Did you know that September is hop-picking month in Kent? The annual hop harvest is a little more low-key these days, but travel back in time it was the main event on the agricultural calendar.
But before we go any further, what are hops? Hops are the green cone-shaped flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant. These tiny flowers give beer its distinctive flavour, bitterness and aroma. These perennial plants need to be harvested once a year and in Kent, the harvest time usually falls in September. Freshly picked hops are about 80% water, so before these can be used they need to be dried, which is why Kent is home to so many oast houses. Check out our previous blog to find out how oast houses were used to dry hops.
Hopping down to Kent
From the mid-1800s onwards, September saw an exodus of workers swapping the streets of east London for the fields and freedom of Kent. During the height of this working holiday boom up to 200,000 East Ender’s, mostly women and children would descend on the quiet county of Kent hoping to find work on one of the county’s numerous hop farms. Many families returned year after year, often to the same farms.
As hop-picking holidays became all the rage in the East End, special trains were put on just for those wanting to join in. Hoppers would make their way to London Bridge railway station where trains would then take them directly to the heart of the Kentish countryside. The hoppers were paid based on how much they picked. The pay was based on a set amount per each ‘bushel’ picked. The pay wasn’t great but experienced pickers could make the same or more than they would back in London.
While living conditions for the original hoppers were squalid and unsanitary, it wasn’t too long ‘Hopper’s Huts’ began to pop up across the county (mostly thanks to the formation of the Society for Employment and Improved Lodgings for Hop Pickers in 1866). While most of these Hopper’s Huts were eventually torn down it is still possible to spot one or two around Kent. And just like oast houses, they represent a key piece of Kentish heritage.
While hopping was hard work for little pay, many hoppers valued their time away from the crowded capital and relished the chance for a little adventure. But hopping wasn’t for everyone. George Orwell’s hop-picking ordeal him declaring that ‘no worse employment exists’, although he did also note that there didn’t seem to be any shortage of willing workers. Hop picking does make an appearance in some of Orwell’s work, so for better or worse his season as a hop picker left a lasting impression.
The end of an era
This era of mass-scale hop picking came to a close in the 1950s. The combination of new machinery and imported hops gradually ended the need for so many workers. But hop growing in Kent did not come to a stop. Kent is still the UK’s main hop-growing area and today, over 3000 acres of the Kentish countryside are still used for hop growing.