Sunday 15 September 2013


Hop picking was a seasonal event which took place at the end of the summer or early autumn depending on the season. In those days Kingsley and the surrounding area had extensive hop gardens, as they were known. Along the road to Alton beyond Worldham and on the right hand side towards Wick and to the left towards Selborne were vast areas covered with hops. In fact the hop gardens went very close to the boundaries of Alton town on a number of its sides. Holybourne, Froyle, Crondall and Bentley all had large areas covered by hops. As far as Kingsley was concerned the hop gardens were on Mr.Marshal's Malthouse Farm at the east end of the village and stretching out towards the Farnham road and the forest at Buckshorn Oak. I have a recollection that Mr. Robins Rookery Farm on the way to Oakhanger also had a few hops fields as well.
Many of the village women, my mother included, went hop picking. These were, of course, days when generally women did not work in full time jobs as they do today. But many took advantage of the seasonal work provided by the many and various crops which the village farms produced in those days. Apple picking, strawberry picking, potato harvesting and hop picking being a few examples. With regard to hop picking I remember the women would all joke that they were doing it in order to buy a fur coat. Fur coats were, in those days, a much admired fashion item. Mostly, of course, they were only affordable by the very rich. I have no idea why or where this particular humour arose but there is no doubt the money earned by hop picking, even if saved over several years , would not have been enough for a fur coat.
As a child I and many other children were taken with their mothers into the hop gardens each day for the duration of the harvest . I certainly enjoyed those days and I think most of the other children did also. Once in the hop gardens we had pretty much free range and would wander off throughout the hop crops, both in areas that were being picked, and into others that were not. The hop gardens were set out in straight lines, therefore, it was possible when walking along the end of any given field to see down its whole length . Apart from exploring every corner of the farm we spent much time and effort searching for the elusive Hop Dog. This much cherished creature was in fact the caterpillar of the Pale Tussock Moth. These varied in colour from pale cream to almost white and others would be a pale lime green. They all have a protruding and erect bunch of dark hair at the rear end which gave the impression of being a tail. About an inch and a quarter long and a little thicker than a pencil these treasures were found as individuals, they did not appear in groups. When one was located, (there were not lots of them ), the cry "Hop Dog" would be shouted out by the finder for all to hear. This included the adult pickers. All of the children would then rush to the caller in order to take possession of the prize. Having handled the creature it was set free and the search resumed for another.
The vines containing the hops were cut by one of the farm workers and the pickers would then strip them of the hops. The vines were cut in lots of about a dozen for each picker in order that they could continue to pick without holdups. The hops were then stripped from the vines into bushel baskets from which they were poured into larger wicker baskets which held, I think, ten bushels. The number of bushels were recorded against each picker and the picker paid by the bushel. When the larger baskets were filled to the level of the top they were recorded in the foreman’s book for payment. It was common practice for the pickers to put their hands deep into the hops and sort of pump them up.
I imagine this introduced an element of air into the picked hops, as they are quite light in weight. In any event it was designed to give the appearance of a fuller basket. When the large baskets were moved the level of the hops within dropped back to its real level. Whilst, I am fairly sure, the staff knew what was going on I don’t ever recall a problem being created by this activity.
The whole hop picking activity was somewhat of a social event as, for the most part, the pickers all knew one another and throughout the day there was never ceasing chatter. A hotbed of local gossip and debate! Lunch, then usually referred to as dinner, was eaten in the hop gardens by the pickers in large groups. This was usually made up of sandwiches and tea poured from a thermos flask. All quite basic food and a far cry from the sort of packed lunches or picnics one might expect to see today.
Although a large number of village people swelled the ranks of the hop pickers, the numbers were also made up of gipsies whom travelled the countryside taking advantage of the seasonal work offered by the farms. In this respect Kingsley was no different than all of the other surrounding villages. As far as Malthouse Farm was concerned, I seem to recall that only known gipsies were employed. This meant that the group became known to the farmer and their fellow pickers and also ensured there was less likelihood of the many problems, often associated with gypsy groups. It was quite common during that era to read in the local press of mass brawls and fights in local pubs. Indeed, it was then, quite common to see notices placed outside of pubs stating "no travellers or gypsies". Can you imagine the outcry if such a notice were to appear today! It was also not uncommon for all sorts of things from villages to "go missing" when gypsies were passing through. This covered a whole range of items, tools, crops, small machinery, farm animals and pets, especially chickens and dogs. As far as the poultry were concerned it was often only the cock birds that were of interest as this was an era when cock fighting was still fairly common amongst certain gypsy groups. Reports of such events and subsequent prosecutions, would periodically, appear in the various local newspapers of the day.
The whole hop picking harvest lasted, I suppose, for a little over two weeks and the fields, stripped of their crops, fell silent again for another year. I well remember the feeling of disappointment when the picking was over and life returned to the normal daily routines. Great days and great memories but, as with everything, nothing stays the same and bit by bit the pickers were replaced with machines. This took a few seasons to complete as the early machines were pretty crude, missed a lot of hops and frequently broke down. But as sure as God made little green apples, the technology improved and the human pickers became obsolete. As my time in Kingsley progressed there was a steep decline in the area covered by hops and this was also the case in the surrounding areas. I have no idea what the acreage covered by hop gardens was, in that part of north Hampshire, but there is no doubt that the remaining areas today are but a drop in the ocean compared to how it used to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment