Hop-Pickers and Pagan Ritual, from the 1750s to the 1930s

I’m still working on a series of posts on the South Sea Bubble. It’s kind of fractal: the more you look, the more you see, and it all links so complexly that it’s hard to fit into a single series of posts. So anyway, in the meantime, here’s another subject I’ve been reading up on: the tradition of hop-pickers.

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.

English Hops-img1English Hops-img2

There seem to be Victorian-era images, at least, by the pseudonym of the artist. (“Phiz,” as far as I know, is some kind of Victorian slang for either “physiognomy” or “visage.” I’m not sure why anyone would choose that as their pseudonym, but it does at least seem to date the pictues, as do other details.) That said, this probably doesn’t look all that different from how the hop harvest would have looked in the 1800s.

More tantalizing was this hint of a kind of annual hop-harvest ritual, also from the Clinch:

English Hops-img5

This seems to be part of some festive ritual that played a part in the annual hop harvest, where a young woman, and a young man, are placed in a container of hops and covered up by it. At least, that’s what I’m led to believe by the poet Christopher Smart, whose Georgic verse “The Hop Garden,” a twenty-five page poem in two parts, is often cited in older books on English hops (including Clinch’s).

Smart hailed from a town named Shipbourne Kent, and lived from 1722-1771, and in his 1821 anthology Kentish Poets, R. Freeman tells the story of Smart’s unfortunate life. Freeman explains who Smart married the daughter of a bookseller by the name Newbery, and moved to London to work as an author:

In this pursuit he might have been successful, as he possessed by nature and cultivation many of the most essential requisites for an author, but unfortunately he also derived partly from nature, but principally from habit, a more than equal number of counteracting propensities. He was not deficient in learning nor in genius; but he was indolent, profuse, and drunken.

Smart apparently spent a couple of years in the madhouse; after which, as is so often said, he regained his wits, but never fully regained them, or his artistic powers. (Though Freeman also notes that those powers were never really top rate anyway; it’s implied that “The Hop Garden” is included in the anthology mainly because of its peculiar “Kentishness.”)

(Smart also ended up spending time in debtor’s prison, where he died “of a liver complaint.” I’m guessing that was probably liver cirrhosis, and that it was gin, rather than beer or ale, that caused that ailment, but at a guess it sounds like poor Mr. Smart suffered from what we today would call clinical depression.)

Anyway, “The Hop Garden” is, as I say, some twenty-five pages long. I’ve snipped out a PDF of the poem (and the little preamble recounting Smart’s sad life story) for anyone who’s interested enough to read the whole thing:

However the bit that’s most often cited in old books on hops and brewing is this bit, offered by Clinch as a kind of gloss on the image above:

English Hops-img4

It’s that first bit that interests me, as it seems to describe the ritual depicted above. A similar ritual was still being practiced when George Orwell went hop-picking, in 1931, as his diary entry on 19 September reveals:

On the last morning, when we had picked the last field, there was a queer game of catching the women and putting them in the bins. Very likely there will be something about this in the Golden Bough. It is evidently an old custom, and all harvests have some custom of this kind attached to them.

George Orwell at his typewriter.
Orwell, far from the hop gardens of Kent…

Unsurprisingly, Frazer’s book (The Golden Bough) was the first thing I thought of too, when I realized this seemed to be some kind of vegetation ritual of the sort that so obsessed modernists early in the 20th century. However, a search of The Golden Bough turns up nothing but a brief, tantalizing inversion of the ritual as Orwell describes it:

Sir James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough.

In hop-picking, if a well-dressed stranger passes the hop-yard, he is seized by the women, tumbled into the bin, covered with leaves, and not released till he has paid a fine.

What’s interesting is the gendering of this very old ritual: in Smart’s account, it’s members of both sexes who pay a fine; in Frazer’s (published in 1890) the emphasis is on men submerged in hops and paying a fine. In Orwell’s account, forty years later, the focus seems to have been female hop-pickers. But it’s interesting that in the 1750s, at least by Smart’s account, it was both men and women submerged in the same hop bin. (Likely, the later versions of the ritual were shaped by Victorian/modernist sanitization, but perhaps the ritual varied from area to area.)

In any case, the ritual in the oldest version–Smart’s–seems to be some kind of fertility ritual: a male and a female hop picker are submerged together in a container of hops, which are the bounty of the harvest. It also seems to include some kind of wealth-redistribution element, where the other pickers claim a “largesse” or “fine” from those submerged. Whether it was for the honor, or just because they were the most efficient pickers, I don’t know, but it’s interesting either way.  Ron Bateman notes that at least in Orwell’s day, the ritual took place on the last day of hop-picking, which I think strongly supports the idea of it being some vestige of a pagan fertility rite (or, even, the whole of the rite, with its purpose forgotten): having completed the harvest, the rite would help appease the field, its spirits, the gods, etc. to ensure the next year’s harvest would also be plentiful.

Questions about Smart’s use of Hero and Leander aside (I think he’s just making the analogous reference to show of his literary knowledge, though there is a symbolic murder in some of the similar Continental rituals described in Frazer1) important questions remain regarding the origins of the ritual of which Smart, Frazer, and Orwell all describe. After all, hops weren’t being cultivated in England to any significant degree until the last decades of the 15th century, according to Peter Mathias, so it’s not as if there could have been specifically English hop-harvest rituals being practiced since time immemorial. I can think of three possible sources for the ritual:

  • Maybe it an older pagan English, modernized to the hop-picking harvests when hop cultivation in England began in earnest? Possibly the ritual was adapted from some other ingredient in brewing (like oats or barley) or from some other agricultural product altogether.
  • Possibly it was some ritual tied to hops specifically, and was transmitted to England from the Continent. (I’ve no idea about where I could look for any hint of that, though I personally doubt it would have been transmitted to England that way.)
  • Perhaps the ritual was actually an import from Ireland, Scotland, or Romani culture; members of these three groups made up most of the  “Travelers” or “Gypsies” who seem to have done a lot of the heavy-lifting work in hops-harvesting even in the mid-1700s, and likely before. (Their presence in England in sufficient numbers to get noticed and talked about even seems to follow on the tail of hops.)

Anyway, for me that’s where the trail goes cold. Which for now, is fine with me, as it gives me something to play with, fiction-wise. But now I’m curious about hop-harvesting rituals in the rest of Europe…

1. For example: “Thus in these harvest-customs of modern Europe the person who cuts, binds, or threshes the last corn is treated as an embodiment of the corn-spirit by being wrapt up in sheaves, killed in mimicry by agricultural implements, and thrown into the water.” So maybe there is a ritual simulation of death going on… it could at least explain Smart’s referencing Hero and Leander here.

2 thoughts on “Hop-Pickers and Pagan Ritual, from the 1750s to the 1930s

    1. Hi Susan,

      Thanks for that comment. It came up on the discussion on Facebook, but it’s nice to have the note here as well, in case anyone else stumbles upon it. I still wonder why the illustrator took that as his pseudonym, beyond it better rhyming with Boz I mean.

      According to the slang dictionary I looked at a while back, it’s a substitution for “visage” (“vinegar phiz” being “sour face,” I assume…).

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