Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Hop picking in Herefordshire

One of the fondest memories I have of my Nan is her impression of the Black Country accents she would hear during hop picking season, when people from nearby industrial areas in the Midlands and South Wales would descend into Herefordshire to earn an extra few bob.

I was also once told how my great granddad, gamekeeper Sam Jones, would occasionally be called upon by the local policeman during hop picking time to help sort out the fights that invariably broke out in the local pub when the Gypsies, who also arrived to earn some hopping money, had had a little too much to drink.

This, coupled with my dad’s memories of how surprised he was at how neat and well turned out the travelling folk were when they turned up looking for work, has always piqued my interest about how these disparate communities joined with the locals in September to meet the increased need for labour come hopping time.
My nan stands in the centre of this photo, with my dad and my uncle to her left
A search through the internet reveals a wealth of information on hop picking, and its pickers, from all corners of the UK. Rather than simply paraphrasing what has already been written, below is a collection of pertinent links, which I hope readers of this blog will enjoy perusing.

Hops and hop picking

“‘Going hopping’  for children meant sleeping on straw pallets, rabbit stews, avoiding wasps, picking hops into an old umbrella while their mothers worked at the cribs to fill the greensacks. It was a hard ‘working holiday’ but in the evening there was singing around the fires, and places to explore.”

A great source of information on the whole business of hops can be found in the website of the Bromyard Hop Festival – an organisation that celebrates everything hop-related in an annual festival. It’s fantastic that the town of Bromyard is taking the trouble to do this, and I heartily recommend that you support these guys and keep an eye out for details of the 2012 event!

The excellent Herefordshire Through Time website contains lots of fascinating articles on the world of hops, from a history of the plant to the processes involved from harvesting to drying – take a look!

The Gypsies

“One night someone rang the police to say that murder was being committed down at the Gypsies' wagons.  On arrival the police bundled the troublemakers into their vans, but as fast as they were put in at the front, they got out at the back and carried on fighting!”

I can heartily recommend the fantastic Romany Road website, which, among many other great articles, memories and photos, has a page on hop picking in Herefordshire. This includes a calendar of the hop grower’s year and a most useful article – both by Mary Horner.

Romany Road is a non-political, non-profit-making society, our aim being to share and enjoy memories and reminiscences of Romany Life, and produce a quarterly journal full of Romany stories and photographs celebrating their culture – available for a modest annual membership fee.

The Black Country

“The pickers took with them cooking utensils of every size and shape. The most important was the ‘hoppen box’. This was a tin trunk which held all the clothes.”

Check out Cradley Links, a website devoted to the history of the local and family history of the village of Cradley in the Black Country.

The page devoted to hop picking presents a fascinating collection of reminiscences of the hop picking ‘holiday’ from Cradley residents and a rather catchy song on the subject. There is also an account of when the local history group Cradley Then and Now set off in 2004 to Claston Farm in Dormington to experience hop picking for themselves.

Linking to the Bromyard hop festival mentioned above, an article in the Birmingham Post from march 2011 also harks back to the days when Midlanders would flock to the countryside to pick hops.


“Oh, it was wonderful, it was great. I used to love hop picking.”

The Jones History Website of the UK contains a great transcript of a tape recording of the reminiscences of Mr Dai Harmon, who grew up in Penyard, Merthyr Tydfil. While a fascinating insight into how life was in interwar Merthyr, it also contains a lovely snippet about the annual hop picking holiday in Herefordshire.

Further afield

Wikipedia is, as always, a useful source of information, and contains an article on ‘hopper huts’. Photos on this page led me to the website of Kent Life – Kent of course being another great hop growing area of the UK. Kent Life have recreated a collection of brick and tin hopper huts and looks well worth a visit!
Hop picking in the VBCW

The picture I have painted of Herefordshire in the Very British Civil War is of a largely isolated county where the royalist authorities struggle to contain various other factions; not least local ‘marcher lordships’, fascist organisations and rebel Anglican Leaguers.

However the hop picking season adds a whole new dimension to this, with what are essentially migrant workers pouring into the county from the Black Country, Wales and the Romany community. The commercial need to get the hops picked would undoubtedly override any security considerations that the authorities might have, and so wartime travelling restrictions would either be waived or quietly ignored by farmers and landowners.

This would open up what is essentially a local conflict – left-wing agitators from industrial and mining areas would use the hopping season as cover to infiltrate what one would assume to be traditionally poor recruiting grounds. Spreading dissent among the diaspora of hop pickers would be their goal, hopefully expanding this to the larger local population. Weapons, ammunition and equipment could also be smuggled inside sympathetic pickers’ ‘hoppen boxes’, while militant fighters themselves could masquerade as pickers.

Welsh Nationalists could also use this as a method of getting men and material into the county, albeit at the risk of clashing with left-wingers from the Welsh mining towns. This ‘fifth column’ could be used to assist their allies in the local Anglican League, or even further their wider aims of pushing out the welsh border. The tradition of churchmen preaching among the hop pickers could also serve as a useful recruitment tool for the Anglican League.

The Romany community largely kept themselves to themselves, and might be less susceptible to such agitation. However at a time when life was no doubt more difficult, arms were plentiful and suspicion was rife, the sadly still current mistrust of travelling folk could escalate into something more deadly, leading Gypsy families to take the necessary steps to protect themselves, especially in areas where far-right groups have the upper hand.

What was once seen as a family holiday and a chance to earn some extra cash could well develop into a deadly battle among the hop yards, hopper huts and drying kilns.


  1. What an absolutely fantastic post. Really informative, and a fine reminder of what an important (perhaps overlooked) part the Romany and travelling community has played in British history. I loved the photos of your Nan and Dad! I also thought the Hop Picking in the VBCW was top notch - some really interesting and unusual ideas there.

  2. Thanks!
    Just had a loom at your blog - some fantastic stuff there!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks! I'm a big fan of Old Hereford Pics, a your comment means a lot!


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