Hop-picking

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‘A holiday with pay.’ ‘Keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fare both ways and come back five quid in pocket.’ I quote the words of two experienced hop-pickers, who had been down into Kent almost every season since they were children, and ought to have known better. For as a matter of fact hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.

I do not mean by this that hop-picking is a disagreeable job in itself. It entails long hours, but it is healthy, outdoor work, and any able-bodied person can do it. The process is extremely simple. The vines, long climbing plants with the hops clustering on them in bunches like grapes, are trained up poles or over wires; all the picker has to do is to tear them down and strip the hops into a bin, keeping them as clean as possible from leaves. The spiny stems cut the palms of one’s hands to pieces, and in the early morning, before the cuts have reopened, it is painful work; one has trouble too with the plant-lice which infest the hops and crawl down one’s neck, but beyond that there are no annoyances. One can talk and smoke as one works, and on hot days there is no pleasanter place than the shady lanes of hops, with their bitter scent – an unutterably refreshing scent, like a wind blowing from oceans of cool beer. It would be almost ideal if one could earn a living at it.

Unfortunately, the rate of payment is so low that it is quite impossible for a picker to earn a pound a week, or even, in a wet year like 1931, fifteen shillings[1]. Hop-picking is done on the piece-work system, the pickers being paid at so much a bushel. At the farm where I worked this year, as at most farms in Kent, the tally was six bushels to the shilling – that is, we were paid twopence for each bushel we picked. Now, a good vine yields about half a bushel of hops, and a good picker can strip a vine in ten or fifteen minutes; it follows that an expert picker might, given perfect conditions, earn thirty shillings in a sixty-hour week. But, for a number of reasons, these perfect conditions do not exist. To begin with, hops vary enormously in quality. On some vines they are as large as small pears, on others no bigger than hazel nuts; the bad vines take as long to strip as the good ones – longer, as a rule, for their lower shoots are more tangled – and often five of them will not yield a bushel. Again, there are frequent delays in the work, either in changing from field to field, or on account of rain; an hour or two is wasted in this manner every day, and the pickers are paid no compensation for lost time. And, lastly, the greatest cause of loss, there is unfair measurement. The hops are measured in bushel baskets of standard size, but it must be remembered that hops are not like apples or potatoes, of which one can say that a bushel is a bushel and there is an end of it. They are soft things as compressible as sponges, and it is quite easy for the measurer to crush a bushel of them into a quart if he chooses. As the hop-pickers often sing –

When he comes to measure,
He never knows where to stop;
Ay, ay, get in the bin,
And take the bloody lot!

From the bin the hops are put into pokes, which are supposed when full to weigh a hundredweight, and are normally carried by one man. But it often needs two men to handle a full poke, when the measurer has been ‘taking them heavy’.

With these working conditions a friend and myself earned, this September, about nine shillings a week each. We were new to the job, but the experienced pickers did little better. The best pickers in our gang, and among the best in the whole camp, were a family of gypsies, five adults and a child; these people, spending ten hours a day in the hop-field, earned just ten pounds between them in three weeks. Leaving the child out of account (though as a matter of fact all the children in the hop-field work) this was an average of thirteen and fourpence a week each. There were various farms nearby where the tally was eight or nine bushels to the shilling, and where even twelve shillings a week would have been hard to earn. Besides these starvation wages, the hop-picker has to put up with rules which reduce him practically to a slave. One rule, for instance, empowers a farmer to sack his employees on any pretext whatever, and in doing so to confiscate a quarter of their earnings; and the picker’s earnings are also docked if he resigns his job. It is no wonder that itinerant agricultural labourers, most of whom are in work ten months of the year, travel ‘on the toby’ [2] and sleep in the casual ward between jobs.

As to the hop-pickers’ living accommodation, there is now a whole tribe of Government officials to supervise it, so presumably it is better than it used to be. But what it can have been like in the old days is hard to imagine, for even now the ordinary hop-picker’s hut is worse than a stable. (I say this advisedly: on our farm the best quarters, specially set apart for married people, were stables.) My friend and I, with two others, slept in a tin hut ten feet across, with two unglazed windows and half a dozen other apertures to let in the wind and rain, and no furniture save a heap of straw: the latrine was two hundred yards away, and the water tap the same distance. Some of these huts had to be shared by eight men – but that, at any rate, mitigated the cold, which can be bitter on September nights when one has no bedding but a disused sack. And, of course, there were all the normal discomforts of camp life; not serious hardships, but enough to make sure that when we were not working or sleeping we were either fetching water or trying to coax a fire out of wet sticks.

I think it will be agreed that these are thoroughly bad conditions of pay and treatment. Yet the curious thing is that there is no lack of pickers, and what is more, the same people return to the hop-fields year after year. What keeps the business going is probably the fact that the Cockneys rather enjoy the trip to the country, in spite of the bad pay and in spite of the discomfort. When the season is over the pickers are heartily glad – glad to be back in London, where you do not have to sleep on straw, and you can put a penny in the gas instead of hunting the firewood, and Woolworth’s is round the corner – but still, hop-picking is in the category of things that are great fun when they are over. It figures in the pickers’ mind as a holiday, though they are working hard all the time and out of pocket at the end. And besides this there is the piece-work system, which disguises the low rate of payment; for ‘six bushels a shilling’ sounds much more than ‘fifteen shillings a week’. And there is the tradition of the good times ten years ago, when hops were dear and the farmers could pay sixpence a bushel; this keeps alive the tales about ‘coming home five quid in pocket’. At any rate, whatever the cause, there is no difficulty in getting people to do the work, so perhaps one ought not to complain too loudly about the conditions in the hop-fields. But if one sets pay and treatment against work done, then a hop-picker is appreciably worse off than a sandwich-man.

ERIC BLAIR

New Statesman & Nation, 17th October 1931. Adapted from Orwell’s hop-picking diary

Notes

[1] A shilling (1/- or 1s) was equivalent to 5p, fifteen shillings (15/- or 15s) to 75p. In value, fifteen shillings in 1931 would now be approximately equivalent to £30.

[2] ‘The toby’ was ‘the road’ (so ‘the high toby’ was ‘the highway’). Peter Davison and Ben Pimlott.