The hop fields of Kent January 6, 2009Posted by Jenny in history, literature.
Tags: history of beermaking, hop pickers, hop production, Horsmonden, Kent, Simon Willard, Somerset Maugham
I recently wrote about my ancestor, Simon Willard, who left his home town of Horsmonden in Kent in 1634 to come to Massachusetts. Horsmonden is known for its horse market and its iron smelting, and for its production of hops. These are the plants that give a distinctive bitterness to beer. Kent was a major producer of hops until the early 1900s, when England began importing cheaper hops from other countries. Germany is now the world’s largest producer of hops, followed by the US, China, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
Hop production in Kent began near Canterbury in the early 1500s. By the time Simon Willard left Kent, one third of the English hop crop came from Kent. Production in Kent reached its peak in 1878. The hop flowers were picked by hand and taken to the oast houses, where they were dried, cooled, and packed for shipment to the brewery.
The oast house was a remarkable construction. The hops were spread out in a kiln that had perforated floors that allowed for the flow of air heated in a furnace. A cowl on top of the oast house was rotated by a wind vane that circulated the warm air. These wind vanes gave an iconic profile to the building.
I come to the subject of the Kent hop fields from two directions, in one of those accidental convergences that put something into the crosshairs of my attention. I come to it from my interest in Simon Willard, and also from the writings of W. Somerset Maugham. At the close of Maugham’s wide and tightly woven Persian carpet of a novel called Of Human Bondage, the character Philip Carey goes with a London family to pick hops in Kent. This would have been a few years after the end of the Boer War, or about 1905. The family was participating in a seasonal migration in which thousands of poor people from London journeyed 50 or 60 miles to Kent to earn a little extra money by picking the hops. They were called “the foreigners” by the people in Kent. The Londoners who did this work were “costermongers, woodcutters, shoemakers, hawkers, dock labourers, tinkers, draymen, brushmakers, tinworkers, matchboxmakers, fish basket makers, charwomen, waterside labourers, wharfingers, needlewomen, porters, washerwomen, rack makers, paper flower makers, bricklayers, dustmen, general labourers, the wives and daughters of arsenal men.” (The quote is from an interesting website about the migrant hop pickers, http://members.lycos.co.uk/DerekBright/ . That list is a poem all by itself.)
It was not always easy work, and there were strikes sometimes over the piecework rate of pay from the hops growers. But Maugham describes a place that had its own power and its own beauty.
The closing chapters of Maugham’s novel make a happy ending to a long tale of false starts, damaged aspirations, blind alleys, and doomed love affairs. Philip Carey finds the glint of romance in the sunny hop fields. He walks to the fields with his companion, Sally, who has “bright hair streaming over one shoulder and her sun-bonnet in her hand…. The sun was bright now and cast a long shadow. Philip feasted his eyes on the richness of the green leaves. The hops were yellowing, and to him they had the beauty and the passion which poets in Sicily have found in the purple grape. As they walked along Philip felt himself overwhelmed by the rich luxuriance. A sweet scent arose from the fat Kentish soil, and the fitful September breeze was heavy with the goodly perfume of the hops…. In a moment they heard the hum of voices, and in a moment more came upon the pickers. They were all hard at work, talking and laughing as they picked. They sat on chairs, on stools, on boxes, with their baskets by their sides, and some stood by the bin throwing the hops they picked straight into it. There were a lot of children about and a good many babies, some in makeshift cradles, some tucked up in a rug on the soft brown dry earth.”
And so the humming voices weave together with the brilliant green geometry of the fields, all in a pleasing harmony. This is a world that has become very dim and very blurred, so that we can only make out a few of its largest, a few of its sharpest outlines.