Hops in Kent

This year Kent Archives is celebrating the hop harvest virtually. With our partner Screen Archive South East we will be showcasing archive and local history material with a focus on Hopping Down in Kent.

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Humulus lupulus, or wild hops, are considered to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans. Archeaeobotanical evidence of hops was found in the Graveney Boat, an Anglo-Saxon vessel, dated around AD 900, uncovered in the estuary mud in the port of Seasalter in 1970. However it was not until Flemish weavers began to import their native beer in the 15th century that hops were first brewed in England. The traditional British beverage was spiced ale, which was brewed from malt, and hops were initially only added to extend the life of the product.   It was the addition of hops to traditionally brewed ales that preserved the beer in good condition,  but did produce a bitter taste that took some time to be accepted.

It is thought that the first English hop garden was established in Westbere, near Canterbury in 1520. The earliest accounts show that the hop plants were grown in mounds, and it was not until the late 1800s that the more familiar poles and stringing method started to appear.

The commercial cultivation of hops proliferated in Kent from the second half of the 16th century, and domestic production is also recorded in probate inventories. This was accompanied by the publication of manuals such as A Perfite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden (1574) by Reginald Scot, a hop farmer from Smeeth near Ashford, which detailed how to establish a hop garden.

The fertile soil and mild climate in Kent, along with the practice of farming enclosed fields rather than open fields, and a good supply of Sweet Chestnut coppice for the poles and charcoal, meant that by the mid-17th century the county was responsible for producing a third of the national crop. Moreover, Kent farmers could afford the high initial capital outlay as they were among the most prosperous of the time.

Hops were grown by small farms as well as commercial growers who worked directly for breweries. Over time many growers and brewers built close relationships. For example, Lewis Finn owned 48 acres of hop gardens, which made him one of Shepherd Neame’s largest local suppliers. In 1913 Finn married Madeline Neame, one of Percy Neame’s daughters, bringing grower and brewer closer together.

The brewing industry grew rapidly in the 18th century. Beer production in some parts had far exceeded local consumption, as local brewers met the demands of the Navy at Chatham and Deal.  Commercial breweries had almost replaced the practice of inns brewing their own ales, many of these new breweries were supplying overseas markets as well as local. Family owned breweries such as Shepherd Neame of Faversham, Britain’s oldest brewer, Fremlins of Maidstone, and Cobb of Margate were able to expand with the development of the industry.

Until the 1800s most hop pickers were local workers, Romany Gypsies, and other migrant workers. It was not until the demand for hops grew that the ‘furiners’ started to come down to Kent. These workers were mostly from East London and saw the four to six weeks in September as a working holiday.

They travelled down on a ‘Hopping Special’ train from London Bridge. These were often outside of normal travelling times and took a lot longer than the standard trains. It took George Orwell five hours to travel from Wateringbury to London Bridge at the end of hop season. Orwell had come to Kent from London to pick hops and documented his experience in a vivid diary of observation written in 1931.

Londoners were not always welcomed by the local communities, with pubs often designating different areas for them and many shops reluctant to serve them. The work and living conditions were hard. The first standardised accommodation for the pickers was built in 1880 only after government intervention. These were often small, roughly furnished, one room huts with no plumbing or heating.

This was often the only time East Londoners had away from the city, and so despite the hard work and conditions, they made the most of their holiday. Even when the industry started to move towards using machines in the mid-20th century, many still requested to come up and stay in their cottages for their holidays.

The hop growers and local labourers worked on the hops all year long. In spring time the gardens were stringed, as the bines grew the workers ‘twiddled’, or trained, the bines to grow up and around the string. The plants were then monitored until it was time to harvest the hops in September. After harvest, during the winter, the empty bines were cut and the garden was prepared for the next year’s crop.

However, the harvest time was undoubtedly the busiest time for the growers.  As each bin or basket was filled and measured, each picker would be given tokens or have a notch added to their tally stick, and the Tally Man would mark his own corresponding tally stick. When the hops were picked, they were sent to the Oast house where they would be dried and packed into sacks.

Hop growing and harvesting was recorded by song, poem and book. The hop gardens saw the development of a special language partly derived from specialist hopping tools; ‘hop dog’, ‘scuppet’ and partly from hop labouring: ‘chog clearing’ and ‘nidgeting’. Later the Victorians would develop new words such as ‘furiners’ describing the East Londoners arriving on the ‘Hopping Specials’. The migration of these hop pickers to Kent changed the social landscape of the county.  

Hop growing has also shaped the physical  landscape of Kent. Hop gardens form a distinctive and much prized feature of Kent’s countryside, while oast houses, the conically shaped buildings specially designed to dry hops, have become emblematic of the county.