hop Picker's Special' train to Wantage Road Station, where they were collected with a horse and cart. When they arrived at the Hop Fields they made their way to their allotted hut. Sometimes these would have been held by the same family for years. This was the only holiday they had, and whole families, often made up of several generations would arrive year after year. The pickers made the huts quite comfortable. They wall-papered them, and left chairs and cooking utensils etc., there for the following year. They slept on palliasses either on the floor or on bunks. The huts were made of wood, with a second inside layer of wood. All the huts were joined together in two rows, the latrines in a different hut nearer the edge of the field. There are still one or two huts which remain standing in the hop gardens. Most of the others were taken down and the wood re-used as it was still very good.

Family bonfire cooking

An additional hut was provided for communal cooking and eating, although many bonfires were made outside many of the huts and all the gypsy caravans. Cooking was done on these fires. After 1956 Calor gas stoves were used in the communal cooking hut, but prior to that fires were made from faggots of hazel. In those days, during the year, woods were still coppiced and the faggots came from these coppiced woods. The faggots were stored in the field as ricks. They were then ready for use by the following year. They would burn well as by then they were quite seasoned.

At the end of picking, Londoners, and Gypsies from the Wiltshire Fair, and many west country gypsies who came to the hop fields from the Devizes Horse Fair, would 'book' their accommodation for the following year.

There were also a great many local employees, who would arrange to come the following year. People came in the main from Longworth, Southmoor and Kingston, followed by people from Fyfield and Hanney. A cart was sent to fetch people from Faringdon to work. Mothers would take children on prams from Longworth and walk to the Hop Fields.

Gypsy caravans

The Romany Gypsy family of Smith who used to live at the bottom of the Draycott Moor Road used to help too. The Gypsies came in caravans and parked a distance away from the other hut dwellers. As a young lad, Tony Gutteridge and his friends (see next page) used to sit outside the cottages at Little London and watch the motley collection of horse drawn caravans, vans and carts pass by in slow procession for several hours on end.

Overseas Visitor’s Club

In later years, the pickers were joined by the O.V.C's [Overseas Visitor's Club], then based in Earls Court, London. Many back-packing visitors came and worked for a month or so, to earn some money and then moved on around the world. Occasionally some still come today. One village child first saw the inside of a hop hut when visiting with evacuee friends whose parents had chosen this way of seeing them.

Tallying

When the picking had started, many people were involved with 'tallying' the amounts picked by one person or family. Usually Jim Blanchard tallied or Sid Tarry who was by now the Foreman, as 'Youngie' had retired. 'Youngie' now helped as a gardener for the Blanchard family. Mrs Blanchard remembers him as a really lovely man, though very strict, particularly about the quality of his hops. He died at Southmoor aged 83 years in January 1966, and was buried in Kingston Churchyard.

Photograph of Youngie

'Youngie’ “A really lovely man”.


An end to hand picking

The hand-picking continued for 2 or 3 years after Jim and Mary Blanchard came to Southmoor, as about 1958/9 a machine was brought in. Life changed particularly for all those pickers involved and for the Londoners.

After picking and drying, the hops were sent directly to Bass's Brewery at Burton on Trent, and have gone to Bass ever since.

Work was started at 7.00am each morning, or even earlier on a bright sunny day. When Mike Pike, [grandson of one of the original directors of the Berkshire Hop Co.] arrived in the morning he used to rouse those who weren't awake by hooting the horn of his car. Every morning when he did this, a Mrs Beck used to run out of a hut and chase him with a frying pan. There was no actual Binman in charge of the pickers. Sid Tarry supervised them all. There would be up to three tallies a day, and the last tallying would mean the end of the day.

Extra rations for pickers

During the War, there were mostly women pickers and some men at week-ends. Mr Holmes, discovered, during this time, through his contact with the National Farmer's Union, that Hop pickers in Kent and Hereford were getting extra rations, and so he arranged that they get extra too. Mrs Blanchard recalls having to weigh out all these additional rations, and trying to get it all exactly right.

Newcomers binned

Mrs Blanchard recalls those years as a very happy time for all concerned. She recollected that any new person picking, would have to be on their guard, as they would be 'binned', if someone caught them. [Other sources say, that you were often 'binned' after all the picking had finished and the pickers, now soon to be paid, could now have a bit of fun after all their hard work. ] They would be put into a bushel basket and covered with hops. These days machines now cut the crop, then it is passed over a conveyor belt and all waste is hand picked out.

Source: Mrs Mary Blanchard, interviewed by Jill Muir (Longworth History Society) at New House Farm, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon. in June 1997. Mrs Blanchard was the daughter of Mr Holmes, who was one of the Directors of the Berkshire Hop Company.