hop-picking customs

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The customs and beliefs of the hop field have not received much attention, but it is clear that there were a number of traditional practices associated with the hop farm. In pre-mechanical days, hops were harvested by groups of visiting workers who descended on the hop farm for the brief intensive effort needed to harvest the crop. In addition to local workers, there were strong traditions of urban working-class women and children using the hop fields as a paid holiday, and the hop fields of Kent and Sussex were thus picked by Londoners, while the Hereford and Worcester farms were visited by families from the industrial Black Country. Two customs reported by Leather (1912: 105–6) both have close analogies in the grain harvest field. It was customary for any stranger who entered the hop field to be ‘cribbed’, that is, seized by the pickers and thrown into one of the cribs into which the hops are gathered, and ‘one or two of the oldest and fattest women would be thrown in too’ whom he had to kiss before he was released (Leather, 1912: 105). The only way to avoid this treatment was for the stranger to pay his ‘footing’ (compare occupational customs) by giving money to the pickers. At the end of the picking season, the pickers chose a King and Queen from among their own number, who were dressed up in flowers and ribbons, and these two led the procession, which included hop-poles also decorated with ribbons, to a nearby barn, where they spent the evening in merrymaking. A feature which distinguishes this from usual harvest custom is that the man dressed as the Queen and the woman as the King.

There were variations, however, in both these practices. The Herne Bay Gazette (13 Dec. 1985), for example, shows a Hop Queen of the 1960s who was a real woman, and an engraving in the Penny Magazine of 21 November 1835 shows that this was not a recent alteration. In the version of ‘cribbing’ described by Faulkner, it was the foreman or overseer who was thrown in the crib, when the end of the season approached.

Leather also reports a superstition of the Herefordshire hoppers that they believed it was lucky to burn old boots before starting a journey, and they would do this before going home.

Leather, 1912: 105–6, 258;Christine Faulkner, Folk Life 30 (1991/2), 7–16;Richard Filmer, Hops and Hop Picking (1982).

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