It seems like there’s been a surge of nostalgic memory for the tradition of Londoners from the East End making their yearly pilgrimage–a pilgrimage involving 250,000 people at its height, at the beginning of the 20th century–out to East Kent, where a large proportion of the hops grown in England (we’re talking a third or more, depending on when) were grown. The practice, which died out in the 60s because of hop-picking machines (and immigrant groups willing to work for less). It’s easy to find retrospective articles on the subject, as well as photo archives all over the place with images like these:
… as well as videos like these:
And indeed one author, Melanie McGrath, has recently published a book on the subject, titled Hopping, and not long ago, a children’s film set in the hop fields of Kent was even rediscovered in Chicago. The first bit of the film is online, though embedding is disabled so you’ll have to go to Youtube to see it.
What’s fascinating about all of that is how–just as the brewing industry was centered in cities, but tied to the countryside, so did English city-folk live existences that were not quite so segregated from their rural past. Going out to the hop-fields was considered by many to be a “holiday” of sorts–not only because it was done during holiday time, but also because of the fresh air, the exercise, and the time away from the stresses of the city. One academic text notes that there was a festive element to the work, too: the pickers sang songs and even sent friends postcards depicting hop-picking scenes, as the second of the images of above seems to be; given how little money was actually made by the hop-pickers most of the time–and the agonies hop-pickers actually experienced–this helps explain some of the attraction to participating in the annual hop harvest. (Saturday night parties also loom large in the memories of those who went hop-picking, or lived in these communities.)
Not all of the hop-pickers came from London, of course: the rural poor, and especially the wandering “gypsies” or “travelers” (many of them actually members of Irish, Scottish, but also to a lesser degree Romani groups of “Travelers,” ie. the so-called “Gypsies”) also did a fair amount of the work. Those “Travelers” also did a lot of the earlier-season work, apparently: things like training the hop bines to their strings and so on.
But of course, hop-growing and hop-picking went back centuries in England. The other day, I was reading up a bit on this, and I found some great images in George Clinch’s English Hops, along with what seems to be some kind of annual fertility ritual, widely associated with hops, that survived as a “tradition” among hop pickers well into the 20th century.