*Chapter 9 of Juliet Nicolson‘s The Perfect Summer, 1911 (2006):
“Some working-class families could only manage to leave the city if they were guaranteed paid work. Hop-picking was a popular alternative to a break at the seaside, particularly for Londoners, as the heart of hop-picking country was in the south-east corner of England. On 26 August Country Life announced that the season had begun a fortnight earlier than usual because of the advanced growth of the crop in the hop gardens. Messrs L. May, hop suppliers from the Weald of Kent Gardens Company, reported that “the hops are fully matured and are full of lupulin” – the sticky yellow powder found in the hop cone that gives beer its bitter taste – leading them to anticipate that the 1911 crop would be “the best we have had for many years.”
ERIC BLAIR New Statesman & Nation, 17th October 1931. Adapted from Orwell’s hop-picking diary:
“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. 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!”