Far more than a way to earn a little extra money, it is little wonder that Black Country folk look back on those balmy autumnal days of hop-picking with great fondness. Something of a combination of job and holiday, children especially looked forward to the fresh air, farm life and freedom to play in the countryside.
One such youngster was Frank Nicklin, who now lives in Denleigh Road in Kingswinford. Like many Dudley families, the Nicklins went hop-picking in Herefordshire every year, as much for the break from the Black Country as the revenue it brought in! Frank now tells us more...
“On reading about hop-pickers, I wonder if any Bugle readers ever went to the Slatch Farm* at Bosbury, near Ledbury, to pick hops? We, the Nicklin family of Dudley, went every year from as far back as 1933, when I was born, but the family went many years before that. I am told that I went when I was 18 months old, and I do remember the years up until my 15th birthday, when I started work. My mother was Eliza Nicklin, and our family of around nine went to Slatch Farm. Mr Bennett was the farmer.
I recall how every September, we would pack our hop-picking box and take it to the Wren’s Nest pub on Priory Road (now renamed the Duncan Edwards) on the night before we were due to go. There were no vandals then, and a couple of blokes would stack them ready to be picked up the next morning.
On the morning, three charabancs came from Oldbury, Lloyd’s by name, and a lorry. All the hop-pickers would sit in to travel to the farm, so with hop-picking boxes loaded and pickers aboard we would set off. The journey would be via Worcester and Malvern, through Colwall and Bosbury, down the narrow lanes to the farm.
We were greeted by Mr Bennett, a typical farmer; well-built, breeches, boots with gaiters, red face; a very healthy looking man. Mrs Hall, the organiser, would see us to our so-called accommodation: cleaned pig sties, cow barns, hay stores with upper floors, and any other stores that were available.
After we had sorted ourselves out, the next thing was bedding. Bales of straw, with the string cut, were spread on te floor. The bedding straw was then covered with white sheets and blankets. The bed, when made up, was about two to three feet high, until you lay on it, when it suddenly dropped to about six inches and was very hard! Whole families slept on one big bed, but who cared? No one.
Every morning, my mother would get up about 4 am and light what were called ‘devils,’ which were like long metal mangers on legs, with hooks overhead from which to hang kettles of water. When the water boiled, Mother used to wake all the kettle owners and the day had started, at around 4.30 am. By 6 am, we would be picking hops. My Mother would say to me, as a lad, ‘Fill the bucket and you can go and play.’ To me, that bucket seemed like filling a dustbin, but true to her word, off I would go to the orchard to do some ‘scrumping,’ or ‘pinchin’ opples.’
It was a great time as I recall. The lardy bread man would come to the hopyard with his wares, and we would light a fire by the crib, tea would be made, and the family would sit round for tea and lardy cake.
The cribs, as they were called, were about eight or nine feet long and our family would nearly fill it by the time the ‘Bushel Man,’ a Mr Mason, came to measure how many bushels we had picked.
Mother would always have what they called a ‘clean crib,’ meaning that there were no leaves from the hop vine. While Mr Mason was taking the hops from the crib with his bushel basket, Mother would immediately lean over the crib, and with both arms covered in hops would lift them to aerate them. On asking why she did this, she would say, ‘Them hops are lying solid on the bottom, and if you don’t lift them up the bushel man can get more hops in his basket and that means less money for us.’ My Mother was very crafty!
Every Wednesday, Mother would get the meat orders from several pickers and would set off for Bosbury village butcher’s, which was some three or four miles across fields, and return with the goods. However, before she went she would give strict orders about how many hops should be in the crib by the time she got back. She, and most of the family, were very fast pickers and at 6d a bushel a lot of hops had to be picked.
In my latter years, when I would be about twelve years old, I remember the pickers going on strike, for two reasons; they wanted more money per bushel, and Mr Mason, the busheller, was putting too many hops in his basket per bushel. They got 10d a bushel and Mr Mason took things a little more lightly, so all went back to work.
Some happy times were had, such as when we had visitors from home every weekend. They got roped in on Sunday morning to pick a few hops before they set off home. There was singing around the ‘fire devils,’ laughter was abundant, and then came the pay day at the end of September. All the pickers knew exactly how much they were to pick up, and Mr Bennett would call out their names one by one. The smiles on their faces told if they had done well or not.
When he called out ‘Eliza Nicklin,’ he knew it would be a big payout, all £80 between eight of us, excluding myself. I would probably get a new pair of trousers when we got home, ready for school.
On the last year I went, in September 1948, my surprise from the hop-picking money was a Hercules bike, and I remember how I cried the following year because I couldn’t go.
Some of the names I remember were the Birchills, especially Joyce and Jimmy, the Lissemores (including Beatrice), the Porters (their mother was Florrie Porter) and the Andrews family, with May and Joyce.
On visiting Slatch Farm recently, I have discovered that it is now a stud farm for racehorses, but as I stood by the pond at the side of the so-called shop, in the silence I could hear all the familiar sounds of hop-picking days. Such happy days.”