Roy Wild, Hop Picker
Yesterday, I returned to visit my pal Roy Wild from Hoxton who formerly worked in the Bishopsgate Good Yard and he told me about his days hopping in Kent, more than half a century ago
There is Roy on the right with his left hand stuck in his pocket, to indicate the appropriate air of nonchalance befitting a street-wise man of the world of around twelve years old, on a hopping expedition with his family from Hoxton.
Roy went hop picking each year with this relations until he reached the age of eighteen and, at this season, he always recalls his days in Kent. Still in touch with many of those who were there with him in the hop fields in the fifties, Roy was more than happy to get out his photographs and settle down with a cup of tea with a drop of whisky in it, and tell me all about it.
“I first went hopping with my family in 1948 when I was ten or eleven. We went to Selling near Faversham in Kent. The fields were owned by Alan Bruce Neame of Shepherd Neame, and he would employ people to pick the hops which he sold to breweries. We all lined up on the last day and he would pay each of us in person.
Some Londoners went by train from London Bridge St, all waiting on the station and carrying all their stuff with them. We were very fortunate, dad’s brother Ernie, he had an asphalt company and had an open backed lorry, for which he made a frame for a rain canopy, and we all went down to hopping together – our family, Ernie’s family, also Renee’s sister Mary and her family. Ernie would drive down to Hoxton and pick us up at Northport St, with all our bits and pieces, our bags and suitcases with bed linen and that type of thing, and away we’d all go down to Faversham. We’d go at the weekend, so we could spend a day unpacking and be ready to start picking on Monday.
There was us hop pickers from London but Neame would also employ ‘home-dwellers,’ these were Kentish people. The accommodation they lived in was far superior to what we were subjected to. We were given no more than Nissen huts, square huts made of corrugated iron with a door and that was about all, no windows. It was very, very primitive. We washed in a bowl of water and the toilet was a hole dug in a field. My mother would take old palliasses down with us from Hoxton and they would be stuffed with straw or hay from the barn, and that would our mattresses. The beds were made of planks, very basic and supported upon four logs to prop them up off the floor. You’d put the palliasses on top of the planks and the blankets on top of that. The huts were always running alive with creepy-crawlies, so anyone that had a phobia of that wasn’t really suited to hop picking.
There was another room next to it which was half the size, this was our kitchen. My dad would take down an old primus stove for cooking. It was fuelled by paraffin and the more you pumped it up the fiercer the flame, the quicker the cooking. It was only a small thing that sat on a box. The alternative to that was cooking outside. The farmer would provide bundles of twigs known as ‘faggots,’ to fuel the fire and we would rig up a few bricks with a grill where we’d put the kettle and a frying pan. They’d literally get pot-black in the smoke.
We usually went from three weeks to a month hop picking, sometimes the whole of September, and you could stay on for fruit picking. When we first started, we picked into a big long troughs of sacking hanging down inside a wooden frame. They were replaced by six bushel baskets. The tally man would come round with a cart to collect the six bushel baskets and mark your card with how much you had picked, before carrying the hops away to the oasthouses for drying.
At the time, we were paid one shilling and sixpence a bushel. You’d pick into a bushel basket while you were sitting with it between your legs and when it was full, you’d walk over to the six bushel basket and tip it in. My dad was a fast picker, he’d say ‘Come on Roy, do it a bit quicker!’ All your fingers got stained black by the the hops, we called it ‘hoppy hands.’
If you had children with you, they would mess about. Their parents would be rebuking them and telling them to get picking because the more you picked, the more you earned. Some people could get hold of a bine, pull the leaves off and, in one sweep, take all the hops off into the basket. Other people, to bulk up their baskets would put all kinds of things in there. they would put the bines at the bottom of the six bushel basket and nobody would know, but if you got caught then you was in trouble. My dad showed me how to fill a six bushel basket up to the five bushel level and then put your arms down inside to lift up the hops to the top just before the tally man came round.
The adults were dedicated pickers because you had to buy food all the time and being there could cost more money than you made. There was a little store near us called ‘Clinges’ and further up, just past the graveyard, was another store which was more modern called ‘Blythes’, and next door to that was a pub called the ‘White Swan’ and that was the release for all the hop pickers. They all used to go there on Saturday and Sunday nights and there’d be sing-songs and dancing, before going back to work on Monday morning. It was the only enjoyment you had down there, except – if you didn’t go up to the pub – you’d get all the familes sitting round of a weekend and reminiscing and singing songs, round a big open fire made up of the faggots
We worked from nine o’clock until about four, Monday to Friday. The owner of the hop fields employed guys to work for him who were called ‘Pole Pullers,’ they had big long poles with a sharp knife on the end and when you pulled a bine, if it didn’t come down, you’d call out for a pole puller and with his big long pole he’d cut the top of it and the rest if it would fall down. When it was nearing four o’clock, they’d call out ‘Pull no more bines!’ which was what all the kids were waiting for because by this time they’d all had just about enough. A hop field can be one muddy place and if you’re in among all that with wellingtons on it can get pretty sticky. If it was ready to rain, the pole pullers would also go round and call ‘Pull no more bines.’ Nobody was expected to work outside in the rain. We dreaded the rain but we welcomed the pole pullers when they called out, because that was the day’s work done until the following morning.
We looked forward to going hop picking because it was the chance of an adventure in the country. It was just after the war and we’d had it rough in Hoxton. I was born in 1937 and I’d grown up through the war, and we still had ration books for a long time afterwards. I was a young man in the fabulous fifties and the swinging sixties. In the fifties, we had American music and Elvis Presley, and in the sixties the Beatles and British music. Hop picking was being mechanised, they had invented machines that could do it. So we grew away from it, and young men and young women had better things to do with their time.”
Roy stands in the centre of this family group
Renee Wild and Rosie Wild
Picking into a six bushel basket
Roy’s father Andy Wild rides in the cart with his brother Ernie
Roy’s grandfather Andrew Wild is on the far left of this photo
Roy is on the far right of this group
Roy sits in the left in the front of this picture
Rosie, Mary & Renee
Roy’s father Andy Wild with Roy’s mother Rosie at the washing up and Pearl
Roy’s mother, Rosie Wild
Renee, Mary & Pearl
Roy’s father Andy stands on the left and his Uncle Ernie on the right
Roy (with Trixie) and Tony sit beside their mother Rosie
Roy’s mother and father with his younger brother Tony
Roy stands on the right of this group of his pals
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