Orwell Goes Hop-Picking

Hop picking in Kent Great Britain
Image from http://www.horsmonden.co.uk

Hop-picking is over! Thank God, it is done!
I’ve wished myself dead ever since it begun.
—Henry H. Johnson, “Hop-Picking Time” (1902)

September marks the beginning of the end of the summer and all the open-air activities that attend it. Yet a century or two ago the arrival of September signaled, to England’s downtrodden and overworked souls, the beginning of an exhilarating and exhausting variety of rustic vacation. Wire- and shoemakers, match girls and costermongers alike marshaled their families and tramped off to Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, or one of the other English hop-growing regions. They came in such numbers the railways ran special lines, and the roadways were thick with their rough-hewn carts.

In September of 1931, eager to try his hand at this proletarian pastime, writer George Orwell disguised himself as a tramp and traveled to a farm near West Malling, a town that lays southeast of London, to pick hops. Contrary to the idyllic visions of the harvest depicted in literature and art, he found it rough going. He slept in a tin shed known as a “hopper hut,” which he shared with three other men. Orwell noted that while it was a vast improvement over the tents and pigsties in which the hoppers formerly lived, it had no running water save the rain that leaked from the hole-ridden roof upon the miserable heap of straw that was his bed. To make matters worse, “the latrine was some two-hundred yards away,” the distance occasioning awkward midnight forays.

Such austere living did little to ease the chore at hand. In his diary Orwell wrote of how he had to tear down the hop plant’s spine-covered stems, which twisted along poles some twenty feet in the air, and strip the hops into a bin, all while bugs scuttled along his arms and neck. Still, hop picking had its pleasures. Romance blossomed in the fields, as did conversation. Unlike in the factory, one could “talk and smoke as one works,” Orwell remarked, “and on hot days there is no pleasanter place than the shady lanes of hops, with their bitter scent, like a wind blowing from oceans of cool beer.” He deemed the work “almost ideal,” but it was no living.

A hop picker had little going for him besides aromatic environs. Under the best circumstances, Orwell wrote, “he might earn thirty shillings in a sixty hour week,” payment that left him “appreciably worse of than a sandwich man” of London. And his sum depended on his being neither cheated nor dismissed. Like apple and potato harvesters, hop pickers were paid by the bushel. Yet unlike apples or potatoes hops were “soft things as compressible as sponges,” Orwell wrote: an overseer could “crush a bushel of them into a quart if he chooses,” which he sometimes did. He could also fire a picker on any pretext and withhold a quarter of the poor hand’s wages, to boot. Any picker who quit likewise forfeited the same amount.

The adverse employment arrangements did little, however, to discourage a hop picker from bringing himself and his family to participate in the harvest. It may be that they found incentive enough in spending a few weeks in wider creation, where they could breathe air wholesome and reviving — not to mention redolent of something other than machine oil.

*      *      *

Outside of beer brewing, there are not too many uses for hops today. But this recipe for cough syrup may come in useful during the months ahead, when even the most comfortably circumstanced folks dare not venture out.

Hop Syrup for a Cough from Widdifield’s New Cook Book (1856)

To one ounce of hops, and one pint of water add one table-spoonful of flaxseed. Put all in a sauce-pan, and boil it till reduced to one half. Strain it off, add half a pint of molasses, or for those who prefer it a quarter of a pound of brown sugar. Boil this until the becomes a thick syrup.

When cold take a table-spoonful at a time.

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