Today in the 21st century, the hopyards of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire produce more than half of the hops grown in the UK, but there are now no hopyards at all in the Vale of Evesham.
The story was different over a hundred years ago. The 19th century was the golden age of the hop industry. Throughout the country, hop acreage continued to increase until 1878 when it reached its peak with 77,000 acres. It was in the mid 1870s that hop-growing was introduced at Aldington. Both the 1888 and 1896 Kelly’s Directory entry for Aldington says: “This hamlet contains about 632 acres; much land is devoted to garden purposes and hops are grown here."
In 1873, Arthur Herbert Savory, a young gentleman farmer, took up residence at Aldington Manor as the new tenant farmer. Newly-married, full of enthusiasm and new ideas, after a few years, he decided to introduce hop-growing. For approximately 25 years, Savory grew around 30 acres of hops at Aldington until he left the village in 1901 to return to his native Hampshire. He wrote about his experiences in his book, Grain and Chaff from an English Manor, which was published in 1920. We can glean quite a lot of information about hop-growing in the area from a study of this book.
Building the Hop Kilns
A prerequisite for hop-growing was the need for a hop kiln (known as an oast house in Kent), a building designed for kilning (drying) hops as part of the brewing process.
An existing building at the eastern end of the Manor House, which had been used most recently as a malthouse, was converted into a hop kiln. Savory employed the services of a carpenter (referred to as “Tom G”) from a neighbouring village to build initially one hop kiln, and then a further two, with the necessary storerooms for green and dried hops. As the hop acreage increased, the preparation of hop-poles, and the erection of wire-work on larger poles, which gradually superseded the ordinary pole system, kept the carpenter in regular work. Savory described the building of the hop kilns:
Throughout the work of erecting them, and it was no small one, Tom G was the leading spirit; it gave scope for his abilities, I think, on a larger scale than any building he had previously undertaken. We began with a kiln sufficient for the first 6 acres planted; it was necessary, with the gradual extinction of British corn-growing, to find something to supersede it, and to compensate for the falling off in farm receipts. I had seen something of hops as a pupil on a large farm near Alton, Hampshire, where they occupied an area of over a hundred acres, but at that time I had no intention of growing them myself, and had not been infected with the glamour, formerly attaching to hops beyond any other crop, that came to me later. I visited the old Alton farm, and obtained all particulars of the latest kind of hop kiln in the neighbourhood from the inventor, and instructed him to prepare plans and specifications for the conversion of an old malthouse close to the Manor. I contracted with Tom G for all the carpenter's work, and with an excellent stonemason or bricklayer for that belonging to his department. They both entered with enthusiasm upon the job, and we had many interesting discussions as to improvement, as it proceeded. Tom G was a man of great resource, and could always find a way out of every difficulty; he told me, before we began, that he could see the completed building as if actually finished, just as a great sculptor once said how easy it was to produce a statue from a block of marble, for all he had to do was to cut away the superfluous material! The alterations entailed a new roof from end to end of the old building, and a new floor for the upper part, the length being about 70 and the width about 20 feet. The old roof was covered mostly with stone slates – flakes of limestone from the Cotswolds – very uneven in size and rough as to surface, and in part with ordinary blue slates. The latter lie much more closely on the laths, the stone slates allowing the passage of more air between them, and it was interesting to find that while the ancient laths under the stone slates were fairly well preserved, those beneath the blue slates were much decayed, evidently from the fact of the damp in an unheated building remaining longer where the air was excluded, though one would have expected the close-lying blue slates to be the better protection of the two. Much expense was saved by Tom G's economical use of materials; wherever the old oak beams could be used again they were incorporated with the new work. He never cut sound old or new pieces of timber to waste; almost every scrap came in somewhere, for he worked with his head as well as his hands.
The hop kiln was a great success, and later, with the same workmen, I added two more, as my hopyards extended, on exactly the same lines. They would probably have been annually in use in the picking season up to the present time had it not been that the low prices ruling latterly have rendered a crop which requires so much labour, knowledge, and supervision, not worth growing. I hear, however, with much satisfaction, that these old hop kilns and storerooms have been of great service during the war for drying medicinal herbs, chiefly belladonna and henbane, and that in 1917 the turnover exceeded £6,000.
The hop foreman
George Harwood (referred to as Jarge in Savory’s book), one of Savory’s existing workers, was selected as the hop foreman:
I selected Jarge for foreman of the hop-picking as a most responsible and trustworthy man; it was then that his sense of humour was most conspicuous, a very important and valuable trait when 300 women and children, and the men who supplied them with hops on the poles, have to be kept cheerful and good-tempered every day and all day for three weeks or a month, sometimes under trying conditions.
He had a cheery word for all who were working steadily, and a semi-sarcastic remark for the careless and unmethodical; a keen eye for hops wasted and trodden into the ground, or for pole of undersized hops, unwelcome to the pickers and hidden beneath those from which the hops had been picked. He acted as buffer between capital and labour, smoothing troubles over, telling me of the pickers’ difficulties, and explaining my side to the pickers when the quality was poor and prices discouraging, so that the work went with a swing and with happy faces and good-humoured chaff.
The hop drier
Tom Cotterill was appointed as hop drier:
When I had to arrange for the harvesting of my first hop crop, it was necessary to find a man who could be entrusted with the critical work of drying the hops and Tom was the man I chose. I had my kiln ready, constructed in an old malthouse, on the latest principle and in time for the first crop. The kiln consisted of a space about 20 feet square, walled off at one end of the old building, but with entrances on the ground and first floors. Beneath, in the lower compartment, was the fireplace, a yard square, and 16 feet above was the floor on which the hops were dried. Anthracite coal was used for fuel, the fire being maintained day and night throughout the picking – the morning’s picking between 1 pm and 12 midnight and the afternoon’s picking between 1 am and 12 noon. Tom was therefore on duty for the whole 24 hours, with what snatches of sleep he could catch in the initial stage of each drying and at odd moments.
The process requires great skill and attention; at first he and I, with what little knowledge I had, puzzled it out together, he having had no previous experience, and night after night I sat up with him till the load came off the kiln at midnight. A slight excess of heat, or an irregular application of it, will spoil the hops, the principle being to raise the temperature, very gradually at first, to 30 or 40 degrees higher at the finish. Hops should be blown-dry by a blast of hot air, not baked by heat alone. The drier, of course, has to keep a watchful eye on the thermometer on the upper floor among the hops – Tom always called it the “theometer” – regulating his fire accordingly and the admission of cold air through adjustable ventilators on the outside walls. This regulation varies according to the weather, the moisture of the air and the condition of the hops and calls for critical judgment and accuracy. Often, tired out with the previous ordinary day’s work, we had much ado to keep awake at night and it was fatal to arrange a too comfortable position with the warmth of the glowing fire and the soporific scent of the hops. Then Tom would announce that it was “time to get them little props out” which, in imagination, were to support our wearied eyelids.
When we decided that the hops were ready to be cooled down, to prevent breaking when being taken off the drying floor, all doors, windows and ventilators were thrown open and the fire banked up and, while they were cooling, he went to neighbouring cottages to rouse the men who came nightly to unload and reload the kiln and then I could retire to bed.
Tom was devoted to duty and was so successful as a hop-drier that he soon became capable of managing two more kilns in the same building, which I enlarged as I gradually increased my acreage. In a good season he would often have £100 worth of hops through his hands in the 24 hours, sometimes more. He was the only man I ever employed at this particular work and throughout those years he turned out hops to the value of nearly £30,000 without a single mishap or spoiled kiln-load – a better proof of his devotion to duty than anything else I could say.
Jabez Enstone was head carter for Arthur Savory:
JE must have walked many hundreds of miles among my hops with the horses drawing “the mistifier”, a syringing machine which pumped a mist-like spray of soft soap and quassia solution upon the under-side of the hop-leaves, when attacked by the aphis blight; and he must have destroyed many millions of aphides, for the blight was an annual occurrence at Aldington and taxed our energies to the utmost at one of the busiest times of year.
Savory employed about 300 people, mostly women and children, during the picking season. Some of these were local women such as Lydia Harwood, the eldest daughter of George Harwood, his hop foreman. Savory spoke glowingly of her:
Tall, clear-complexioned, graceful, dignified and rather serious, but with a sweet smile, she was a daughter of whom any man might have been proud. To my thinking, she was the belle of the village, and she made a very pretty picture in her sun-bonnet, among the green and golden tracery of the hop-bine in the hopping season accompanied by the smaller members of the family. At the “crib” into which the hops are picked, many bushels proved their industry, and there were no leaves or rubbish to call for rebuke at the midday and evening measurings.
On the employment of women, Savory had this to say:
Women were especially necessary in the hop-yards for the important operation of tying the selected bines to the poles with rushes and pulling out those which were superfluous. It was difficult, at first, to accustom them to the fact that the hop always twines the way of the sun, whilst the kidney bean takes the opposite course. And there was a problem which greatly exercised their minds: How were they to reach the hops at the tops of the poles – 14 feet from the ground – when the time came? It did not occur to them that it was possible to cut the bine and pull up the pole. They soon became very quick and expert at the tying, and their well-worn wedding-rings, telling of a busy life, would flash brightly in the sunshine as they tenderly coaxed the brittle bines round the base of the poles, securing them with the rush tied in a special slip-knot, so that it easily expanded as the bine enlarged.
The local schoolchildren were a valuable resource as pickers. For the years 1896-1901 inclusive, the Badsey School Log Book reveals that some pupils were absent from school for a period in September and October in order to help with the hop-picking. It probably helped that both Savory, and his friend, Julius Sladden of Badsey (owner of Sladden & Collier Brewery in Evesham) were both School Managers and could authorise an extended holiday:
- 28 Sep 1896 – School reopened after 5 weeks holiday, the holidays having been prolonged 2 weeks on account of the hop-picking not being completed.
- 27 Sep 1897 – In consequence of the hops not being all gathered, the school holidays have been extended for another week.
- 7 Oct 1898 – Reopened on Monday 3rd. Hop-picking not being finished, the attendance for the first half of the week was only fair, average attendance 118.
- 5 Oct 1900 – Reopened on Mon 1st, only 90 children present, average attendance 119.7. A great many children were away at the beginning of the week hop-picking.
- 7 Oct 1901 – On account of the hop-picking, the holidays have been extended for one week.
But it was not just local people employed. Before the days of mechanised farming, hop picking was a labour intensive process, requiring a significantly greater number of people than were available locally. Many people from Birmingham, the Black Country and South Wales travelled to Worcestershire and Herefordshire every year for the hop picking season. Hop picking also attracted many Gypsies, Roma and Traveller people who would time their arrival in the hop growing areas to coincide with picking season.
Savory concluded his comments about hop pickers by saying:
Hop-picking is always somewhat reminiscent of the Saturnalia; with hundreds of strangers from distant villages and a few gipsies and tramps, it is not possible to enforce strict discipline, for it is very necessary to keep the people in good-humour. On the final day of the picking they expect to be allowed to indulge in a good deal of horse-play, the great joke being suddenly to upset an unpopular individual into a crib among the hops. Shrieks of laughter greet the disappearance of the unlucky one, of whom nothing is to be seen except a struggling leg protruding from the crib. The last operation in the hop garden is stacking the poles, and burning the bine, a most inflammable material which makes a prodigious blaze. As the men watch the leaping flames the same remark is made year after year: "fire is a good servant, but a bad master".
Thepickers were paid according to the quantity of hops they picked. The crop was picked in a “crib”, where a wooden frame held open a hessian-covered receptacle around eight by four feet long. The picked hops were measured in bushels and tipped into a sack for transport to the kilns for drying. The number of bushels picked was recorded by the picker on a tally stick. This was later matched to that held by the tallyman and a notch cut on the edge of both. The following paragraph gives some indication of the wages that Savory paid:
Wages are, of course, the crowning reward of the working-man's week; throughout the whole of my time 15s a week was the recognized pay for six full summer days: "a very little to receive, but a good deal to pay away," as a neighbour once said. During harvest, and at piecework, more money was earned, and it always pleased me that I could pay much better prices for piece-work among the hops than for piece-work at wheat-hoeing or on similar unremunerative crops. The reason is obvious: the hoeing of an acre of wheat, a crop which might possibly return a matter of £10 per acre, takes no more manual effort than the hoeing of an acre of hops, where a gross return of £70 or £80 per acre is not unusual, and is sometimes considerably exceeded.
The hop-growing year
"Till James's Day be past and gone, You might grow hops or you might grow none." St James's Day is July 25, and so uncertain was the crop in the days before insecticides were in use, that the saying fairly represents the specially speculative nature of the crop in former times. As an instance of the effects of varying years I had the uncommon experience of picking two crops in twelve months: the first in a very late season when the picking did not commence till after Worcester hop-fair day, September 19th, and the second the following year when picking was unusually early, and was completed before the fair day.
Thus wrote Savory of one experience he had. The Evesham Journal of 13th August 1892 published Savory’s report on the harvest in Aldington in 1892:
The season has been a trying one for hops, and they are short of bine; blight has been very persistent since the middle of June, and much expense has been necessary to keep it under. The weather is now, however, more genial, and should this continue a fair crop of excellent quality may be expected.
Display of hops at Kilburn Agricultural Show
In 1879, Arthur Savory exhibited hops at Kilburn Agricultural Show:
Agricultural shows under favourable weather conditions are always popular and well−attended….. The weather, however, is the arbiter as to the attendance, upon which the financial result of the show depends. In 1879, the last of the miserable decade that ruined thousands of farmers all over the country with almost continuous wet seasons, poor crops, and wretched prices, the Royal Agricultural Society held its show at Kilburn. The ground had been carefully prepared and adapted for the great show with the usual liberal outlay; the work for next year's show always commencing as soon as the show of the current year is over; but the site was situated on the stiff London clay, and, after weeks of summer rains and the traffic caused by collecting the heavy engines and machinery and the materials used in the construction of the sheds and buildings, the ground was churned into a quagmire of clay and water, so that in places it was impassable, and some of the exhibits were isolated …..
I had a pocket of my hops on exhibition entered in the Worcester class, and had great difficulty in getting near it. I found the shed at last, deserted and surrounded by water, with a pool below the benches on which the hops were staged. My pocket was sold straight from the show-yard, and when my factor sent in the account, I found that the pocket had gained no less than seventeen pounds from the damp to which it had been subjected since it left my premises, about ten days previously; hops, at that time, were worth about 1s a pound, so that the increased value more than balanced all expenses.
Monoecious hop – a rare occurrence
Arthur Savory told of a rare occurrence in 1893:
The hop is dioecious (producing male and female blossoms on separate plants), but very rarely both can be found on the same stem−−the plant thus becoming monoecious. In 1893, a very hot dry year, several specimens were found, including one in Kent, one in Surrey, one in Herefordshire, and one in my own hopyards at Aldington. It is curious that the same unusual season should have produced the same abnormality in places so far apart, practically representing all the hop districts of the country.
Hop-growing in Badsey
In 1891, Arthur Savory bought Claybrook Farm, Badsey, and introduced hop-growing there. He attempted to sell the farm in 1897. The sale notice for 31st May 1897, said: “...part of the Claybrook land is planted with hops, for which it is very suitable.” Claybrook remained unsold in 1897 and was put up for sale again on 15th July 1901. The estate included 10 acres of hops and well-established hop yards.
There is also evidence that hops were grown at another location in Badsey. A pair of semi-detached houses called Hopyard Villas was built on the south side of Bretforton Road in 1908 on a plot of land covering 1134 square yards, part of a field called the Hopyard. The plot was on the north-east corner of land owned by Thomas Byrd, a retired farmer and Justice of the Peace living in Aldington, who may also briefly have decided to try his hand at hop-growing.
It is most likely that Savory sent his hops to Evesham where Sladden & Collier’s Brewery was based, owned by his good friend, Julius Sladden of Seward House, Badsey. The two men were both church wardens at St James’ Church and school managers.
Inevitably some hops were kept for local consumption. Arthur Savory described the excellent beer brewed by his farm bailiff, William Bell:
Bell was an excellent brewer and, with good malt and some of our own hops could produce a nice light bitter beer at a very moderate cost. In years when cider was scarce we supplemented the men’s short allowance with beer, 4 bushels of malt to 100 gallons; and for years he brewed a superior drink for the household which, consumed in much smaller quantities and requiring to be kept longer, was double the strength. His methods were not scientific and he scorned the use of a “theometer”, his rule being that the hot water was cool enough for the addition of the malt when the steam was sufficiently gone off to allow him “to see his face” on the surface.
Bell had initially been uncertain of Savory’s new venture into hop-growing:
When, a few years later, I introduced hop-growing as a complete novelty on the farm, he regarded it at first as an extravagant and unprofitable hobby, akin to the hunters my predecessor kept. He “reckoned”, he said that my hop-gardens were my “hunting horse” and I heard that my neighbours quoted the old saw about “a fool and his money”.
Arthur Savory’s holiday
Unlike his workers, Arthur Savory had the luxury of being able to take a holiday at the end of the season:
My summers at Aldington were nearly always too busy to allow me to take a holiday, except for a very few days, but when the urgent work of the year was over, the harvest completed, and the hops and the fruit picked, we always had a clear month away from home, about the middle of October to the middle of November; and, as we found the autumn much less advanced in the south than in the midlands, we often spent the time on the south coast or in the Isle of Wight, and we were nearly always favoured by fine weather.
Rider Haggard visits Aldington Manor in 1901
In 1901, the author, Rider Haggard, best known for his adventure fiction set in exotic locations, began a tour of England and Wales looking at agricultural methods and writing articles for the Daily Express. He arrived in the Vale of Evesham in June 1901 and stayed for a few days with John Idiens at Wickhamford Manor. One of the farmers he visited was Arthur Savory at Aldington Manor. The following year, a book, Rural England: Being an Account of Agricultural and Social Researches Carried Out in the Years 1901 and 1902, was published. A description of his visit to Aldington appeared on page 359, and included a photograph of hop workers training hop bine on Savory’s farm:
Another farm of a different class that I went over here was in the occupation of Mr Savory, of Aldington Manor, quite close to Wickhamford, who had held it for many years – I think about twenty-five. This farm comprised 350 acres, of which thirty were under fruit, thirty under hops, eighty let in allotments at about 75s the acre and averaging from one to three acres in size, the balance being half arable, half pasture. The soil was a splendid wheat land upon which the hops that were originally introduced by Mr Savory twenty-five years before, throve to perfection. When we saw his plantation all hands were busily engaged in cutting out superfluous shoots and training the vines up the string, which, by the way, cost £24 a ton, and is used at the rate of a hundredweight per acre.
Retirement of Arthur Savory and the end of hop-growing at Aldington
Despite Rider Haggard’s impressive description of his visit to Aldington Manor, it is apparent that Arthur Savory had already decided that he wished to quit farming at the relatively young age of 53. There were probably various factors at play in his decision-making. Large farms were in decline and market gardening was becoming pre-eminent in the villages of the Vale. As far as his main innovation of hop-growing was concerned, it had passed its peak. Clean water had become more available and this may have reduced demand for beer. Pasteurisation arrived in the late 1870s and fewer hops were needed as a preservative. Changing tastes and a decline in the demand for porter and a surging demand for a lighter beer known as Indian Ale or Pale Ale became the fashion.
Just a month after Rider Haggard’s visit, Savory put Claybrook (the farm that he owned in Badsey) up for sale and, four months later, on 11th October 1901, he arranged for his stock and items of husbandry, which included his hop machinery, to be auctioned:
- 4 hop and fruit washing machines by Drake & Muirhead and Coleman & Morton
- Powerful iron hop bagging machine by Hetherington
- 2 kiln hair cloths each 19 ft square
- Portable picking tank by Weeks, 8 ft x 4 ft
- Wire strainer
- 200 creosoted larch poles
- 200 strong ash poles
By mid October he had left Aldington Manor and returned to his native Hampshire, where he settled at Merry Gardens, Beechwood Lane, Burley. A report in The Worcestershire Chronicle of 19th October 1901 described him as “a successful agriculturist” and said that he had just relinquished farming in the district.
In the crop report for 1902, published in The Evesham Journal of 2nd August 1902, Alfred Butler, Savory’s successor as tenant farmer at Aldington, wrote: “No hops grown here.”
The only trace of the former hop-growing industry is in the two residential houses known as 1 & 2 The Hop Kilns, Mill Lane, Aldington, and in the housing complex across the road, built in the 1970s and erroneously named "The Hop Gardens". In Worcestershire and Herefordshire hops were grown in “hopyards”, rather than “hop gardens” as they are called in Kent and other parts of England. But perhaps it was felt that the owners of these six new detached homes would prefer to live in a garden than a yard!
Maureen Spinks, June 2020