2.9.31 to 19.9.31

X* Hops are trained up poles or over wires about 10 feet high, and grown in rows a yard or two apart. All the pickers have to do is to tear them down and strip the hops into a bin, keeping them as clean as possible of leaves. In practice, of course, it is impossible to keep all the leaves out, and the experienced pickers swell the bulk of their hops by putting in just as many leaves as the farmer will stand for. One soon gets the knack of the work and the only hardships are the standing (we were generally on our feet ten hours a day), the plagues of plant lice, and the damage to one’s hands. One’s hands get stained as black as a negro’s with the hop-juice, which only mud will remove,** and after a day or two they crack and are cuts to bits by the stems of the vines, which are spiny. In the mornings, before the cuts had reopened, my hands used to give me perfect agony, and even at the time of typing this (October 10th) they show the marks. Most of the people who go down hopping have done it every year since they were children, and they pick like lightning and know all the tricks, such as shaking the hops to make them lie loose in the bin etc. The most successful pickers are families, who have two or three adults to strip the vines, and a couple of children to pick up the fallen hops and clear the odd strands. The laws about child labour are disregarded utterly, and some of the people drive their children pretty hard. The woman in the next bin to us, a regular old-fashioned East Ender, kept her grandchildren at it like slaves. – ‘Go on, Rose, you lazy little cat, pick them ‘ops up. I’ll warm you arse if I get up to you’ etc. until the children, aged from 6 to 10, used to drop down and fall asleep on the ground. But they liked the work, and I don’t suppose it did them more harm than school.

As to what one can earn, the system of payment is this. Two or three times a day the hops are measured, and you are due a certain sum (in our case twopence) for each bushel you have picked. A good vine yields about half a bushel of hops, and a good picker can strip a vine in about 10 minutes, so that theoretically one might earn about 30/- by a sixty hour week. But in practice this is quite impossible. To begin with, the hops vary enormously. On some vines they are as large as small pears, and on others hardly bigger than peas; the bad vines take rather longer to strip than the good ones – they are generally more tangled – and sometimes it needs five or six of them to make a bushel. Then there are all kinds of delays, and the pickers get no compensation for lost time. Sometimes it rains (if it rains hard the hops get too slippery to pick), and one is always kept waiting when changing from field to field, so that an hour or two is wasted every day. And above all there is the question of measurement. Hops are soft things like sponges, and it is quite easy for the measurer to crush a bushel of them into a quart if he chooses. Some days he merely scoops the hops out, but on other days he has orders from the farmer to ‘take them heavy’, and then he crams them right into the basket, so that instead of getting 20 bushels for a full bin one gets only 12 or 14 – i.e. a shilling or so less. There was a song about this, which the old East End woman and her grandchildren were always singing:

‘Our lousy hops!
Our lousy hops!
When the measurer he comes round,
Pick ‘em up, pick ‘em up off the ground!
When he comes to measure
He never knows where to stop;
Ay, ay, get in the bin
And take the fucking lot!’

From the bin the hops are put into 10-bushel pokes[1] which are supposed to weigh a hundredweight and are normally carried by one man. It used to take two men to hoist a full poke when the measurer had been taking them heavy.

With all these difficulties, one can’t earn 30/- a week or anything near it. It is a curious fact, though, that very few of the pickers were aware how little they really earned, because the piece-work system disguises the low rate of payment. The best pickers in our gang were a family of gypsies, five adults and a child, all of whom, of course, had picked hops every year since they could walk.[2] In a little under three weeks these people earned exactly £10 between them – i.e., leaving out the child, about 14/- a week each. Ginger and I earned about 9/- a week each,[3] and I doubt if any individual picker made over 15/- a week. A family working together can make their keep and their fare back to London at these rates, but a single picker can hardly do even that. On some of the farms nearby the tally, instead of being 6 bushels to the shilling, was 8 or 9, at which one would have a hard job to earn 10/- a week.

When one starts work the farm gives one a printed copy of rules, which are designed to reduce a picker more or less to a slave. According to these rules the farmer can sack a picker without notice and on any pretext whatever, and pay him off at 8 bushels a shilling instead of six – i.e. confiscate a quarter of his earnings. If a picker leaves his job before the picking is finished, his earnings are docked the same amount. You cannot draw what you have earned and then clear off, because the farm will never pay you more than two thirds of your earnings in advance, and so are in your debt till the last day. The binmen (i.e. foremen of gangs) get wages instead of being paid on the piecework system, and these wages cease if there is a strike, so naturally they will raise Heaven and earth to prevent one. Altogether the farmers have the hop-pickers in a cleft stick, and always will have until there is a pickers’ union. It is not so much use to try and form a union, though, for about half the pickers are women and gypsies, and are too stupid to see the advantages of it.

As to our living accommodation, the best quarters on the farm, ironically enough, were disused stables. Most of us slept in round tin huts about 10 feet across, with no glass in the windows, and all kinds of holes to let in the wind and rain. The furniture of these huts consisted of a heap of straw and hop-vines, and nothing else. There were four of us in our hut, but in some of them there were seven or eight – rather an advantage, really, for it kept the hut warm. Straw is rotten stuff to sleep in (it is much more draughty than hay) and Ginger and I had only a blanket each, so we suffered agonies of cold for the first week; after that we stole enough pokes to keep us warm. The farm gave us free firewood, though not as much as we needed. The water tap was 200 yards away, and the latrine the same distance, but it was so filthy that one would have walked a mile sooner than use it. There was a stream where one could do some laundering, but getting a bath in the village would have been about as easy as buying a tame whale.

X The hop-pickers seemed to be of three types: East Enders, mostly costermongers, gypsies, and itinerant agricultural labourers with a sprinkling of tramps. The fact that Ginger and I were tramps got us a great deal of sympathy, especially among the fairly well-to-do people. There was one couple, a coster and his wife, who were like a father and mother to us. They were the kind of people who are generally drunk on Saturday nights and who tack a ‘fucking’ on to every noun, yet I have never seen anything that exceeded their kindness and delicacy. They gave us food over and over again. A child would come to the hut with a saucepan: ‘Eric, mother was going to throw this stew away, but she said it was a pity to waste it. Would you like it?’ Of course they were not really going to have thrown it away, but said this to avoid the suggestion of charity. One day they gave us a whole pig’s head, ready cooked. These people had been on the road several years themselves, and it made them sympathetic. – ‘Ah, I know what it’s like. Skippering in the fucking wet grass, and then got to tap the milkman in the morning before you can get a cup of tea. Two of my boys were born on the road’ etc. Another man who was very decent to us was an employee in a paper factory. Before this he had been vermin-man to Lyons, and he told me that the dirt and vermin in Lyons’ kitchens, even in Cadby Hall, passed belief. When he worked at Lyons’ branch in Throgmorton Street, the rats were so numerous that it was not safe to go into the kitchens at night unarmed; you had to carry a revolver.[4] After I had mixed with these people for a few days it was too much of a fag to go on putting on my cockney accent, and they noticed that I talked ‘different’. As usual, this made them still more friendly, for these people seem to think that it is especially dreadful to ‘come down in the world’.

Out of about 200 pickers at Blest’s farm, 50 or 60 were gypsies. They are curiously like oriental peasants – the same heavy faces, at once dull and sly, and the same sharpness in their own line and startling ignorance outside it. Most of them could not read even a word, and none of their children seemed ever to have gone to school. One gypsy, aged about 40, used to ask me questions such as, ‘How far is Paris from France?’ ‘How many days’ journey by caravan to Paris?’ etc. A youth, aged twenty, used to ask this riddle half a dozen times a day. – ‘I’ll tell you something you can’t do?’ – ‘What?’ –  ‘Tickle a gnat’s arse with a telegraph pole.’ (At this, never-failing yells of laughter.) The gypsies seem to be quite rich, owning caravans, horses etc. yet they go on all year round working as itinerant labourers and saving money. They used to say that our way of life (living in houses etc.) seemed disgusting to them, and to explain how clever they had been in dodging the army during the war. Talking to them you had the feeling of talking to people from another century. I had often heard a gypsy say, ‘If I knew where so and so was, I’d ride my horse till it hadn’t a shoe left to catch him’ – not a 20th century metaphor at all. One day some gypsies were talking about a noted horse-thief called George Bigland, and one man, defending him, said: ‘I don’t think George is as bad as you make out. I’ve known him to steal Gorgias’ (Gentiles’) horses, but he wouldn’t go so far as to steal from one of us.’

The gypsies call us Gorgias and themselves Romanies, but they are nicknamed Didecais (not certain of spelling). They all knew Romany, and occasionally used a word or two when they didn’t want to be understood. A curious thing I noticed about the gypsies – I don’t know whether it is the same everywhere – was that you would often see a whole family who were totally unlike one another. It almost seems to countenance the stories about gypsies stealing children; more likely though, it is because it’s a wise child etc.

One of the men in our hut was an old deaf tramp we had met outside West Malling spike – Deafie, he was called. He was rather a Mr F.’s aunt[5] in conversation, and he looked just like a drawing by George Belcher,[6] but he was an intelligent, decently educated man, and no doubt would not have been on the road if he could hear. He was not strong enough for heavy work, and he had done nothing for years except odds jobs like hopping. He calculated that he had been in over 400 different spikes. The other man, named Barrett, and a man in our gang named George, were good specimens of the itinerant agricultural labourer. For years past they had worked on a regular round: Lambing in early spring, then pea-picking, strawberries, various other fruits, hops, ‘spud-grabbing’, turnips and sugar beet. They were seldom out of work for more than a week or two, yet even this was enough to swallow up anything they could earn. They were both penniless when they arrived at Blest’s farm, and I saw Barrett work certainly one day without a bite to eat. The proceeds of all their work were the clothes they stood up in, straw to sleep on all the year round, meals of bread and cheese and bacon, and I suppose one or two good drunks a year. George was a dismal devil, and took a sort of worm-like pride in being underfed and overworked, and always tobying from job to job. His line was, ‘It doesn’t do for people like us to have fine ideas’. (He could not read or write, and seemed to think even literacy a kind of extravagance.) I know this philosophy well, having often met it among the dishwashers in Paris.[7] Barrett, who was 63, used to complain a lot about the badness of food nowadays, compared with what you could get when he was a boy. – ‘In them days we didn’t live on this fucking bread and marg, we ’ad good solid tommy. Bullock’s ’eart. Bacon dumpling. Black pudden. Pig’s ’ead.’ The glutinous, reminiscent tone in which he said ‘pig’s ’ead’ suggested decades of underfeeding.

Besides all these regular pickers there were what are called ‘home-dwellers’; i.e. local people who pick at odd times, chiefly for the fun of it. They are mostly farmers’ wives and the like, and as a rule they and the regular pickers loathe one another. One of them, however, was a very decent woman, who gave Ginger a pair of shoes and me an excellent coat and waistcoat and two shirts. Most of the local people seemed to look on us as dirt, and the shopkeepers were very insolent, though between us we must have spent several hundred pounds in the village.

One day at hop-picking was very much like another. At about a quarter to six in the morning we crawled out of the straw, put on our coats and boots (we slept in everything else) and went out to get a fire going – rather a job this September, when it rained all the time. By half past six we had made tea and fried some bread for breakfast, and then we started off to work, with bacon sandwiches and a drum of cold tea for our dinner. If it didn’t rain we were working pretty steadily till about one, and then we would start a fire between the vines, heat up our tea and knock off for half an hour. After that we were at it again till half past five, and by the time we had got home, cleaned the hop juice off our hands and had tea, it was already dark and we were dropping with sleep. A good many nights, though, we used to go out and steal apples. There was a big orchard nearby, and three or four of us used to rob it systematically, carrying a sack and getting half a hundredweight of apples at a time, besides several pounds of cobnuts. On Sundays we used to wash our shirts and socks in the stream, and sleep the rest of the day. As far as I remember I never undressed completely all the time we were down there, nor washed my teeth, and I only shaved twice a week. Between working and getting meals (and that meant fetching everlasting cans of water, struggling with wet faggots, frying in tin-lids etc.) one seemed to have not an instant spare. I only read one book all the time I was down there, and that was a Buffalo Bill. Counting up what we spent I find that Ginger and I fed ourselves on about 5/- a week each, so it is not surprising that we were constantly short of tobacco and constantly hungry, in spite of the apples and what the others gave us. We seemed to be forever doing sums in farthings to find out whether we could afford another half ounce of shag or another two-pennorth of bacon. It wasn’t a bad life, but what with standing all day, sleeping rough and getting my hands cut to bits, I felt a wreck at the end of it. It was humiliating to see that most of the people there looked on it as a holiday – in fact, it is because hopping is regarded as a holiday that pickers will take such starvation wages. It gives one an insight into the lives of farm labourers, too, to realise that according to their standards hop-picking is hardly work at all.

One night a youth knocked at our door and said that he was a new picker and had been told to sleep in our hut. We let him in and fed him in the morning, after which he vanished. It appeared that he was not a picker at all, but a tramp, and that tramps often work this dodge in the hopping season, in order to get a kip under shelter. Another night a woman who was going home asked me to help her get her luggage to Wateringbury station. As she was leaving early they had paid her off at eight bushels a shilling, and her total earnings were only just enough to get herself and her family home. I had to push a perambulator, with one eccentric wheel and loaded with huge packages, two and a half miles through the dark, followed by a retinue of yelling children. When we got to the station the last train was just coming in, and in rushing the pram across the level crossing I upset it. I shall never forget that moment – the train bearing down on us, and the porter and I chasing a tin chamberpot that was rolling down the track. On several nights Ginger tried to persuade me to come and rob the church with him, and he would have done it alone if I had not managed to get it into his head that suspicion was bound to fall on him, as a known criminal. He had robbed churches before, and he said, what surprised me, that there is generally something worth having in the Poor box. We had one or two jolly nights, on Saturdays, sitting round a huge fire till midnight and roasting apples. One night, I remember, it came out that of about fifteen people round the fire, everyone except myself had been in prison. There were uproarious scenes in the village on Saturdays, for the people who had money used to get well drunk, and it needed the police to get them out of the pub. I have no doubt the residents thought us a nasty vulgar lot, but I could not help feeling that it was rather good for a dull village to have this invasion of cockneys once a year.

*The passage between crosses (at least the substance of it) has been used for an article in the Nation.

**Or hop-juice, funnily enough.

[1] pokes: sacks (compare ‘a pig in a poke’).

[2] walk: Orwell originally wrote work.

[3] 9/- a week each: £18 at today’s values – far less than the theoretical earnings of 30/- (thirty shillings, say £60 today) referred to earlier.

[4]  Names omitted when first printed in 1968.

[5] Mr F.’s aunt: the aunt of Flora Finching’s deceased husband in Dickens’s Little Dorrit. Left in Flora’s care, she was simply known as ‘Mr F.’s Aunt’. Her major characteristics are described as ‘extreme severity and grim taciturnity; sometimes interrupted by propensity to offer remarks in a deep warning voice, which, being totally uncalled for by anything said by anybody, and traceable to no association of ideas, confounded and terrified the mind’. One interjection might have had a special appeal for Orwell, who lived at Henley-on-Thames as a child: ‘Mr F.’s Aunt, after regarding the company for ten minutes with a malevolent gaze, delivered the following fearful remark: “when we lived at Henley, Barnes’s gander was stole by tinkers”’ (ch.13).

[6] George Belcher (1875-1947), a Royal Academician whose books of drawings included Characters (1922), Taken from Life (1929), and Potted Char (1933)

[7] the dishwashers in Paris: Orwell worked as a dishwasher – a plongeur – in 1929; see Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, two years after his hop-picking experiences. Peter Davison

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