How East End families spent holidays picking hops on Kent farms

How East End families spent holidays picking hops on Kent farms
How East End families spent holidays picking hops on Kent farms

With their Cockney voices puncturing the silence of quiet country lanes, they would arrive in their thousands every year.

For centuries, men, women, and children used to escape the poverty of the East End of London to go hop-picking in Kent each summer.

At its height, from the 1920s to the 1950s, around 200,000 Londoners would make the trip to hop gardens at Paddock Wood, Maidstone and Faversham on the 'hopper's specials' trains laid on for them.

The hoppers were paid by the bushel (eight gallons in volume), meaning that an average family working for four weeks in the 1930s and 1940s could earn £40 – the equivalent of ten weeks' pay.

Even during the Second World War, when bombs were reigning down on Kent, many women preferred to take their chances in the county's hop gardens than go back to London and face the Blitz.

Hundreds of images which were taken during the era show families posing for group photos alongside hop plants, while others reveal the bustling activity on farms.

But the blissful pilgrimage began to decline in the 1950s – thanks first to British brewers' decision to import American hops; along with a virulent viral disease which hit the Kent hop crop.

Then, when hop-picking machines arrived – again from the US – farms needed far less workers. It meant that by the beginning of the 1970s, the annual exodus of cockneys to Kent had largely died out.

In recent years, thousands of foreign workers have arrived in the UK each year to pick hops, along with other crops including apples and strawberries.

Now, as the UK food industry continues to grapple with labour shortages which have seen vegetable pickers offered £30 an hour, MailOnline takes a look at a world that once was.

With their Cockney voices puncturing the silence of quiet country lanes, they would arrive in their thousands every year. For centuries, men, women, and children used to escape the poverty of the East End of London to go hop-picking in Kent each summer. Above: Three generations of the Ayres family are pictured at a Kent hop farm in 1954

With their Cockney voices puncturing the silence of quiet country lanes, they would arrive in their thousands every year. For centuries, men, women, and children used to escape the poverty of the East End of London to go hop-picking in Kent each summer. Above: Three generations of the Ayres family are pictured at a Kent hop farm in 1954 

At its height, from the 1920s to the 1950s, around 200,000 Londoners would make the trip to hop gardens at Paddock Wood, Maidstone and Faversham on the 'hopper's specials' trains laid on for them. PIctured: Hop pickers work with sailors who are at home for a few days' leave during the war

At its height, from the 1920s to the 1950s, around 200,000 Londoners would make the trip to hop gardens at Paddock Wood, Maidstone and Faversham on the 'hopper's specials' trains laid on for them. PIctured: Hop pickers work with sailors who are at home for a few days' leave during the war

'The trips were an institution'

Among those with memories of hop picking is the singer and actor David Essex, who grew up in Canning Town in London's East End.

Speaking to the London's Royal Docks website, the 74-year-old said: 'In the mid '50s, the trips were an institution for women and children of our manor. They got you out of The Smoke for a few weeks.

'You earned a little and it was a working holiday for those who could not afford them.'

He added: 'The trips were fantastic. Mum packed the bare necessities and we jumped on the back of a lorry. At the age of five, venturing beyond the Blackwall Tunnel was an adventure.

'Rolling through the villages and countryside, waving to everyone we saw was too exciting for words.'

Essex also recalls his memories of the annual pilgrimage in his autobiography, Over The Moon.

He writes: 'The hop-picking jaunts may sound now like something from Victorian times, but they were amazing, enabling my naïve, impressionable young self to experience so many new things.

Among those with memories of hop picking is the singer and actor David Essex (pictured above as a child), who grew up in Canning Town in London's East End

Speaking to the London's Royal Docks website, the 74-year-old said: 'In the mid '50s, the trips were an institution for women and children of our manor. They got you out of The Smoke for a few weeks'

Among those with memories of hop picking is the singer and actor David Essex (pictured left as a child), who grew up in Canning Town in London's East End. Speaking to the London's Royal Docks website, the 74-year-old said: 'In the mid '50s, the trips were an institution for women and children of our manor. They got you out of The Smoke for a few weeks

'I saw stars for the first time, in skies clear from the obscuring murk of the industrial East End.'

He adds that he 'didn't pull my weight' and instead left it to his mother and grandmother to 'gather the bushels'.

The flurry of picking usually began in the first week of September, with hoppers living in unheated sheds and sleeping on straw-stuffed mattresses.

They would cook over fires outdoors or in concrete cookhouses, whilst they washed their clothes in local streams.

Whilst it was mostly women and children who travelled, husbands and fathers would join their families at weekends.

By the end of the season, a mother may have saved enough to buy winter boots or coats for her children.

'It was hard work, but enjoyable'

Lesley Quirk remembers the hop picking pilgrimage as a long-standing family tradition which began before she was born. She was among others who shared their memories with London's Royal Docks.

She told how she would travel to Kent in the back of her father's lorry, huddling under a tarpaulin.

'We picked hops in the fields Monday to Friday and had the weekends off. You were paid out at the end according to how much you had picked.

Hop pickers who had come from London for the annual harvest are pictured enjoying a game of cricket in Paddock Wood in Kent in 1936

Hop pickers who had come from London for the annual harvest are pictured enjoying a game of cricket in Paddock Wood in Kent in 1936

The hoppers were paid by the bushel (eight gallons in volume), meaning that an average family working for four weeks in the 1930s and 1940s could earn £40 – the equivalent of ten weeks' pay. Pictured: Hop picking at Paddock Wood in 1936

The hoppers were paid by the bushel (eight gallons in volume), meaning that an average family working for four weeks in the 1930s and 1940s could earn £40 – the equivalent of ten weeks' pay. Pictured: Hop picking at Paddock Wood in 1936

Whilst it was mostly women and children who travelled, husbands and fathers would join their families at weekends. Above: London children helping out with the Kent hop harvest in 1941

Whilst it was mostly women and children who travelled, husbands and fathers would join their families at weekends. Above: London children helping out with the Kent hop harvest in 1941

Children from London are seen assisting their parents in the provision of fuel by gathering pieces of wood for an evening around the camp fire after a hard day of picking hops in Kent in 1936

Children from London are seen assisting their parents in the provision of fuel by gathering pieces of wood for an evening around the camp fire after a hard day of picking hops in Kent in 1936

The flurry of picking usually began in the first week of September, with hoppers living in unheated sheds and sleeping on straw-stuffed mattresses. Above: Hop picking at Paddock Wood in 1937

The flurry of picking usually began in the first week of September, with hoppers living in unheated sheds and sleeping on straw-stuffed mattresses. Above: Hop picking at Paddock Wood in 1937

Hop pickers at Long Brook Farm in Brenchley, Kent, in 1952. The flurry of picking usually began in the first week of September, with hoppers living in unheated sheds and sleeping on straw-stuffed mattresses

Hop pickers at Long Brook Farm in Brenchley,

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