August 2nd, 2016
Let’s Go To the Hop
It was in a footnote of a book I no longer remember that I first heard “hopping” used to describe something other than what you’d do after stubbing your toe. Hopping, it turned out, was also an annual migration of Londoners to the hop farms of Kent in the southeast corner of England. I found the notion instantly intriguing because I simply couldn’t imagine London’s hardscrabble urban poor afoot in the postcard countryside. It’s a vanished tradition now, but I was fortunate to find a singular guide to this lost world in the form of Melanie McGrath, who is ostensibly an author but whose gifts are closer to time travel.
Geography is destiny in the story she tells in Hopping. On one hand, Kent is the warm corner of England, with soils and climate and landscape that make it the “garden of England.” On the other hand is — or rather was — London’s East End, a city within a city, a place of hard work, little money and tightly knit social fabric, all of it ironically wrapped around the British Empire’s wealth pump, the docks of London. Life in the East End was hard even before it became the primary target of Hitler’s bombers during the Blitz. Childhoods were short, pleasures were small and so, for most East Enders, were the boundaries of their world. They tended to live out their lives without traveling far from the densely packed and charmless neighborhoods where they were born.
But only fifty or so miles to the east, situated in fertile soils and with easy access to the giant breweries of London, was the heartland of British hop production. Hop farming was a quiet occupation, but come harvest time, things changed, because an acre of hops could require 200 pickers. Early on, when there were relatively few hop farms, (hopyards, as they were called), determined “hoppers” could walk the distance. If they had a bit of money, hoppers could take a boat down the River Thames, which wound through the East End before fanning out into the great estuary which formed Kent’s northern edge.
But during the 19th century hops became a big crop, filling tens of thousand of acres of Kent’s rolling landscape. Fortunately for all involved, the rise of hops coincided with the rise of rail travel, making it easier for more to go hopping. Railways created seasonal “hoppers’ specials” (even if they were repurposing cattle cars to do so) while farmers began to erect huts to house the hoppers when they arrived. The result of all this was that, by the last two decades of the 19th century, roughly 125,000 people would migrate from London’s dockyards to Kent’s hopyards every summer.
What’s more remarkable is that most of those thousands were women and children. Hopping was typically a month-long sojourn, and in the merciless East End labor market, that usually meant giving up your job. That was an easier thing for women who often earned their money by doing piecework — sewing, artificial flower making — out of their houses. At times, entire neighborhoods would migrate together, pressing prams into service as luggage carts and, upon arrival, reconstructing their social fabric in rows of fabric-walled huts.
The East End hoppers would meet up with about an equal number from other places, so that every summer a quarter-million came to live in the farmland of Kent. I have to believe that the light and space of Kent must have been a complete shock for first timers. It was an environment utterly unlike their grimy, smoky, walled-in home, and what’s more, a hopyard is a slightly surreal sort of farm.
For one thing, stilts are required. Hop bines (not vines) grow furiously, and commonly reach heights between 20 and 30 feet, but only with support. Rows of sturdy posts with wires strung between them are the basic armature of the hopyard, and before the growing season, farmers would mount alarmingly long stilts to tie lengths of line onto the wires, lengths which the hops would quickly climb.
By harvest, all this would result in long leafy tunnels suffused with green light and redolent with the thick, spicy scent of the hop flowers, which resemble nothing so much as soft, green pine cones. At the ringing of a bell, work commenced with a rush, families sticking together in the bustle. “Pole pullers” would cut down the towering hop bines and the hoppers would strip off the hop flowers by hand, heaping them into immense baskets. The work was busy, and it tended to be hot as well. The hop bines stained the hands a tarry black and they prickled if you did it wrong. But the work was easily mastered, simple enough even for small children to do and know that they had genuinely contributed to each family’s haul.
And the haul was worthwhile, too. Though the money paid looks like a pittance in retrospect, it was substantial; the women and children of a hopping family could earn in four weeks what the man of the family might earn in ten. What’s more, the man of the family was typically not there to claim possession of the money or drink up a share of it.
When it wasn’t time for picking, the hoppers lived in what was effectively a large scale form of camping. There were woods and fields to explore, berries to pick. The teeming non-human life in the countryside was a revelation to East End children when they first encountered it and a delight when they rediscovered it each year. Even the trees were overwhelming, so much larger than the few scrawny specimens that survived in the East End and what’s more, many studded with fruit that these undernourished children could just pick and eat.
Families minded each other’s children, singing as they cooked over open fires. From the fishing villages of the coast would come people selling whelks in jelly or eels in vinegar. Children would make dolls out of twigs and rags, learn how to climb trees, or just climb to the top of a hill for the novel sight of a vast landscape, the mysterious sea glimmering at its edge. Ponds were for swimming and pursuing frogs. There were gypsies in the woods, too, a society apart — but the hoppers knew that if a family member fell sick, the gypsy women would have a cure.
There’s a temptation to think of the experience as a holiday for people who could never afford to holiday. But it was more than that, because hopland was a fundamental transformation of their ordinary lives into a variant of the same thing, only better, brighter. Children might take up residence with other families, and some women would (quietly) find other sexual partners during the summer; more than a few children unknowingly returned to the site of their conception when they made the annual journey. Hopland was the road not taken, only you could take it, once a year, and get paid for the privilege.
I often muse on the disastrous intersection of food, culture, technology, and commerce, but here was an instance where those forces came together in a way that met the quotidian requirements while also enriching the lives of those whom they touched. Now, yes, you could say, it was because of the appalling conditions of life in the East End that hopping cast such a spell, and you would most likely be right… but we might pause to consider just how those conditions had come to be.
London’s east had always been less desirable, with the filth of the city flowing east on the river and the “stink industries” — tanneries, starch makers, match factories and so on — smoldering away. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, the East End changed in a fundamental way, by becoming intensely crowded. It was a result of a nationwide migration from the countryside to the cities and often, histories cast this as “the escape from the grinding poverty of the countryside.” Less often do they mention that the grinding poverty only really came into being once people had moved to the cites.
That’s because England’s country folk, though poor in money, had always been able to put food on the table and fire in the hearth by virtue of “commoning,” the working of land tended by the entire community. It was a modest existence, to be sure, but it would be wrong to call it impoverished in any of the experiences that create a rich life. The result was a common folk who were enduring and largely contented, until the wealthy and powerful of England decided that they were not wealthy and powerful enough, and used the paired weapons of law and violence to “enclose” what had been common land.
Landless and starving, many country folk moved to the cities, where budding industry was waiting for the arrival of just such a desperate workforce. It’s telling to think that the entire notion of “unemployment” simply never existed before that time.
There’s a distinction that’s made in French between poverty and misery. The difference is that while the pauvre doesn’t have much money, he or she has security, and can sleep at night knowing that starvation or homelessness is not lurking. But for the misérable, the abyss is always yawning and the effort to stay above it never ceases. The commoners of the countryside lived the lives of pauvres while most East Enders spent their entire lives under the specter of becoming misérables.
Hopping was an opportunity for the East Enders to trade one way of life for another, if only for a while. And it’s a rather touching irony that the hoppers paradise was, in some small fashion, a return to a way of life that had been stolen from their forebears. Of course, they had to be the kind of people who could make that journey and effect the transformation. They had to be resourceful, resilient and capable, in Melanie McGrath’s poignant turn of phrase, of surviving and flourishing “in a place and time that offered little other than fellow travelers and almost nothing by way of second chances, (understanding) that happiness in life was to be found by making the most of whatever small, bright joys might flit by.”