History of Hops

Bromyard’s history and heritage has long been associated with hops since they were first introduced into the Frome valley in 1577.  Herefordshire has recently seen a resurgence of the hop industry and is now the largest producing area in the UK.  In the hop growing hey-day hundreds of people from the industrial centres of South Wales, the Midlands and the Black country used to travel to Bromyard and then onto the hop yards to combine a family holiday in the fresh county air with harvesting the hops.

Hops in Herefordshire
Hops have been known since early times. In the First Century AD, they were described as a salad plant but it was almost certainly in the medieval monasteries of Europe where they were grown as a medicinal herb that they were first used in beer. While a book on medieval trade records hops as being imported into this country in 1420, a dictionary of just 20 years later lists them but states that beer was a foreign drink.

For at least 300 years Herefordshire produced more hops than the local brewers needed.
Hop growing in Herefordshire is now mainly concentrated in the sheltered river valleys of the Frome and the Lugg in the west of the country. The first half of the 19th century saw the highest acreage of hops ever in the Bromyard district, with 4,251 acres in 1835. However, hop growing was an erratic business and over-production, blight and competition from foreign markets led to a drop of 65% by 1860. A gradual rise then occurred until the turn of the century, when the acreage was at 2,050. Foreign imports after World War I again caused problems; the acreage dropped by 45%, and by 1985 there were around 650 acres.

It was probably the need to add value to English exports of wool by weaving that led to their introduction as a crop. Weaving in the fifteenth century was an unknown trade and skilled workers were brought in from Flanders to set up the industry. With them came their tastes and because they could not easily buy hops they began to grow them.

Hop yards were a familiar feature of the countryside around Bromyard and along the Frome and Teme Valleys with a few acres on many farms being devoted to hops up until the late 1950s. This changed with standardization of school holidays by Education Acts, the introduction of large scale mechanization, competition from foreign hops, and the devastating effect of the hop disease, verticillium wilt.

Hop growing was a year round occupation for wirework must be erected and repaired, poles replaced, and anchors adjusted to accommodate the weight of the hop vines. Rows were cultivated, manured, and sprayed for disease, blight, aphids, and weeds. As the vines began to grow in April, local labourers and women started the Spring season stringing, tying and training the best vines. Lower bines were later removed so tractors could pass down the rows.

All this with lambing, milking, growing and picking soft fruits, haymaking, and in July and August preparing the hop kilns for drying, and getting ready for the arrival of scores of hop pickers in September. Nineteen hour days organized into two shifts from 6am – 3.30pm, and 3.30pm – 1am were the order of the day to get the hops picked and dried. Dinners were cooked over big iron grates called hop devils, (barbecues are not new), and old blackened kettles provided hot water for the thermos of tea taken to the hopyards along with piles of sandwiches. ‘Going hopping’  for children meant sleeping on straw pallets, rabbit stews, avoiding wasps, picking hops into an old umbrella while their mothers worked at the cribs to fill the greensacks. It was a hard ‘working holiday’ but in the evening there was singing around the fires, and places to explore.

At the end of the month, they returned home with apples, damsons, potatoes, bunches of hops for their chapel and church harvest festivals, sun tanned, fitter, and with extra money for the months ahead in their pockets.

Picking the Hops
The pickers’ day would start early at 7am. The early morning was the best time for picking as the hops became harder to pull when it got warmer in the afternoon.

Hops were picked into cribs, these were rough wooden frames about 7ft by 3ft with hessian strung across. After the hops had been picked they had to be measured and bushelled so that the picker could be paid for the day’s work. The busheller would call out the number as he measured the hops into a sack, which had a mark inside giving a measurement of one bushel. The count would be kept by the tally-man who carried a number of tallies on his belt. Tallies were pieces of wood about 15 inches long, split into two pieces. One of the pieces would be given to the picker as a record of their total. The two pieces would only fit together in a certain way and the count was recorded by file marks across both pieces so the picker could not alter his or her total.

By the late 19th century Herefordshire hop growers had changed to the hop token scheme. Tokens were coin-like metal discs of various sizes, all stamped with the farmer’s name. These tokens could then be exchanged for cash at the end of the picking season or, if strapped for cash, at the end of the day. The tokens could be spent at the local pub or shop and were accepted by most local tradesmen.

The token system was later replaced by the booking system whereby each picker and busheller was given a book and the amount picked was recorded by the busheller in both books. If you wanted to have some of your earnings early then the bushellers would enter the amount paid out in both books. A fast picker could pick up to 25 bushels a day in fine weather. Often there were strikes by the pickers demanding more money, but these never seemed to last very long.

The hop farms in the Little Frome area seemed to be prone to having strikes on Thursdays but this may have had something to do with the fact that Bromyard market was held on this day. Of all the villages in the Bromyard area it was Bishops Frome that received the greatest number of pickers. During the 1920-30s the usual population of 700 would rise to about 5,000 during picking time.

Drying the Hops
The buildings used for drying hops in this area are called kilns. The method of drying the hops was via a natural warm air draught. A fire was kept burning in a chamber, called the plenum, situated below the drying floor. The warm air would rise up to the hops on the floor above. The floor of the drying room would have gaps in it to allow the air to get to the hops.  The fire was kept going with wood or charred turf but later charcoal was used. One hundred sacks of charcoal were needed to dry one ton of hops. Particular attention was paid to the temperature in the plenum and if it got too high cold air was allowed in to bring it back down. The general rule was that the starting temperature should not be more than 100º Fahrenheit (38º Centigrade), rising steadily to 140º Fahrenheit and never going above 160º Fahrenheit.

When cast iron furnaces were introduced farmers were able to use cheaper fuel as any gases harmful to the hops could be channelled away. The drying room had a thin floor of wooden slats with one inch gaps in between. The floor was covered in horse-hair. In recent times this covering has been replaced with a synthetic floor covering, and some modern kilns have two or even three drying floors.

During the first hour of drying the hops retained their colour and moisture. Sulphur was burnt to pass through the green hops and bleach them a yellowish tint. The sulphur was said to improve the aroma but it also helped to hide any discolouration from diseases or bruising and helped to preserve the hops.  At about 2am the drier’s day would start with him waking to turn the hops. To turn the hops without damaging them the driers used a wide flat wooden paddle called a scruppet. By evening the hops would be dry. The drier would test the progress of the hops by rubbing them between his fingers, and if they were sufficiently dry they would become a powder. If they were not dry they would feel sticky when rubbed.In the 1930s fans in kilns came into general use. These moved the hot air round the kiln more efficiently and so sped up the drying process.

After the hops had been dried they were moved from the drying floor to the cooling room.  The moisture and the slow cooling meant that the hops became soft and supple rather than dry and brittle. After cooling the hops would be loaded into pockets (very large, long sacks) and compressed down firmly to ensure that they would survive storage and transport. The easiest way to fill the pockets was to have a hole cut in the floor and the pocket would hang from this hole with the weight of the pocket supported by a sling. When full, the top of the pocket would be stitched up. The sides of the pocket were stamped with the grower’s name and address. Each pocket held around one and a half  hundred weight.

In 1774 a law was passed that stated that the weight should be stamped on the pocket, as well as the year. In 1838 it became law for the hop pockets to be made out of five yards of hessian cloth, and also that they should be 42-45 inches wide.

At the end of the picking season there was much celebration and parties were held on the majority of hop farms. There would be singing and dancing and plenty of drinking before the families packed up their belongings and boarded the trains back to their homes.

Harry Paske -The Hop Kiln Accident – an oral history clip. Created by the Rural Media Company in conjunction with Bromyard & District Local History Society.

Fieldwork – The Hop Kiln Accident from Rural Media on Vimeo.

EARLY HEREFORDSHIRE HOP-GROWING – Daphne Davies
(Taken from an early BDLHS Newsletter)
On Friday, 17th March 1972, we met most appropriately at the Hop Pole Hotel to hear Mr. Inett Homes, a member of the Society and President of the Woolhope Club, speak on early Herefordshire hop growing.  A fascinating talk ensued illustrated with beautiful colour slides.
Mr. Homes told us that the first known cultivation of the hop in Great Britain was in Kent in 1542 and the beer was brewed in London ‘by Flemmings’ meaning strangers.
In an inventory in the early wills of Herefordshire he found the first mention of hops in the county at Collington where on 16th May 1667 Walker Ward had one cwt of hops valued at £2 5s. 0d.  Later that year John Hayward of Maydenhead, Pencombe had ‘malt and a parcel of hops’.  His find of a reference dated August 1670 that Thomas Evans of Bromyard had ‘hops in the ground and hop poles with Mr. Hardwick’ reminds us that before the practice of wiring hopyards and growing hops up strings they were grown up poles, the men working in the hopyards being called pole-pullers even in quite recent times.
Mr. Homes described the early process of drying hops by spreading them on the floor of a room, the evidence for this being the ‘treading hole’ in the floor/ceiling from which the bags were suspended and the dry hops packed tightly by a man standing in the bag and ‘treading’ the hops.  Some members of the Local History Society have this feature in their homes, for instance, Mr. and Mrs. C. Page, of Upper Norton, have such a hole in a downstairs room, the sacks being suspended into a cel1ar.  The first mention of a kiln was in 1682.
In October of the same year, there was reference to a ‘picking sheet’ at Whitbourne, and to the refinement of a crib at Pencombe in 1692.
We were pleased to hear that Mr. John Beale of Herefordshire claimed in 1687 that ‘Bromyard were the Hop Masters of the area’.  This was substantiated by later Excise Papers which show Bromyard to have had the highest average acreage of hops in the first two decades of the 19th century.
Mr. Homes then told us where to look for documentary and archeaological evidence, many members being surprised to hear that the round kiln with a cowl predates the modern square kiln by some 40 years.

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