During the 1930s/40s, in the East End of London and Essex suburbs, my family lived just above the breadline. Holidays by the coast were an inconceivable dream, but they did manage to escape the smoke and grime of the overcrowded streets by going ‘Hopping’.
The women and children would pack up for the summer, leaving the men behind to work. My Nan (Jennie Louisa Perkins) would be joined by her younger sister Lil, her mother (also Jennie), her aunts Lena, Joyce, Rosie and Lizzie; and her grandmother (my great great grandmother) Nanny Lee. She remembers many of her cousins too, but there are too many to mention here!
‘Hopping boxes’ would be filled with clothing, cooking utensils and provisions, and would later double-up as tables. Nan remembers they would each have a palliasse to sleep on – a sort of sack that they filled with straw (which sounds awfully scratchy and uncomfortable).
The Kentish farms weren’t too far away, so the men regularly joined the families at weekends. Uncle Bert (aunt Lizzie’s husband) used a work’s van to transport the gang down on a Friday night or Saturday morning.
Every year, Nanny Lee (centre of picture above) would choose which farm the family would visit for the working-holiday; often changing locations for better money or conditions. However, most hopping farms had a similar layout – a cook hut, surrounded by several hopping huts. The cook hut usually had some sort of cooking facilities, but mostly the families would cook on camp fires. There would be huge hopping pots for stews and boiling water, and my Nan remembers cooking potatoes, wrapped in foil, on the edge of the fire amongst the embers.
‘Lousy Hoppers’ were often looked down upon for being poor, yet my Nan loved it. Hopping was hard work, but being together with her family, in the fresh air, was wonderful. You would have to pull the hops off the vines, and drop them into a ‘bin’ – a canvas bag that was held by two long poles crossed at each end with shorter poles. The tally-man would use a bushel basket to count how much you’d picked, and you’d get paid by the bushel.
In the evenings, the children would go scrumping in local fields, trying not to giggle whilst hiding from the gamekeeper. Nan reminisces how she would always keep the largest apple to take back home to her teacher.
When the men arrived at the weekend, they would frequently hold a dance in an empty barn. Someone might have an accordion, another might play the mouth organ, and they’d all have a good old sing-song.
I’m not too sure my sons would have the same delighted reaction if I told them we were going on a working-holiday, but Nan’s stories of her hopping days always sound wonderful to me.
Many thanks to Kent Archives for the use of their image of the Hopping Postcard. You can read more about the history of hopping in Kent in their fantastic article here https://www.kentarchives.org.uk/hops-in-kent/