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Hopping Portraits

August 15, 2023
by the gentle author

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When Tower Hamlets Community Housing staged a Hop Picking Festival down in Cable St, affording the hop pickers of yesteryear a chance to gather and share their tales of past adventures down in Kent, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I went along to join the party.

Connie Aedo – “I’m from Shovel Alley, Twine Court, at the Tower Bridge end of Cable St. I was very little when I first went hop picking. At weekends, when we worked half-days, my mum would let me go fishing. Even after I left school, I still went hop picking. Friends had cars and we drove down for the weekend, as you can see in the photo. Do you see the mirrors on the outside of the sheds? That’s because men can’t shave in the dark!”

Derek Protheroe, Terry Line, Charlie Protheroe, Connie Aedo and Terry Gardiner outside the huts at Jack Thompsett’s Farm, Fowle Hall, near Paddock Wood, 1967

Maggie Gardiner – “My mum took us all down to Kent for fruit picking and hop picking. Once, parachutes came down in the hop gardens and we didn’t know if they were ours or not, but they were Germans. So my mum told me and the others to go back to the hut and put the stew on. On the way back, a German aeroplane flew over and machine gunned us and we hid in a ditch until the man in the pub came to get us out. My mum used to say, ‘If you can fill an umbrella with hops, I’ll get you a bike,’ but I’m still waiting for it. We had some good times though and some laughs.”

Alifie Rains (centre) and Johnny Raines (right) from Parnham St, Limehouse, in the hop gardens at Jack Thompsett’s Farm, Fowle Hall, Kent

Vera Galley – “I was first taken  hop picking as a baby. My mum, my nan and my brothers and sisters, we all went hop picking together. I never liked the smell of hops when I was working in the hop gardens because I had to put up with it, but now I love it because it brings back memories. ”

Mr & Mrs Gallagher with Kitty Adams and Jackie Gallgher froom Westport St, Stepney, in the hop gardens at Pembles Farm, Five Oak Green, Kent in 1950

Harry Mayhead – “I went hop picking when I was nine years old in 1935 and it was easy for kids. It was like going on holiday, getting a break from the city for a month. Where I lived in a block of flats and the only outlook was another block of flats, you never saw any green grass.”

Mr & Mrs Gallagher with their grandchildren at Pembles Farm, 1958

Lilian Penfold – ” I first went hop picking as a baby. I was born in August and by September I was down there in the hop garden. M daughter Julie, she was born in July and I took her down her down in September too. We were hopping until ten years ago when then brought in the machines and they didn’t need us any more.  My aunt had grey hair but it turned green from the hops!”

The Liddiard family from Stepney in Kent, 1930

Dolly Frost – ” I was a babe in arms when they took me down to the hop gardens and I went picking for years and years until I was a teenager. I loved it while was I was growing up. My mother used to say, ‘Make sure you pick enough so you can have a coat and hat,’ and I got a red coat and matching red velour hat. As you can see, I like red.”

The Gallagher family from  Stepney outside their huts at Pembles Farm, 1952

Charles Brownlow – “I started hop picking when I was seven. It was a working holiday to make some money. This was during the bombing, you woke up and the street had gone overnight, so to get to the country was an escape. You wouldn’t believe how many people crammed into those tiny huts. You took a jug of tea to work with you and at first it was hot but then it went cold but you carried on drinking it because you were hot. You could taste the hops in your sandwiches because it was all over your hands. There was a lot of camaraderie, people had nothing but it didn’t matter.”

Mr & Mrs Gallagher from Stepney at Pembles Farm

Margie Locke – “I’m eighty-eight and I went hop picking and fruit picking from the age of four months, and I only packed up last year because the farm I where went hop  picking has been sold for development and they are building houses on it.”

At Highwood’s Farm, Collier St, Kent

Michael Tyrell – “I was first taken hop picking in the sixties when I was five months old, and I carried on until 1981 when hops was replaced by rapeseed which was subsidised by the European Community. In the past, one family was put in a single hut, eleven feet by eleven feet, but we had three joined together – with a bedroom, a kitchen with a cooker run off a calor gas bottle and even a television run off a car battery. There was still no running water and we had to use oil lamps. My family went to Thompsett’s Farm about three miles from Paddock Wood from the First World War onwards. I have a place there now, about a mile from where my grandad went hop picking. The huts are still there and we scattered my uncle’s ashes there.”

Annie & Bill Thomas near Cranbrook, Kent

Lilian Peat  (also  known as ‘Splinter’) – “My mum and dad and seven brothers and three sisters, we all went hop picking from Bethnal Green every year. I loved it, it was freedom and fresh air but we had to work. My mum used to get the tail end of the bine and, if we didn’t pick enough, she whipped us with it. My brothers used to go rabbiting with ferrets. The ferrets stayed in the hut with us and they stank. And every day we had rabbit stew, and I’ve never been able to eat rabbit since. We were high as kites all the time because the hop is related to the cannabis plant, that’s why we remember the happy times.”

John Doree, Alice Thomas, Celia Doree and Mavis Doree, near Cranbrook, Kent

Mary Flanagan – “I’m the hop queen. I twine the bines. I first went hop picking in 1940. My dad sent us down to Plog’s Hall Farm on the Isle of Grain. We went in April or May and my mum did the twining. Then we did fruit picking, then hop picking, then the cherries and bramleys until October. We had a Mission Hall down there, run by Miss Whitby, a church lady who showed us films of Jesus projected onto a sheet but, if the planes flew overhead, we ran back to our mothers. We used to hide from the school inspector, who caught us eventually and put us in Capel School when I was eight or ten – that’s why I’m such a dunce!”

Annie & Bill Thomas with Roy & Alf Baker, near Cranbrook, Kent

Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Archive photographs courtesy of Tower Hamlets Community Housing

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. August 15, 2023

    Such beautiful portraits, and so moving! I have not been in Kent in over twenty years, and I didn’t realise that the hops were being replaced by rapeseed, and the pickers by harvesting machines. Another tradition gone by the wayside… but I suppose that is often how life works. It was a treat to see these bright, lively portraits and read the subjects’ stories this morning! As always, thank you for sharing them with us.

  2. Christine permalink
    August 15, 2023

    Such warming stories from the hop pickers and found emotional!
    It was a hard time to pick hops when they say a holiday it was a hard holiday x

  3. Ken jones permalink
    November 10, 2023

    Nice to see the hop-picking photos especially my mate Connie Aedo who I used to work with at floor laying.

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