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Memories of hop picking at Southmoor.

Southmoor Hop-picking in mid-19th century.

Rose Young

Rose Young, born and brought up in Kent, met and married Charles Edwin Young during the 2nd World War. She came to Southmoor, Berkshire, with her new husband when he returned to live near his parents.

Charles’ parents had previously lived in Kent, but moved to Kingston Bagpuize to work for Mr Edward Strauss, bringing their knowledge of working the Kent hop fields with them. Charles' father, Edwin Young, was Foreman at Mr Strauss’s hop fields. When Mr and Mrs Young [Snr.] first came to the village, they lived in the Old School House, near the Kingston House Gates, as a hop garden had been started at Kingston Hill Farm in 1919.

Hop growing upheaval.

The Kingston Hill Hop Garden was probably not a success, as after a year, the hops were being grown within Mr Strauss's Bullock's Pit Estate, off the Hanney Road, Southmoor. In 1934/5 after losing a lot of money on the stock market, Edward Strauss had to leave Kingston Bagpuize as he was forced to sell up the estate including the hop gardens. The majority of the estate was sold at the Carfax Assembly Rooms, Oxford on Wednesday, 20th May 1936.

This upheaval for the village of Kingston Bagpuize, also meant a move for the Young family from the Old School house to Southmoor, as the new owners of the Hop Fields wished to retain Mr. Young's services. The Hop Fields had been bought up by the Berkshire Hop Company. At that time they had only purchased the Hop Fields, as Guy Weaving held New House Farm. Mr Holmes, a farmer and director of the company and a Mr Pike, looked after the Company's interests in Southmoor. Mr Pike had lost a lung and was tall and thin, and Mr Holmes [Mrs Blanchard's father] was remembered as plumpish and extremely jolly - “a very nice man”.

Life with the in-laws.

Rose’s father-in-law, Edwin George Young, was a most lovable old man. He was known as Teddy by his family and known mostly as 'Youngie' by his employers and workmates. He was well-liked in the community and well thought of by his employers. A sudden tragedy befell the family in 1958 when Charles died from asthma, aged only 47, leaving Rose to bring up her two children. Teddy's first words to Rose were, “Oh, you poor girl”. Just like him, Rose says, “thinking of others before himself”.

Her mother-in-law, was a tiny little woman. The family now lived in the house in Stonehill Lane, now known as 'October Cottage'. At that time the house was called 'Home Field' and was the hop garden foreman's house. It belonged to the hop company. Home Field's only water supply, as with other houses in the area, was by a water pump. They had a well outside, and an outside toilet with a bucket to be emptied by the man of the house. There was no gas supply either.

Work in the hop fields.

The work of the Hop Fields involved the Foreman in the measuring up of the fields and his wife, Emily, was in charge of the bookings.

Photograph of A Hop Pocket or Poke

A Hop Pocket or Poke.

The season began in spring with the cultivation and care of the plants. Rose thinks that this operation was called 'Hills'. Next would come the actual 'Stringing-up'. Soon large bales of string were placed at the end of each row of poles. This procedure meant that firstly the bales of strings would be dampened before use, then a long staff with a hook on the end would take the string up to the top hop pole, then down to the base, then up again, tying the strings in place. Teddy Young used to do this and Rose's mother-in-law, though tiny, used to do the 'tying-in', which means tying the strings in the middle.

It is known that in Kent and Hereford, there are different methods of stringing, the stringing having patterns, with names like 'Worcester work' and 'Umbrella'. There were not any specific patterns to the stringing that Rose knew about, it was to her knowledge, just called 'Hop stringing'. It is thought that 'Cat's Cradle’ may have been first played by the children in the hop fields. Children usually sat on the ground, and picked into an upturned umbrella.

Photograph of Visiting Hop Pickers at Southmoor.

Visiting Hop Pickers at Southmoor. You can see the 'Bines' behind them.

Recollections of a Hop Picker.

Jean Mitchell

Jean was born and grew up in Longworth, in the early 1900s. Jean's mother Sybil Bungay, had with her children worked for many years in the hopfields, and so Jean was well used to the work there. Here is what Jean recalled for me.

As a picker you soon got into it. You would take down a hop stem, called a bine, and lay it across your lap, and pick from it into a bin. The bin was made of strong hessian strung as a hammock, and supported in four corners by criss-cross wooden folding legs, with two stress bars across the tops. This made it transportable when needed, as of course it could be folded flat.

Four times a day, the man called the 'Bushel-upper' used to come around. He would come mid morning, at lunch time, and tea time. He would measure the hops you had picked by filling these into a bushel basket [holding 5 bushels] and measure how many bushels you had picked. He would then tip them into his sack, which was held by two other men. I think this was called a poke. He would then call out to Mrs Young, the Foreman's wife, who accompanied him. Mrs Young held a book in her hand, pencil at the ready, and whatever number he had measured '6' or '8' or whatever, she then wrote this amount against the picker's name in her book. This was called the 'bookings'.

When you arrived on the first morning, you were allotted a number by Mr Young. He would know where the plants were growing which he wanted picked first. All the rows had a number, and you would work the row corresponding to your number. If say you were '39' you then stuck to this number throughout the season, and so the people either side of you would be with you the whole season too. When you had finished your row, Mr Young would direct you to another row, which would also be No. '39'. You then had to carry your heavy bins along to this row, and start again. The only time you were allowed to go into other rows, was when you had reached the end of the field [i.e. when picking had virtually come to an end.] Then Mr Young would allow you to pick anything that you could see was left and add this to your total.

Break times were the best fun of all. Small fires were lit and you could boil up a kettle on this and make a brew. You were allowed to sit on the old bines, laid at the side of the field, whilst you ate.

Mr Young never allowed anyone to cut a bine. You pulled down a bine to pluck off the hops and then you had to lie your bine down on the ground when you had finished, to allow it to dry out. Mr Young used to say that if you cut the bine, it would bleed. He didn't cut the bines until they had dried out. It was all very well organized and was a good place to work.

You were allowed to work through your breaks if you wished, after all, the more you worked the more you picked, and the more you were paid. You were also allowed to work all Saturdays and Sundays too, and you could bring your husband or other members of the family to pick into your basket at the week-ends. This would increase your yield. This extra overtime ended about 1950.

It was such a wonderful way of life. Everyone seemed to be happy. There were lots of children down there of course, as the mothers were free to take their children.

Rose remembers.

Rose Young

If you were 'training up strings', i.e. training the young plants up the strings' you would be paid weekly. Mr. Young would call out at times 'Turn over'.

Whilst hop-picking, you were not paid until the end of the season. As it was 'piece work' you could start and finish when you wanted, but as your pay was regulated by the more hops picked the more you got paid, it was obvious that you started as early as possible. Rose started at 7am, but by the time her first son Raymond was born, Rose started work at 8am. You picked into a bin, then three to four times a day there would come a shout from Foreman Young, 'Hops Ready' and a chap with a 'poke' used to come around with Teddy Young. The times the Foreman called would be approximately, 10am: 12pm [when there was a break for lunch] again at 3pm then at 5pm or 6pm would be the last call.

The pokes took 10 bushels at a time from a bin, these were then put onto the waggon and horse standing waiting and taken to the Oast House, behind New House, to be cooked. Five bushels earned you only 1/- (5p) in 1946. If you were picking alone, you would have a mate and the bin would be divided in half. If a family were picking, then they would be allocated a whole bin. After a bin was empty, the Foreman would whistle and call out 'Hops Ready'.

Mr Young and the Company wanted the bins only full of hops, not leaves or other debris, so you would have to check that no leaves had got into the bin. Mr Young was very strict about the quality.

Annual influx from London.

Londoners came for their annual holiday. There were so many of them, there seemed to be no end to them and their children. They came down in 'special' trains. There were lots of local people too and a lorry brought in people from Faringdon and other surrounding villages. Gypsy families also came.

By the time Rose started her work at 8am in the hop fields, the 'Londoners' had already been hard at it, starting much earlier, as they only lived across the way from the Hop Fields. They lived in two rows of wooden huts, back to back. If a baby cried at night, the whole of the huts heard it. The Londoners slept on straw palliasses, goodness knows how many people they got into a hut. They had one big communal cook house, and also individual fires with cooking pots. The Londoners would work until about 6pm at the latest. The Foreman, Teddy Young, was usually home for his tea about 5 or 6pm.

Work was no picnic.

They all worked 6 days a week, Saturday mornings included. Rose also worked Saturday mornings. It was usual for everyone to stay for the whole season. The pickers worked in all weathers. If it was raining, your hands got very black from the picking, as the chemical that the hops were treated with came off, and was worse in wet weather. Without water, to clean your hands you would either have to eat your sandwiches or bread pudding with dirty hands or put some paper or a handkerchief around the sandwich and eat it that way.

On the look-out for wasps.

You were constantly on the look out for wasps, attracted by the food, and perhaps the smell of the hops. One particularly had to watch what children were eating, and that it was always wasp free. There seemed to be loads of wasps, and if the child had an apple to eat, you had to watch that a wasp wasn't about or on the fruit and that the child didn't have its lip stung. The pickers were always told to take a blue-bag or an onion to help ease the pain. There were no other treatments. No ointment in a tube.

Mothers used to take their babies, as Rose did, and feed them when necessary, sitting on the waste Hop bines [ i.e. those bines which the hops had been picked from and had dried out].

A bit of an inquisition.

At the season's end, the pickers went up to the office, in the yard buildings behind the back of New House. You would take your card, which showed how much you had picked. Then there was a bit of an inquisition as to whether you personally, had picked what you had etc., and then you were paid.

The amount of bushels that one could pick, depended much upon the crop, whether it was a good heavy crop or not. Usually though in a day you could pick 10 to 15 bushels.

The Londoners were poor, but so happy. The pubs were full, the Waggon and Horses and the Hind's Head crammed to capacity. The publicans must have loved to see them coming.

Rose said that her family would go to bed early, to enable them to make an early start the next day, but come 10 o'clock, which was throwing out time at the pubs then, the streets would be full of happy Londoners, singing their hearts out. Being poor then, wasn't state aided, you had to live with it, but Rose thinks poor people were happier then.

Source: Mrs Rose Young and Jean Mitchell talk to Jill Muir (Longworth History Society) May 1997.

Violet Soden remembers the Hop Picking.

Violet Soden

Then there were the hop gardens which provided work for a lot of local people. (I’m not quite sure whether they were owned by Mr Strauss or Mr Lessing of Kingston House).

When the hops were ready to pick, hordes of Londoners came down to help. They would spend about a month here and looked upon it as their annual holiday. Huts were provided for them to live in and they thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Source: Interview to the Longworth History Society.