For many Royal Docks area families it was their only holiday. The working and living conditions would have today’s ‘elf and safety police up in arms. But as journalist and historian Colin Grainger recalls, it’s almost impossible to find anyone who didn’t love hop-picking in the fields of Kent.
There were songs, laughs and happy days galore as one Canning Towner, who went from the age of nine months to nine years recalls.
“My first thoughts are of messing about in streams with tiddler nets, finding wild rabbits, lying in hammocks that my dad would hook up between poles with heavy string vines,” said June, who was still hop picking when the Fab Four were dominating the charts.
But it wasn’t Strawberry Fields Forever for her. It was the hop fields, and all that entailed.
For many families from Canning Town, Custom House, North Woolwich and Silvertown, working holidays were the thing. Everyone would join in and travel to ‘the country’ as we called it, to go hop-picking.
It was a time for a taste of proper fresh air in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s for thousands from the Royal Docks area. A brief respite from the area… ‘where even the birds had coughs!’
For many youngsters, the entire six weeks school holiday was spent in the fields.
“It was out time away from The Smoke,” said Hettie Stevenson. “We were in a place called Horsemonden, My main memory was of the last day when the farm worker with a lorry came round and would throw Bramley seedlings, great big apples to the kids to take home. We had had a wonderful time. Sadly it’s all gone now.”
Lesley Quirk, 60, remembers it as a long-standing family tradition, beginning many years before she was born. Her family and friends went to Whitbreads hop farm, in Paddock Wood, Kent.
“Dad used his lorry to get us there. We used whatever we could to take the supplies. In later years we packed up our family car.
“I remember going along Seven Mile Lane, huddled together under a tarpaulin on the trailer of his lorry, also loaded up with supplies and everything we needed such as saucepans etc. Health and safety was not given a thought in those days. We picked hops in the fields Monday to Friday and had the weekends off. You were paid out at the end according to how much you had picked.”
She went on: “It was hard work for adults, but enjoyable. Something completely different from our usual lives. Fresh air and a change of scenery, spending the day chatting to family and friends on the other bins alongside them. You were told to go to one field at a time, once that was done then you were instructed what field was next. Families each had their own ‘bin’ for the hops they picked, started at the bottom of their allocated row and worked their way up the field. Most adults could pick very fast and I’m pretty sure I would be able to still do it now.”
The Bin was a very large sack held up by a framework of poles at each end.
Said Lesley: “Us kids would jump in the bins and cover ourselves with the hops and find plenty of caterpillars. Heavy green bines of hops growing up poles and across strings in rows along the fields made it look like a series of tunnels. Once everyone had reached the top of their row the whole field looked totally different, like a bomb had wrecked it with bare bines laid all across the ground. You would have to give a shout to warn everyone when you were pulling down the next bine as the dew would go all over us and leave us wet and cold if we didn’t get out of the way.
“You called out for the Tally man when your bin was full and he would come along with a helper carrying a large measuring basket. The hops were scooped up into the basket and a tally kept in your book as to how many basketfuls they amounted to. These were then taken away and the process began again with an empty bin and proceeded along the row. I remember sitting or standing around the bin pulling off the hops into the sack, but we often strayed and went off for adventure. We played in the surrounding fields, sometimes this involved scrumping from nearby farms and we’d try not to get caught.”
Music and acting legend David Essex, a Canning Town schoolboy and docker’s son, was delighted to share some of his memories with us and remembered his time fondly. “My parents and I didn’t have many conventional holidays with buckers and spades by the seaside,” he remembers, but we had something that will live in the memory forever – hop-picking trips to Kent.
“I remember seeing an open-backed truck turned up near my home in Canning Town and getting on board with lots of women.”
David was just one of many East Enders who headed out to the countryside in the 1950s to escape the noise and pollution of the city. He recalled being overwhelmed by seeing cows in a field for the first time.
“In the mid ‘50s, the trips were an institution for women and children of our manor. They got you out of The Smoke for a few weeks. You earned a little and it was a working holiday for those who could not afford them.”
He said: “The trips were fantastic. Mum packed the bare necessities and we jumped on the back of a lorry. At the age of five, venturing beyond the Blackwall Tunnel was an adventure. Rolling through the villages and countryside, waving to everyone we saw was too exciting for words.”
David also writes about hopping in his book, Over The Moon, and said his place for picking was Rovenden, near Ashford. Like others he got a hut with a mattress and hay.
“I saw stars for the first time in clear skies away from the industry of our area. Falling asleep on a hay smelling mattress under a gently flickering oil lamp as the adult sang songs round a campfire was magical.”
He added: “My mum and nan did most of the work, leaving me to climb trees and go wild in the country, including one high jump over a fence to avoid a charging bull.”
At the weekend, his dad and other men would visit and they would have football matches on the fields, go fishing and sit outside the pubs. Even at the time, I knew these days were idyllic, and sixty odd years on, I can still recall how special they were.”
One former North Woolwich resident, Jessie, said: “We actually went hop-picking in September when we should have been returning to school. We were little but I remember it well. We used to sing all kinds of songs as we worked. We used to have to pull up a basket of hops for a packet of Spangles!
Elaine Bauckham Mitchell, born in Jersey Road, Custom House, first went hop-picking in Kent when she a baby, and treasures a picture of her and her sister Hilary and a lady called Marie Lloyd, from 1951. She now lives in Australia. “I was too young to remember much but the stories have been passed down the generations.
Mozie Fenn, 65, who also now lives in Australia said: “Those were the good old days. Scrumping as kids and having a good old sing along in the cookhouse. We were all crowded into our little huts of a night, enjoying each other’s company. It was a good working holiday. Can you image it today? The youngsters would be sitting on the side of the bins texting!”
Mozie went hop-picking from her home in Burley Road, Custom House, from the age of 16 for many years.
“They were magical times. It was a family tradition and something special.”
Her family even hired a minibus and went back down to Kent to “go-hopping” again on a recent trip home.
“The games we played live in the memory. It was hard work but so rewarding to experience the countryside. My main memories are of it being muddy and wet all the time. But we never minded. We all enjoyed each other’s company. All mucking in together. It was special, pulling the last bine before we went home.”
Kitty Smith, 84, went to the Whitbread Farm, Bell Common, from the late 40s onwards.
“For those living in the Royal Docks area, it was our summer holiday,” said Kitty, who lived in Burley Road, Custom House, during her hopping days.
“We go there in an open-backed lorry and it was a family affair. Those days were so special.
“I loved it when the Salvation Army came with their band and gathered up a lot of the children where we sang and learned some of their songs. They brought us tea and buns on most evenings. During the picking we would often jump or be thrown in the bins, it was such fun.
“Hoppers lived in huts with corrugated irons roofs and wooden or brick-built walls.
“Initially, we were all in one room, but in later years we were allowed to create
an opening into the ‘hut’ behind to create another room which was then used for a bedroom for parents and children. You could fit in two double pallets beds in the bedroom area so we all had to share beds,” said Kitty.
Lesley said: “We had the same huts every year. Families were all in the same row, in a terrace, now we would consider them slum. But then it was something we looked forward to. Would be like camping now without the mod cons? People made an effort by decorating the inside of the huts and brought spare wallpaper with them to put on the wooden walls. I remember we also brought the old type tall kitchen cabinet with the drop down leaf and I can visualise the small camping oven and the plastic water containers that we used to go to the standpipe to fill.
“A very small number of the huts were built with wooden stairs going up to a loft area. I thought they were wonderful but we were never lucky enough to have one of those.
“Each row of huts had a ‘cookhouse’ in front of them where there would be large fires lit to do cooking, heat water and provide somewhere warm to sit and be sociable late at night or if the weather was cold A tractor would go round the huts and stop by each cookhouse while a worker used a pitchfork to drop bundles of long sticks of wood which we called ‘faggots’ onto the ground and this would be used to make the fires. Some people put doors and windows on their cookhouses but we had a heavy curtain across part of ours.
Kitty added: “In the hut we slept on pallet type bed frames with mattresses made out of straw that were provided for us. We used oil lamps and I can remember feeling very cosy in bed looking at the shadows that the lamps made on the wall. In later years we brought our own mattresses with us and wallpaper to brighten up the place and make it like home.
“You were normally there for four weeks and then had to go home before school started. We normally got there in September, though on some years it was August Bank Holiday weekend.
“At the weekends, coach parties of friends and family from the docks communities would come with Clark’s coaches in Beckton Road, Canning Town to join us.”
Lesley said: “We would call out to our cousins through the think wooden walls whilst the grown-ups were sitting in the cookhouse drinking tea and talking late at night. Going to the toilet, I remember old wooden and metal toilet blocks which were cold and often not working and if I could avoid going, I would. We used buckets at night. There was a bathhouse but I have no memory of going and I think a sporadic wash down was enough for me. It wasn’t always good weather as it would be early September; when it rained there would be mud everywhere and no drains. Wellies were essential and you could be wearing them day in and day out. People would bring the family dog as well. We had old wooden tables and chairs on the grass in front of the huts to have our Sunday lunch.
June said: “There were a few huts where site shops would open on certain days for a few hours. These sold vegetables, groceries and kids could buy half a bar of chocolate if you had a little bit of money. The shopkeeper used to break a Cadburys bar in half and then sell it to us. Seasonal fruit and veg like runner beans and plums still conjure it ups for me. There was a little wooden café as well where I could buy a delicious Telfords individual steak and kidney pie if mum would give me the money.”
June added: “There was always a big celebration and drink up for the grown-ups when payday came at the end.”
Kitty said: “My dad and grandad were pole pullers and a pole man, so we made a bit extra. It meant my mum had more money at the end to keep for the family budget for the rest of the year. What you earned was worked out through the blue book. This was a book attached to your bin which was weighed and then what you had picked was counted.”
Bill Stevens, from Silvertown said: “Keeping clean, I don’t remember washing very much at all! Definitely wore the same clothes over and over again. Everybody was in the same boat. We mostly lived in wellies, but did get dressed up on Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays always ended with a night at the pub over from the common called the Bell. Another pub was the Rose and Crown. “
Lesley said: “Frank Ifield “I Remember You” and other 50s records would be booming out of the open pub door and us children would be playing in the car park all night, going to the pub door now and again to ask for bottles of lemonade with straws and crisps. We would go into the pub garden and sit at the metal tables, in the dark lit by some lights shining out from inside the pub the boys would pick up snails and race them on the tables.
“Sunday was a lovely family day. Mums would cook roast dinners, don’t know how they managed it with such basic facilities but they did. As children, we had the chance to experience the country and total freedom, a world away from Canning Town. Fresh air, no health and safety worries, no stranger danger.”
Another song was revealed by Betty Osbourne, now 85.
“We used to sing it as we drove there. It went: “Oh, they say hopping’s lousy
I don’t believe it’s true/ We only go down hopping, to earn a bob or two/ With an e-eye-oh…”
Steve Bennett, 63, originally from Custom House, but now living in New Zealand said: “They were great holidays. It was our first taste of the countryside You didn’t see a lot of wildlife around the Royal Docks – well, there was wildlife, but not wildlife! Special times I will remember them forever. I wish I still had pictures of those days.”
Jean Pudney Timkey, 62, lived in Jersey Road, Custom House, and now lives in Essex.
“Going hopping was the first holiday I remember as a family. My mum’s family, in particular, had a long history of hopping. May’s Farm in Kent was their destination. They were brilliant times and the fresh air did everyone so much good. It was said that the air gave a boost to everyone’s lungs.
“A huge Army lorry pulled up one day in Jersey Road, it was like something out of the TV programme Wagon Train! We thought we were going hopping by train. Instead we were in the lorry covered by a tarpaulin. I think the tyres were flat as we felt every bump on the long journey there,” said Jean.”
She added: “We had such fun on the hopping bins and running around in the fields and picking.”
But her main memory is of an encounter with a bee.
“I was busting for a wee and mum told me to go behind some bushes. As a five-year-old, I had not quite mastered the squat and got bitten on the bum. I screamed out and a man tried to help me but I ran off. My mum thought I was being attacked by the man at first. I still laugh about it now!”
Jean’s picture of the truck and of her mother’s friend Joyce with her daughter hiding under the bin magically sum up the times.
The tradition for thousands of Royal Docks families for generations eventually came come to an end due to a number of factors.
Automation was the biggest as machines picked the hops from the vines in large sheds. Then changes in employment, with families unable to take weeks off work and mothers working outside of the home.
Also as the late ‘60s and ‘70s arrived, people would not consider such living with such basic facilities. Proper camping holidays and vacations abroad became the new norm. And the return to school began earlier with stricter attendances required.
But as one local mother put it: “The autumn smells can take me back there straightaway, very happy times and so many happy memories.”
Pictures: The Quirk family, Jean Pudney-Timke, Elaine Bauckham-Mitchell, Colin Grainger