Our photo dating expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.
Katerina sent us her photo and asked:
‘This is a photo of my gran, Mary Edith Baden (third from the left) and my great gran, Emily Baden. I know it was taken in the hop fields of Kent but no-one seems to know when. Can you shed any light on this, please, and explain just what they did in the hop fields to earn money?’
‘This is a great photograph that connects your family to a fascinating aspect of our heritage and social and local history. During the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, thousands of local Kent families and casual workers from Sussex, East Anglia and, especially, London – mainly East Enders – travelled to Kent at the end of the summer for the hop-picking season. Londoners who could afford train tickets would take the ‘hoppers specials’ trains that departed from London Bridge in the early hours of the morning, while poorer city-dwellers walked to the hop gardens of Paddock Wood, Faversham or Maidstone, sleeping en route by the roadside.
The hops were of great importance to breweries and were one of Kent’s most valuable crops. As we see from your photograph, the annual ‘hop’ mainly attracted women and children, as adult men were usually working at their regular jobs, although they might join their families at weekends. Hop-picking in Kent grew so popular with East Enders that it became known as the ‘Londoners’ holiday’ and, providing fresh air in a spacious rural environment, it was the closest thing that many working-class people ever got to a holiday.
Living conditions on the farms were often basic, however, and hop-picking was tough and dirty work. Hop plants are climbing bines with stalks that cling to the growing wires with tiny hairs that irritate the bare hands and the hop cones leak an acidic tar that clings to the skin. Typically, pickers worked from 7am or 8am until around 5pm, with a lunch break for sandwiches and tea. They were paid by the bushel (eight gallons) and throughout the six weeks of the harvest, experienced hop-picking families could earn at least double an average working man’s wages. The extra money often made a vital contribution to the family’s annual household income, perhaps ensuring new coats and boots for the winter ahead.
Your photograph showing your great-grandmother and grandmother may also include a great-aunt as the two younger women look similar to one another. With them are three boys and two small girls who may also be identifiable as family members. The appearance of the two young women, who manage to look reasonably fashionable even in the hop fields, offers a close date range for this photograph, their distinctive hairstyles suggesting that the photograph was taken between about 1910 and 1914. Your grandmother and great-grandmother both wear coarse aprons, a common precaution with this kind of work, to help protect the clothes from hop juice stains.
Hopefully this scene and what it represents will add to your understanding of your forebears’ activities around a century ago. The same families tended to work for the same hop farmers every year and often travelled to Kent together with their neighbours, setting up as their living quarters rows of temporary ‘hop huts’ that replicated their terraces at home. It may well be that hop-picking was a long-standing tradition in your family and a significant part of their lives for several generations – a month of arduous outdoor work but a welcome break from the urban hardships to which they were accustomed and a rewarding and sociable experience.
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