Hopping in Kent
As was the way for a lot of Londoners in the 1930’s, Elizabeth, (Great Grandma Hyde) would pack up some of her belongings and head down to Kent every September to pick hops in the fields of Goudhurst.
The days were long and they worked in the hop gardens for up to twelve hours a day, but despite the fact that the facilities were poor, they were happy in their work, testament to which was the sound of singing drifting across the gardens on the breeze.
On one was exempt from work, even the children had a quota to pick each morning and then after a picnic lunch beside the hop bins they were allowed to play while the adults carried on until the cry went up, ‘ pull no more bines’, and everyone would stop picking and head back to their huts for a hearty dinner cooked on an open fire.
The photos show that this was a family tradition that went on for many years as William (my dad) can be seen in the hop bines, aged 7 in 1930, while a later photo of Roy (my 2nd cousin) was taken in 1951.
After the rest of the photos there follows a story that he wrote back in 2005 in which he recounts a journey he made in 1944, down to Goudhurst.
It certainly brings the era to life!
Eat it. It’ll Do You Good!
It was 1944. I was ten years old. Dad was away at war, lost forever it seemed and mum was stuck at home with three snotty nosed kids. With the youngest, Sylvia at five, me and big brother Dave at thirteen, she had her hands full.
The war had still one year to run, but of course we weren’t to know that. As kids, discards of London’s East End, war was all we knew. The roar of invading aircraft and the wail of a siren regularly combined to form our bedtime lullaby. We never looked for it to be over and ten pennyworth of meat and two pennyworth of corned beef formed the structure of a miserable diet that sustained us and many like us to resemble regulation bean sticks.
Food was never an item that presented itself other than at meal times and waste disposal units could only be found running around of two skinny legs waiting for any morsel that may be directed their way. All potato peelings and pea shucks were boiled and mashed in oats (not that there ever were any) to be fed to the rabbits and chickens, who unbeknown to them were being fattened for the festive season; their last Noel: chicken for Christmas Day and a baked five pound tame rabbit for Boxing Day. I guess our furry friends would have been pretty wild had they an inkling of their fate.
Food of course was rationed.
There was no street corner McDonalds, nor Kentucky Fried to take the edge from our appetites and extend our waist lines and in retrospect we were none the worse for that. I can never remember being hungry, for we ate well when food was available from the table and there were never any left-overs. We never dared. Anything other than an empty plate brought the Victorian instruction – “Eat it. It’ll do you good, it won’t hurt you.” Nothing was ever wasted. If it were eaten, it wasn’t wasted.
So we fattened the rabbits and chickens for a time when we knew we would celebrate at a laden table the birth of someone of importance. That someone I would get to know better as I grew older.
Mum was old fashioned when it comes to culinary delights, and let us stop there for a few moments and analyse ’old fashioned’.
Why wouldn’t she be old fashioned? What’s old fashioned. Traditional? Set in her ways? In ways in which she had been schooled? Experienced? Reliable? Aren’t we all, and how hard is change?
Whichever way, when she decided to cook what emerged from the kitchen was usually bather in fat, steaming and crisp, in high demand and challenging. The Sunday roast was an event for which the scramble for the china bone or knuckle kept us kids competitive. This was always good and always a shoulder or loin of lamb which produced a sumptuous residue.
This residue took the form of a brimming bowl of dripping having been left to set on the window ledge which would become available as the weeks rib-liner to be strongly contested for the brothers grim. In retrospect there was nothing more satisfying that a thick chuck of freshly baked bread coated with dripping and the dregs thereof, needed only a dash of salt to complete a gourmet feast.
How loved was that bread and dripping?
The main of the meal was always supported by a desert which was never known as that. It was always afters and in my roots it will always be.
What’s fao afters, Mum?
A standard question with a standard reply.
“Plums and custard” or “Rhubarb and custard.”
Normally the latter, although anything and custard was the norm. The milkman, coalman, baker and greengrocer all had horses and their bi-products created another commodity in high demand. There was little need for street cleaners in our back streets with so many keen gardeners as neighbours and our forced rhubarb was as good as any and there was plenty of it. (Ever eaten raw rhubarb? We tried it as kids.)
Mum’s house special would top the rhubarb, however, and with a bit of luck she would forgo the thickly skinned custard for the joy of boiled suet pudding coated in the sticky delight of golden syrup, or treacle as we called it.
You’ve heard it: ‘Put yer pudden out fer treacle!’, but have you ever done it?
Not exactly Christmas pudding, but as good as and mum was a dab hand at making them as well. Yes, Christmas always seemed a lifetime away, but better than that came the Kent hop harvest which over-rode every occasion in the Jenner calendar. There was nothing more personal and exciting to any of us than hop picking. The last week in August was ever one filled with tingling moments of anticipation as preparation was begun to move the thirty seven miles to Goudhurst in the weald of Kent where the hops would be high up the wires and ready for picking by the first week in September.
Dartford is eighteen miles from London.
We lived in Dartford and to get to Goudhurst by rail the brilliance of the Southern Railway system required us to take the train to London Bridge where a change of trains would return us on another line to Maidstone. This didn’t just mean a change of trains. It also meant a change of rail systems where the modern technology of electric rail gave way to the Puffing Billy where the hiss of steam and the constant belch of swirling Black smoke pitted with soot and cinder blessed the lungs.
So through August the necessities of living were packed into trunks, cases and tea chests to be transferred on the day of departure to out hoppers huts on Trillinghurst Farm. Sheets, blankets, plates, cutlery, cups and saucers, pots, pans and cooking devices which always included a primus stove, the number one consideration for boiling the kettle. No true hopper would be caught without one.
So, we packed all we could pack (familiar wording) into the guards van and along with fellow hoppers occupied a third class carriage bound for adventure land. Really, once on the move we were there, not caring how long the one hour journey by road would take. It was usually four hours, but we were on our way and it meant another month off school.
The carry-on baggage for the train was always an event. With two sons why would mother waste four arms that could be stretched to the limit carrying string bags and oil cans?
This now is the special moment and the whole point of this yarn.
I remember the day well.
We were on the third leg of the journey, Maidstone to Paddock Wood, now the heart of the hop country. Seven of us, grown and not so grown filled the carriage from which there was no escape once the wheels were moving. The net luggage racks were filled with hand luggage and we were free to imbibe the changing scenery as hop fields, oast houses and hop country towns rolled by our vision.
It had been hours since leaving and with our destination at least one more hour away the worms were starting to bite with none of us having eaten since leaving. It was a good time for mum to break out the food from the string bag in the rack above.
Already laughter flows within at that thought.
What a good mum! Cheese sandwiches, a bottle of cold tea and yes! A suet pudding specially prepared for the journey. It was all there in the Blue string bag in the rack.
“Get it down, Davey and give us it ‘ere” she said. Then “What’s that smell?” As she sliced up the meal for the day.
Gutsy Roy was the first in with a double mouthful of suet pudding which he endeavoured to spit out as soon as it hit his palette.
“It tastes of paraffin, mum” he bleated. “It’s horrible. I can’t eat it.”
“Nonsense, Eat it. It’ll do you good.” Accompanied by a clip around the ear.
Quite illegal now, of course, but the can of paraffin for the primus had been stored in the rack and leaked into our rations, into the food for which we craved. The suet pudding, as absorbent as any sponge, had imbibed sufficient of the flammable fluid to warrant a Shell Company product, not edible, but one probably more suitable as a fire lighter.
An indignant mother endorsed the quality of the product.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. Eat it. It’ll do you good.”
Over the years the flavour of mum’s ‘paraffin pudding’ has seasoned the years. Most times when I drive into the forecourt of a gas station her memory crosses my mind; mum and her ‘paraffin puddun’.
“It’ll do you good” she’d said, almost sixty years ago as I write.
The flavour of that horrible ‘pudden’ has seeped down through the years, but the disgust is long forgotten and the distaste of a retched situation matured into humour and even merriment. Five year old Sylvia is no longer with us. In her forty seventh year she was taken from us, but there was never a time during those intervening years when the siblings were reunited after being poles apart when the hilarity of the situation was not relived by them.
Many times I recall, either over the phone, or on a one to one when a conversation collapsed in fits of laughter with just a slight reminder of what occurred on that hoppers’ train almost sixty years ago.
Sylvie was great. Fantastic sense of humour with never a smile off her face.
“Look, come on over for dinner” she would say. “I’ll make a paraffin pudden” and never finish the sentence. Tears of hysteria would come to the eyes and still they flow sixty years later just at the memory. My body aches in unison at the thought; and the taste.
“Eat it. It’ll do you good.”
What good did it do? I think you know. Laughter is the best medicine.
Written by Roy Jenner