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The hop picking heydays of East End families who travelled down to Kent farms

For many East Enders, Septembers spent in the hop fields of Kent really were the heydays.

Busy streets and smog were replaced by sunny, open fields and the work itself may have been tough, with long hours and cramped living conditions, but the campfires, pub trips and freedom was worth it.

Reporter Rebecca Tuffin shares memories of her family's time 'opping.

My nan, Patricia Lyons, with her brother, Charlie, and my grandad, Roy Lyons
My nan, Patricia Lyons, with her brother, Charlie, and my grandad, Roy Lyons

There are hop pickers on both sides of my family - with my late nan and pops, Patricia and Roy Lyons, pictured at a farm in Faversham as youngsters, my nan with a tea-filled beer bottle in hand.

They were both from Custom House and travelled down with my nan's mum, Ellaline Radbourne, sisters, Peggy, Bet and Flo, and brother, Charlie.

And on my dad's side, my great grandmother, Maggie Tuffin, held onto her hop hut until she died in the 1970s.

Sadly, all but one of my grandparents have now died, with my nan, Sass Tuffin, baring few faint memories of her only hop picking trip, when she was just three.

But my grandfather, Anthony Tuffin, used to go 'opping every year throughout his childhood, travelling from his home in Downham, south-east London, to Cronks Farm in Yalding, run by Bill and Percy Moffat, my nan tells me.

My great aunt Peggy, great grandmother Ellaline Radbourne, and their family friend, Gwen
My great aunt Peggy, great grandmother Ellaline Radbourne, and their family friend, Gwen

He had nine siblings, although with substantial age gaps between them, meaning it was rare they all went hopping together.

A few months before embarking on the trip, the family would get a letter from the farmer, confirming they were invited back to the farm once again in September for between four and six weeks.

Most families would travel from the city on "hoppers' special" trains, their wooden hopping boxes filled to the brim with saucepans, plates and other essentials. Once they had reached their destination, wagons would take them to the farms.

Grandad's beloved dog joined him in the hop fields every year, until one time when he was told he wasn't allowed to take him. My nan isn't sure of the reason but says he had to give him away and was heartbroken.

The hop huts were pretty basic and far from what today's regulations would allow, with parents and siblings all sleeping in the one, tiny room together, in little makeshift beds.

My grandad, Anthony Tuffin is on the right, with my great grandmother Maggie at the back
My grandad, Anthony Tuffin is on the right, with my great grandmother Maggie at the back

My nan used to visit her mother-in-law with my grandad and remembers how uncomfortable they were. "It was like laying on an iron rod. I couldn't sleep at all," she said.

My nan says grandad's hut was made of concrete with a corrugated iron roof and was a sort of rainbow shape, a bit like an air raid shelter.

However, people still took great pride in their holiday homes, with my great grandmother re-wallpapering the walls every year.

"It was a comical idea really but people would always use wallpaper back then - they didn't reckon paint. There were also loads of things hanging outside the huts too, like bowls. They looked really interesting," my nan said.

My great grandmother also used to collect old clothes in the run up to the trip, to be worn while hopping, as the crops would create dark stains, impossible to wash out.

Their hut was in a prime spot, nestled within an apple orchard, overlooking the trees.

My grandad, Anthony Tuffin's painting of him and his dog down hopping
My grandad, Anthony Tuffin's painting of him and his dog down hopping

"Even after the hop picking had all finished, we would still go and pick the apples - some of them were eating and others cooking," my nan said.

Some families bought caravans which were pitched up on the farms, my great uncle Len being one of them.

Due to the time of the harvest, children who attended would miss several weeks of school, which you would expect them to be overjoyed by. But my nan says grandad was a bit "freaked out" by the idea once he had started secondary school - I suppose teachers were pretty scary back then.

But he still adored his time in Kent. He would have to get up at the crack of dawn and spend most of the day doing tough, manual work, but the evenings and days off definitely made up for it.

After a 10-hour shift, the pickers' sore, cracked hands would finally get a rest and families gathered in communal cooking areas, or around a pot over a fire, to prepare dinner.

Families would spend around 10 hours a day working
Families would spend around 10 hours a day working

My great grandma would make whole roasts in a little tin oven, my nan says.

After supper, they would often sit around a campfire and sing songs, making up tunes about hopping.

And on their days off, youngsters ran free with their friends, exploring and making mischief. "They loved it," my nan said.

"One time Tony and his friend Roy Lawrence, 'Lawrencey', bought all these cakes cheap as they were near their use by date and went down to the hopping fields and sold them to all the pickers."

Washing and toilet facilities were pretty basic, with the lavatory in a little metal shed - just a wooden bench with a hole in - a portal to the pit below.

Hops would be emptied into huge baskets after being picked
Hops would be emptied into huge baskets after being picked

"They stank like hell. I think the farmers were supposed to put lime down them though to help with the smell," my nan said.

Most men had to stay in London during the week, as they had permanent jobs there, but would often come down for the weekends, like my great grandad, Albert, who was a docker.

After spending Saturday in the fields working alongside their wives and children, the men would venture down to nearby pubs but some of the locals didn't make them feel too welcome.

"There was definitely friction between the locals and 'foreigners'. They were seen as rowdy. But I suppose in general the country people did have quieter lives. All the shops used to be on guard. Funny thing is though, lots of them did nick stuff - the stereotypes did sometimes ring true," my nan said.

For the men who were able to work full-time on the farms, a pole puller was the job they were all after, my nan recalls.

Hops going in to be picked by machine at Whitbread Hop Farm, Beltring
Hops going in to be picked by machine at Whitbread Hop Farm, Beltring

They were in charge of a team and had to make sure the hops were evenly distributed between baskets and cut hops intertwined around the top wires.

Families would usually be paid at the end of the picking season, with the amount dependent on how many hops had been collected. They could request a percentage of their wages early if they really needed it though.

As each family would return to the same hut every year, it was free to use, even outside hopping season, so my family would often spend Easter in Yalding.

To add to my hop-picking roots, I now live with my parents in an oast house, my bedroom at the top of a kiln which was once used to dry hops - perhaps the very same ones which were picked by my ancestors less than 10 miles away.

Pat Whitlock grew up in East Farleigh and remembers making friends with East End hop pickers. Here she is pictured aged between three and four
Pat Whitlock grew up in East Farleigh and remembers making friends with East End hop pickers. Here she is pictured aged between three and four

Now all converted into homes or offices, there are dozens of oasts dotted all over Kent, as it was once the most successful hop-growing county in the whole of the UK, with half of the nation's hops produced here.

The county's rich, fertile soil, wealthy farmers and perfect location to bring workers in from London led to this success.

At its peak, there were 77,000 acres of hop fields in Kent, with 250,000 pickers - East Enders, travellers and locals or "home dwellers".

The need for pickers began to dwindle in the 1960s, with picking machines replacing them.

And so the new technology marked the end to an era of exciting summers in the countryside, singing around the campfire and squeezing into tin-roofed huts.

But the memories of these magical times live on in photographs, reels of vintage, speckled footage and stories passed down through generations.

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