Published: 05:00, 29 May 2022
We tend to look back to the days when Kent was annually invaded by thousands of London hop-pickers with nostalgia.
Pictures of families of jolly cockneys spring to mind, sitting around campfires singing Knees Up Mother Brown.
The reality of course was more nuanced. In 1860, the number of seasonal pickers employed in Kent’s hop gardens was estimated at 180,000, but the vast majority of those were locals.
It was from 1865 onwards, when South Eastern Railway introduced special hop-pickers’ trains, that the number of Londoners grew substantially.
But the behaviour of the pickers was often the subject of considerable concern.
One grower remarked: “Anything that could be pounced upon, carried off and disposed of speedily, disappeared. The typical hopper was a thief.”
Locals were often shocked at the bad language and abject poverty of the London pickers.
The Rev Kendon of Goudhurst found them “very dark and destitute in spiritual things”.
However, some thought hop-picking improved the Londoners.
Lamberhurst grower John Noakes told a Parliamentary select committee in 1890: “It is very offensive to be near them when they arrive, but when they go away after a month in the country, they are a clean respectable sort of individual.”
There was concern for the living conditions of the hoppers.
While some growers provided brick or wooden hoppers’ huts, many slept in barns, tents or under the stars.
Another problem was the lack of proper arrangements for hiring.
Self-appointed gang-masters would secure employment and accommodation for their pickers but would charge a percentage of their earnings for the privilege.
Others just turned up, without securing work in advance.
If they were unlucky, they ended up at the workhouse which always saw a surge in numbers during the picking season.
In September 1869, the number of casual workers applying for food and lodging at Maidstone workhouse in just one week was 618 men, 817 women and 1,800 children.
Kent growers formed a society to counter these evils.
They employed five agents in London to hire the pickers and ensure they had a job and accommodation to go to.
Each picker was given a Hopper Letter to carry with them, with details of their employer and which train to catch.