Based on oral histories and farm books, this account offers a fascinating analysis of some 300 years of hop-cultivation history in the Weald of Kent, a rural area in the South of England, and in the London Borough of Southwark. The diverse processes of hop agriculture are examined within the wider context of events, such as the advent of the railroads and the effects of war, as are changes to the working practices and technologies used and their reception and implementation in the Weald. Also examining hop trading and dealing, this comprehensive record demonstrates the impact this rural industry had upon the lives of the people engaged in it.
About the Author
Celia Cordle is the recipient of the Kent Archaeological Society’s inaugural Hasted Prize. She studied English local history at the University of Leicester, where she earned a PhD.
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Out of the Hay and into the Hops
Hop Cultivation in Wealden Kent and Hop Marketing in Southwark, 1744â"2000
By Celia Cordle
University of Hertfordshire PressCopyright © 2011 Celia Cordle
All rights reserved.
Land and location
This chapter considers how land character and position influenced settlement and the development of hop cultivation in the Weald of Kent and hop marketing in the Borough (as Southwark was, and is, commonly known). The two areas had very different histories. But one common endowment from the disparate geographies of the late-settled, remote, rural Weald and the early-occupied, insalubrious, urban Borough was that both originated as outsider communities of nonconformist character, and retained some perception of separateness at least as late as the nineteenth century. The Wealden country lay beyond the hop-growing heartland, while Southwark was sited outside the city walls, over the river from London. This otherness was a factor in their respective, but linked, involvement with hops.
Names encapsulate the essence of a place, but how that essence is envisaged varies. While 'Southwark' remembers a single undertaking, the fortification of the south side of London Bridge, 'Weald' embodies the 'clayey woodlands' of its innate topography. The name is the Kentish version of the Old English 'wald', or 'forest'; in Saxon times it was Andredesweald, the ancient woodland then covering much of south-eastern England.
The Weald is one of six distinctive landscapes lying on a north-south axis through Kent. Extending into Surrey and Sussex, it lies within the arms of the North and South Downs as they open out from west to east, its character stemming from its geology and subsequent soil formation. Access to this heavy, wooded land was difficult, and it was used for centuries as the detached summer pasture of earlier-settled regions, where pigs and cattle fattened on acorns and beech mast. Permanent habitation began slowly from around the eleventh century, with most settlement occurring between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries; but by the mid-seventeenth century migration had made the Weald one of the most densely populated areas in Kent. Then still mainly used for pasture, the Weald was a valuable resource - but, thickly wooded and intimidating, it was widely regarded as unsafe, a fearful place of waste and wilderness, a view reflected right through to the nineteenth century. Over the centuries it has been variously described as 'thick and inaccessible, the abode of deer, swine and wolves' (Bede); 'disgusting to ride over, and most discouraging to farm in' (William Marshall, 1791); 'low, wet, stiff land' (Cobbett). The adjectives 'stiff', 'cold' and 'intractable' were frequently applied, while Everitt attributed the use of oxen to plough the Weald in Victorian times to that stubborn soil, adding that in 1850 people still perceived the Weald as unwelcoming.
Southwark's unsavoury reputation was not embodied in its name, but 'Weald' conjured the powerful and sobering image of a physically formidable place, and it shared Southwark's reputation for being somehow outside the pale, a 'no-go' area and a place of hazard. But its rural isolation was quite unlike the teeming alleys of the Borough, and the farming which was its main source of livelihood required another kind of living off one's wits than that needed in town. As in Southwark, political power shaped land use in the Weald. Brian Short has argued that the deliberate political decision which, in Roman times, marked out the coast for 'civilised' living and the Weald as the 'extractive' iron-producing area (a similar relationship to that between the City and Southwark) began a disparity of power weighted against the interior which has continued ever since, and was manifested in the nineteenth century by 'close' parishes in the older-settled areas and 'open' ones characterised by a high proportion of freeholders in the Weald. In early times ecclesiastics and gentry entrenched on the earlier-settled Downs and coast had easily managed their lands in the Weald, but as populations grew and times changed, rights were commuted to money-rents, and then the distance and inaccessibility of the large Wealden parishes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (each containing perhaps 100 to 200 families) made control more elusive.
Over the centuries the Weald developed a character very much its own, with something of the quicksilver, slipping-through-the-fingers feel of Southwark's evasion of authority. Like Southwark, it used its 'outsider' status to advantage, making a virtue of inaccessibility. Its roads were poor until the early nineteenth century, and farms could be cut off for long periods in autumn and winter, a situation which, according to Everitt, produced an 'isolated and inward-looking countryside' - a place where the term 'yeoman' was still used in the 1860s and 1870s. This was the kind of traditional society that Hoskins termed the 'Old Community', where agriculture and the ancient occupations of agrarian society, such as milling, smithing and brewing (there were 115 small breweries in Kent in 1870) continued side by side. Benighted wasteland, mysterious forest where identity shimmers - the Weald was also, perhaps, the safe place, a landscape to disappear into, to become what one chose.
As in Southwark, immigrants continually swelled its population. Industry attracted some, but more important was its 'frontier' status and the prospect of obtaining land (albeit of poor quality) away from the eye of authority and with freedom from manorial control. Life was not easy however: by the mid-seventeenth century some smallholders struggling to survive in the over-populated Weald had to walk up to ten miles to work in estate parishes. At a time when immigrants from the Low Countries were settling near Maidstone and Canterbury, bringing their market-gardening, hop-growing and brewing skills, the Weald, too, was awash with migrants - some tramps, some with craft skills, but all in some way refugees, economic, social or religious. The infant hop industry would presently add to the varied employments of their 'get-by' economy.
Religious refugees perhaps need a special mention because dissent was a major element in Wealden history (and is extensively covered in Everitt's The Pattern of Rural Dissent, already quoted). The Weald was a stronghold of dissent in the seventeenth century. The small towns of Cranbrook, Tenterden and Goudhurst were especially associated with it, and it remained strong in those places into the nineteenth century. Its interest here is as an instance of people of independent mind settling in the Weald in a community 'considered heathen and lawless'. The illicit trading associated with the movement of people, and with land of disputed title, may also be linked with dissent.
Most assarting was over by the seventeenth century, leaving a pattern of small, irregular fields, some of which still interlace with the considerable remaining woodland. Hops were introduced into Kent by Flemish refugees who settled around Maidstone in 1560, and later around Canterbury. Both these places became, and remained, major hop-growing areas. The Flemings preferred their own hopped beer to the sweeter English ales, but it was the preservative properties of hops, rather than their taste, that encouraged their slow acceptance in England. In towns like Cranbrook, Hawkhurst, Goudhurst and Tenterden the cloth and iron trades would be gone by 1900; however, hops had arrived to replace them.
The commercial possibilities of this one-time garden crop caught the imagination, and its cultivation on a small scale apparently proceeded quite rapidly. The extent of sixteenth-century hop growing is unknown, but in 1577 Harrison (probably referring to Kent and Essex) considered it 'very advantageous if properly managed', with 'few farmers ... without their hops'. By the early seventeenth century 'hop-gardens were becoming widely established ... especially along the sandstone ridge and in the central Weald near Goudhurst'. They were usually very small indeed. At Goudhurst in 1714 thirty-one growers grew hops on thirty-seven acres of land, twenty-eight of them on less than two acres, and 'nine on less than one acre'. Of necessity hops occupied a variety of soils, because, in both the High and Low Wealds, Kent's drift geology created great soil diversity, even within so small a space as a field.
The core of the High Weald is the hillier land, of which the predominant geology is the Hastings Beds, largely surrounded by the clay of the Lower Wealden plain (see Figure 1, which also shows the locations of farms studied in later chapters). Both areas contain some clay, but that of the High Weald is lightened by sand while the Lower Wealden clay is thick and impervious, and water lies there undrained. The best hop soils were the 'fine-grained' but drainable alluvial loams around Maidstone. But hops in the High Weald could and did flourish - usually on small plots in valley bottoms, or on lower hill slopes where alluvial soil had been washed down; in the late nineteenth century most hops here clustered to the east, in the Teise valley, often on such patches of soil. The heavier soils, for instance around Rolvenden, also produced 'some very fine hop gardens yielding fine crops' when suitable, hardy varieties were grown. By 1911, however, hop acreage had been declining for some thirty years.
Changes in hop acreage
Hop cultivation had been widespread across England until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, although output in most regions was minute in comparison with that of Kent, which consistently grew about twice as much as its main competitors (Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire) combined. By 1900 these five and Kent were virtually the only counties still growing hops, and the downturn after about 1880 affected the Weald disproportionately. Between 1906 and 1908 four parishes in the Weald lost 20 per cent of their hopland while four in east and mid-Kent lost only 12.5 per cent. Table 1 shows the wider spectrum of changes in hop acreage in Wealden Kent and England between 1866 and 1988, the latest date at which parish-by-parish breakdown is obtainable until 2020. Acreage was at its highest in the decades following the repeal of hop duty in 1862, and especially between 1875 and 1885. The greater decrease in national than in Wealden figures between 1890 and 1905 reflects the smaller base from which hops were now obtained. Wealden acreage is seen to hold up at a level about a tenth less than formerly until 1905, and, as indicated in Chapter 3, this was due to high yields from a group of parishes around the river Teise, a group identified by Garrad in 1950 (see Chapter 3) as having 10 per cent of their agricultural land given over to hops. Right up until 1988 total hop acreage in these six parishes - Brenchley, Horsmonden, Goudhurst, Cranbrook, Hawkhurst and Benenden - was approximately 2½ times more than the total of that in the remaining parishes in Table 1. From 1910 onwards both national and Wealden acreages can be seen to drop markedly because of foreign competition, over-production and changes in social life. Before 1915 Wealden hop acreage represented about a fifth of the English total, but Table 1 shows this rising to nearer 30 per cent from 1920 onwards, when the Wealden parishes maintained a fairly steady average of 5,000 to 6,000 acres until 1975 heralded a further decline. Approximately 75 per cent of the original parishes now provided the hop acreage underlying this consistency. Of the forty-one parishes of Table 1, two by 1920, rising to four after 1935, were no longer listed because of amalgamations. Zero returns of hop acreage (from three parishes) first began in 1910, and increased to an average six between 1930 and 1965. By 1975, eleven parishes registered a zero return, and this rose to thirteen in 1985 and sixteen in 1988. The government restricted hop acreage in both World Wars, and the 1945 and 1950 figures show the rise after restrictions were lifted in 1943. National and Wealden acreages began to fall again after Britain's entry to the EEC in 1973, and declined still further after a system of open, competitive marketing replaced the Hops Marketing Board in 1982. The ongoing decline of hop acreage is further explored in Chapters 3 and 4.
The trend for hop acreage to become focused in particular areas concerned contemporaries, who wondered why hops, grown on such varied soils in Kent, had not also become established in quantity elsewhere. In 1911 cultivation had 'only comparatively recently ... become restricted ... shrinking into districts where the soil is most suitable and where ... cultivation has been tuned up to produce the maximum crops', but it was a tendency which had been growing apace and was 'not yet ended'. Hall and Russell's text seems underwritten by regret at the loss of diversity and the watering-down of a rich pattern, and by concern for the individual farmer: 'hop-growing has become such a highly specialised industry that the grower in a comparatively isolated district falls behind in his methods when he can no longer learn from the innovations and experience of his neighbours.'
Their research forced them to conclude that soil quality was not the only factor in the selectivity of lost acreage. Harvey's analysis of regional concentration around the Maidstone nucleus in the nineteenth century supported their opinion, but pursued the complexity of that situation further. He found the mid-Kent core to be 'closely defined by the excellence of the soils', but, outside, relative distance from the core rather than soil quality determined hopground location. In time of expansion acreage increased more rapidly near the centre, but in decline contracted more markedly with increasing distance.
Three processes - agglomeration, cumulative change and diminishing returns - operated. By 1800 the core area, with its good soils, had accumulated considerable assets in the form of oasts, special equipment, hop poles, labour skills and the ability to access the London market and obtain funding for an expensive crop. New growers therefore tended to congregate around this useful nucleus. However, this snowballing process changed the nature of the area; hopland rents, high because large profits were possible, increased rents all round, so there was little choice but to join in and grow hops, or lose money. This in turn created a captive market in which, for example, everyone needed hop poles or fertiliser. The consequent rise in prices then encouraged location further out, where the cost of growing would be cheaper.
Harvey's analysis did not purport to explain the location of hop acreage in the nineteenth century, which he describes as 'at no period ... anywhere near stable', but it does highlight the complexity of factors beyond the varied soils, which contributed to hop growing close to Maidstone and in the Weald outreaches. He concluded that the 'cumulative tendency' dominated production of special crops like hops, although moderate diversity was probably best suited to 'ordinary' farming.
Woodland and the hop
Diversity was an essential element to making a living in the Weald. Its woods had always provided a variety of work and, following commercial hop cultivation, they became a major source of hop poles. Woodland dominated the Weald in 1843, and much remained in the 1980s, when Kentish woodland still covered about 100,000 acres. Among various species, the sweet chestnut, possibly indigenous, and the oak abounded.
Before the advent of wirework, hop poles were a major capital expense - the seventh most costly item on an inventory of 1689. In the eighteenth century, using four poles per hop hill, about 3,500 were needed on an acre of ground. Even when three poles to a hill became usual in the next century, average use was 2,400 per acre. They were 15 to 16 feet long, large and unwieldy, and difficult to transport. In early times most woodland products were sent by water because of the extremely high cost (and difficulty in the Weald) of road transport. The Wealden underwood, so close to the Maidstone and outlying hopgrounds, was thus a precious asset.
Underwood, or 'coppice', usually grew among taller standard trees, often oak or ash; coppicing was already an ancient form of management in the early days of Wealden settlement. Other articles made from coppiced wood were, for example, broom sticks, tool handles, fencing, stakes and barrel hoops. Underwood was an investment, to be protected; wood and hops, portable and easy to dispose of, were ready targets for thieves. In 1800 much of the Wealden woodland was given over to coppicing for hop poles, but just over a century later the trade was collapsing.
Wood pasture was an environment which everywhere improved people's chances of making a living by considerably increasing their employment options, the provision of winter work being one of its great advantages. Agricultural workers lived better here (although only relatively) - Thirsk has said that 'forest economies were well designed to keep people alive but not to make them rich men.' In part the advantages were to be able to gather fuel and to live in a less overlooked and structured environment than that of the estate parishes. Cobbett compared the poverty of Thanet labourers with life in woodland areas, where rabbits might be had and where the ground is 'not so easily appropriated by the few'.
Excerpted from Out of the Hay and into the Hops by Celia Cordle. Copyright © 2011 Celia Cordle. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
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Table of Contents
List of figures viii
List of tables viii
List of appendices ix
General Editor's preface xi
Introduction: 'into the hops' 1
1 Land and location 5
The Weald 5
Changes in hop acreage 9
Woodland and the hop 11
The hop and employment 12
2 Fringe farms: the early days of hop cultivation , 18
A farm at Ivychurch: 1789-1812 19
Ruffins Hill Farm, Burmarsh, Kent, 1696-1720 and Forestall Farm, Burmarsh, Kent, 1764-75 24
Forestall Farm 25
Tatlingbury Farm, near Tudeley, Kent, 1744-58 28
Biddenden Farm 1849-60 32
Organisation of the work 33
The plough team 34
Hop work 38
Hops in the economy of Biddenden Farm 48
3 Continuity and change: Combourne and Harper's Farms 1897-9 50
Issues of the time 53
Ernest Wickham and hop cultivation 58
Washes and sprays 64
Hop poles, wirework and creosote 68
The harvest 77
4 The twentieth century: futures 82
Dwarf hops 93
5 Hop factors and hop merchants: buying and selling hops in the Borough 96
Direct selling and the Waddington case 101
Hop factors 106
Hop merchants 110
People and places 118
6 The last hurrah? Tithe commutation and the repeal of hop duty 127
John Nash and the repeal of hop duty 133
Conclusion: gathering up and moving on 138
Select bibliography 167
1 Geological map of the High and Low Wealds with approximate farm locations 8
2 Diagram of potential rail access to hop markets from Biddenden Farm 46
3 Plan of the Borough High Street and neighbourhood 119
1 Wealden parish and English hop acreages at intervals between 1866 and 1988 10
2 Average prices of Kentish hop bags and hop pockets in relation to English hop yields 1787-97 22
3 The numbers of hop factors and hop merchants in the Borough at selected dates 97