CHILDHOOD MEMORIES IN THE HOP FIELDS
BY ERIC SLATER / PARKES, 2009
I don’t remember where I discovered this interesting story. There was also an E. Slater recorded in the Ledbury Alamanacks from 1973 to 1988 living at Pritchetts Cottage, Catley Southfield but this is probably just a coincidence. I’m hoping Eric won’t mind my including his words in Bosbury history. If anyone would prefer to read the story on paper rather than on the screen the Word document is available to download and print. It is 13 pages long.
“My family came from the centre of Dudley in the West Midlands. My gran had nine children, whom she had to bring up on
her own, because my granddad died when he was in his thirties. Gran used to live in Alma Place, just off King Street by top church.
By all accounts conditions were very harsh, there was a couple of iron foundries and a few houses. To make ends meet, Gran would
take in washing, and any cleaning work which was available at the time. ... From there she moved to Fisher Street then Field Road,
from here to Marigold Crescent on the Wrens Nest estate. I was born on the Wrens Nest Estate in 1944 just as the war was ending
and like everybody else I don’t suppose we had much money coming in to the household. So going hop picking was like killing
two birds with one stone, earning a few bob and going on holiday at the same time. There was quite a few of us living in the four
bedroom house in Marigold Crescent, my Gran, Mrs Eliza Parkes, her eldest daughter, Jenny, who was my mother along with my sisters
Shirley and Valerie, another daughter, Margi and her husband Henry Davies with their daughters Pat who was about the same age as
me, young Margery as she was always known and their son little Billy, next came the second son Jack who was married to Betty with
their son and daughter, little George and Denise. Jack and Betty moved in with us when Margi and Henry moved out to go and live
with Henry’s mother, Clara Davis, who lived opposite the Washington public house in Wrens Nest Road. These were the married
couples who lived there. Then came the single members of our family, my Gran’s sons, Billy (who never married), George,
daughters Ivy and Audrey and last but not least me, Eric.
So you can understand with all these people in the house, why Gran wanted to get away for a few weeks hop picking. Gran first went in the country about 1942. Some years, we would go hop tying as well, which was training, and tying, the young hop shoots up the string, on which they would grow into the hop bines, then it would be fruit picking, strawberries and black currants, then by the time the fruit picking was complete, straight on to hop picking, all this would last from around June, through to September, four glorious months.
As I was born in December, the first time I was in the country, as everybody called it, was in May 1945. I was about 5 months old, our Audrey was 7, and George about 13 and Billy 22. A few weeks before we would be off, Gran would start to put a few tins of food and household items into the hop picking box, which was a great big metal thing with a handle at each end to lift it. Don’t forget some years, we had to take all of our clothing and the bedding for as long as four months, so this thing weighed a ton. As soon as you saw the box come out and started packing, that’s when you started to get excited, for you knew just a few more weeks and then you were off, if you were to ask me then, which was the best time, hop picking or Christmas there was only one answer, hop picking. It was like Christmas every day for us kids.
When I say Gran used to get away from it all, she did, but half the family would follow. Uncles Billy and Jacky Parkes and Henry Davies were miners and worked at Baggerige Colliery on the outskirts of Sedgeley. Uncle George had to choose between the Pit or the Army, he chose the Pit; after a few weeks underground, he was soon in the Army. I used to think it was good of the pit bosses to let them have as much holidays as they wanted, it was years later I found out they all had box notes or as they are called today “on the sick”. If the miners went hop picking during the war, they would have to pay a fine because a miner was classed as essential services, which meant you were exempt from going into the army, so I don’t suppose they were meant to lose any time from the pits.
I’m trying to recall some off the ways we used to travel over to Bosbury and Ledbury. I know I sometimes when we went fruit picking, we would have to go by steam train from Dudley railway station to Ledbury station, along with our battered old hop picking boxes. When we got to Ledbury station, the farmer who we were working for at the time, would send a tractor and open top trailer, to transport us to the farm. When it was raining, and the tractor got going at full pelt down the country lanes, the water and mud from the wheels, used to splash all over us, the only protection was hiding behind the boxes; I can still recall the screams of laughter coming from the woman. Almost all of the time when the tractor came to collect us, the driver was Noah Hodgkins. Noah worked on the farm all through the year, he lived along with his large family, in a caravan and under some canvas, in what we called the bottom orchard, I remember them being there for years and years, our Jack told me once that Noah’s family originally came from Walsall area, in the West Midlands but I don’t know if this is true.
GALLIMORE’S FARM, STAPLOW.
Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself, so back to the story. The first farm I can recall going to was just outside Ledbury at “Stapeley” [now Staplow}, it was called Gallimore’s Farm, we would pick strawberries and black currants but I don’t remember us picking hops. Our sleeping arrangements were a bit weird as I recall. There was a long brick barn, I would say about 50 or 60 yards long, which was raised 12 foot above the ground, which was reached by a wooden staircase on the outside of the building. Underneath the barn the farmer used to store his farm machinery, inside the barn the different families would hang sheets or blankets, or anything what was available, to separate their living and sleeping quarters. There must have been a dozen or more families living like this. Everybody must have got on extremely well, living in those cramped conditions, I don’t recall any arguments at the time, but there again I wasn’t very old. Next to the raised barn was the lower barns, this is where the people from south Wales would stay; most of the families came from coalfield areas of South Wales.
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.
A funny thing happened while we were at Gallimore’s farm; well it wasn’t much fun for me. Like I said, because I was granny-reared she was my “mom” and that’s how I thought of her. Well anyhow Gran used to get a fine from the courts every year for me not going to school, because I was always in the country, so this one year, it was decided I had to go back to Dudley to attend the Wrens Nest school. Apparently, Uncle Jack had to get back to work down the pit, so I was to go back on the bus with him. There’s no way on this earth Jack wanted to go back, but maybe our Betty had something to say about that. So anyhow we get the bus from Ledbury and had to change at Worcester. When we got to Worcester, Jack put me on the ferry, which went up and down the river Seven, this trip lasted for about an hour, and off he went into the Seven View pub, over the road from the river. I must have been on the ferry for about a hour or so, I do remember getting off the ferry and sitting outside the pub. I don’t know how long I sat there, but it must have been quite a long time, for when Jack came out let’s say “he was the worst for wear”. Our Jack always had a good singing voice and he certainly used it that day. So “do you want to go back to school or the farm” he asked me. Within half an hour we were on our way back to Ledbury.
As soon as we arrived on the farm, Gran had a go at him, but Jack swore black and blue that it was my fault, said I wouldn’t stop crying, he said I didn’t want to go to school, I wanted to go back on the farm. I had two good hidings that day, one off Gran, the other off our Billy for upsetting Jack and making him lose time from work, but that didn’t matter, I was back where I loved.
There are only about three things that stick in my mind about Gallimore’s, I remember the farmer shooting wood pigeons and hanging then on a gate by the barns, and anyone could just get them and throw them in the cooking pot. About four times a week, as soon as the “Oak” the local pub was open I was sent to go and get Mrs Lounges’ SP snuff; she must have had three or four boxes a time. Mrs Lounge came from the Priory Estate, she had two daughters, Mary who was married to Jack Bridgewater or Bridgewood; they had two children, Irene and Jacky. Her other daughter, Maud was married to “Sidney Cook”, a local family. They lived in a cottage on Gallimore’s farm, the cottage was in the middle of a field. Irene, Jacky and I would often visit the cottage and always come away with bags full of plums.
HAWKINS FARM, BOSBURY.
Hawkins’ farm was just a few miles down the road from Gallimore’s, and I suppose this is where I grew up and spent quite a lot of my childhood. The family tell me I was about five months old when they took me to the country, I was born in the December, then the following May, Gran and Audrey would be fruit picking, strawberries and blackberries. Our Audrey was about seven at the time so it’s no wonder she looked after me like a brother. Mrs Birchill who lived in Woodsorrell road, which was just around the corner from where we lived, was the lady who used to sort everything out for the farmer, Mr Hawkins, like, who were going, their names and the means of transport. Mrs Fisher from Corporation Road on the Brewery Field Estate in Dudley used to sort everything out before Mrs Birchill. Every family, would be taking two or three boxes with them, so as you can imagine, it must have been a nightmare to sort out. When the great day arrived, we would take our hop picking boxes through Mrs Smith’s back garden, who lived opposite us in Marigold Crescent. This would bring you right by Mrs Birchill’s house in Woodsorrell Road, and there we would have to pile the boxes on top of one another just to get them on the pavement. When all the boxes were there, it must have looked like a blockade of Mrs Birchill’s house. ... Most of the time, the farmer used to send a cattle truck to Dudley to pick up the boxes, there must have been loads, because when it was loaded the truck was full. There would be the boxes, rugs, and bits of carpet, anything to make the cattle barns which would be our home for the next few weeks or months a bit more homely. Most of the people would have to travel in the cattle truck with the boxes, the only way to see anything was through the slits in the side of the cattle truck. Don’t know what people thought, when we went past them through the towns, wonder if they thought we were going to the slaughter house, like the cattle, which were supposed to be in the trucks.
Some years later when a was a bit older I suppose about seven or eight years, a few of us boys would travel all the way to Bosbury in the back of the cattle truck, lying on the top of the boxes. It must have been very uncomfortable, but what a adventure. The rest of the families would travel in a charabanc, or coach, as it would be called today. When the truck arrived on the farm, the boxes and other bits and pieces would be unloaded, ready for each family to collect. The barns we slept in was where the cattle was kept during the winter months but, before we went in, they were white-washed with lime mortar, to make them a bit more presentable. When the boxes were sorted out, each family would be allocated a barn.
But not us. Gran was going for so long, everybody knew which barn we would have, always the end one, at the bottom barns, this was like the Ritz Hotel of the barns, my gran was very respected by all the people who came to the hop fields; the local Dudley folks, the people from Bath, the travelling people who used to stay in caravans in the bottom orchard, and all the local people from in and around Bosbury. The farmer who owned the farm was named Mr John Hawkins, he ran the farm, but after a few years, he appointed a farm manager, ( Mr Jack Middleton ) because he had another farm in Gloucestershire. After he left, it was, very rare you saw him. When he did pay the farm a visit, he would shout out to my gran, “Hallo Mrs Parkes” and she would reply “Good morning, John”. She always called him by his first name.
Mr Jack Middleton, who had the day to day running of the place, lived in the big farm house, right at the top of the farm drive, which meant he could see everything that was going on, well that was the theory anyway. Mr Middleton’s wife, Mary, he had a daughter Ann and son Robert. All the time we were at Hawkins’, I became good friends with Ann and Robert, but I don’t think their father liked it very much, always thought he treated us like gypsies. One thing I am sure of, he had no time for me, every time he saw me, he would have something to shout about, even when he used to catch me scrumping apples or cherries from the orchard. A couple of times, he caught me in the walled garden of his big house scrumping pears, he went berserk, I kept out of his way for a few days. One time we were in his garden when he came out of the back door of house, we must have been hiding in the bush for what seemed like a lifetime, but he never spotted us. A couple on times when I was with Robert we would take his jeep, (it was an old American one), over the fields. Robert used to drive it, I was his co-driver, boy, we went through some hedges in that thing. It was the same with the horse they had; it was alright for me to have a go, just as long as Mr Middleton wasn’t about.
Right, where was I? Having got to the farm the next thing to get sorted out was the beds. Off, would go the men and young boys to collect the bales of straw, which the farm hands would leave for use, under the instructions of Mr Middleton. You would carry the bales into the barn, the idea was to make a square out of the bales, which were tied secure with string, then throw some bales into the middle, cut the string and spread the straw about. This would continue until you had built up a certain thickness of straw, the outer layers of bales would secure everything, throw a sheet and some blankets over, and Bob’s your uncle as they say, your ready made bed. I suppose there was a few creepy crawlies, but I don’t remember any, just nice and warm. When it came to making a table, just put two bales together, throw over a table cloth, talk about posh. When I was a baby my gran used to make me a bed in the manger, there was no way I was of falling out of that.
When we were picking strawberries, some days it was so hot, the folks used to start work in the fields at 6am, finishing for dinner, at 1 0’clock, then about three or four, in the afternoon, down the fields again picking strawberries till about eight in the evening; it was a long hard slog. During the war, when the clocks went forward, it was by two hours, not one like today. This was to enable the farms more daylight in which to gather their crops. One year for some reason Betty and Jack couldn’t come, so we took little George with us, it must have been very hot, this one particular day, for when Gran look around, George was walking up and down the strawberry field, without a stitch of clothes on. When they were strawberry or black currant picking, the folks were paid so much a day, but it was back breaking work. So you can see why they let their hair down come Friday and Saturday, up to the “Oak Pub” everybody would go men, woman, and kids. This was a magical time, the Oak wasn’t very big inside, but around the back there was a large hut. When I say large, some years later on one of my many visits to Bosbury, l would look at the hut, and wonder how on earth all those people got in there, but anyway they did, and boy did they let their hair down. In one corner of the hut, was an old upright piano, there was always someone playing and everyone would join in with the singing, most of the young girls was up dancing. They must have drunk gallons of “GL cider” which was sold in a bottle, these where called flagons (just over two pints). Our Jack would make sure “Percy” the landlord always had some extra put away for him, just in case the pub ran dry.
While the adults were enjoying themselves, we kids would be outside, with our pop and packets of crisps, we would be climbing on top of the hut, clambering up the apple trees in the garden, playing tick, and running about wild. One of our tricks was, wait till one of the men came out to order the next round of drinks, which he would order, through a open hatch into the bar. When he took the first lot of drinks into the hut, we would just tell Percy he has forgotten to order our pop and crisps, worked every time. Our Pat and I were like brother and sister, always hanging about together, until she got fed up playing with me, then she would tease me blind. I would be throwing apples at her and anything else that was at hand. The best part about Friday, and Saturday nights, was getting back to the barns. lf you walked down the road, and up the lane to the farm, it was about one mile, but there was a short cut across the field, but this was like a obstacle course, over the gate, across the field, then came the brook, the only way over was via a man-made wooden bridge. This was made up of a couple of planks of wood tied together with bits of string, which was laid from one bank to the other, it was hard even for us kids, just imagine someone trying to cross it, with ten pints of “GL” inside of you. They would be falling down like nine pins. By the time they got to the barns they would be covered in mud.
Outside, by the side of our living quarters was a large barn, it had no sides or front to it, this is where there was always one huge open fire, this was used for all the cooking and there was always a large kettle of tea boiling on the embers. Everybody used to sit at night, for hours, by the side of the fire, talking. The fire was right opposite our barn. On the weekend after the pub was shut, this was the place to be. The laughter and singing would go on until the early hours of Sunday morning. The songs were I suppose old war time songs, or hits of the day. There used to be two water troughs by the side of the fire hut; these would be decorated with lights, and a platform was made, this was the dance floor. All the girls were up dancing, Jacky Blunt got up to dance with them. (Jack used to come hop picking on his own). Anyhow as the night wore on, Jack went missing, next morning he was found, in one of the water troughs, fast asleep, he must have been drunk, fell in, but nobody noticed, they were all enjoying themselves too much.
Don’t think the adults had all the fun, imagine being out around the farm, in the fields at all times of the night, with your mates, sneaking the odd drop of cider, and sitting up a tree watching the goings on around the fire. Then when the flying bats came out later on at night, we would be trying to catch them. We’d have a piece of white cloth with a torch shining through the back of it, hoping the bats would go for the light, we never caught any. I think the torch idea was just one of them tales you hear about. When Gran used to call me for bed, I knew I could always get away with a bit more time, but when our Bill called me, that was it, to bed. You must remember nearly all of our family were there, so there was a load of cousins to play with; we were all about the same age there was only a couple of years between us all. Young Billy, little George, little Marg, Denise, and of course our Pat. Up by the top barns, there was an old Army “Troop Carrier”, the entire engine had been taken out, hasn’t got a clue how it got there, but just imagine, having a thing like that to play with especially if you were the Army and you were fighting the German troops, couldn’t lose.
When I say Mr Middleton, hadn’t much time for me, I suppose that couldn’t have been true, because one year when we where fruit picking, I must have been about seven or eight at the time, he brought a baby lamb to Gran’s barn, it was only a few days old and its mother had died. All the other sheep had rejected it. He didn’t expect the lamb to last more than a few hours. “Do you think young Eric, would like to look after this lamb? l think it’s on its last legs”, said Mr Middleton. “He can have as much fresh milk as he wants for it from the farmhouse”. Would I! what a question, I jump at the chance, fancy having a small lamb to look after, I would make sure this lamb was going to survive, I would wrap him up in a old blanket, and hold him like a baby. I gave him a bottle of milk every couple of hours around the clock to start with, then after a few days, feed him four times a day. Soon he was walking about, and if I lay on the ground, he would nudge me in the back to turn over and face him. It was like having a small dog; he would follow me all over the place. At night I had him in the barn with me; snuggled up in the bed of hay and straw, making sure he was nice and warm. I decided to call him “Joey” and when I called his name out, he would come running to me just like a puppy. After a few weeks looking after him, Mr Middleton decided he was strong enough to fend for himself with the other sheep in the field next to the barn. I suppose “Joey” was in his element with all the other sheep, but it was a sad day for me, I would stand on the gate at the entrance to the field and shout “come on Joey” and sure enough he would make his way out of the flock and head straight for me standing by the gate, but after a few days mixing with the other sheep, he became as timid as them. Over time, when I approached him, he would run away just like the other sheep, so I know it was time to let him go. But what an experience, I will never forget it.
Pat and I would go to Bosbury village nearly every day, to get fresh bread, cheese, (l’m told you were allowed double cheese and marg. during the war because they were working on the land) and a few other basic things for our family and a few other people on the farm. In the village there used to be grocers, bread shop, two pubs, the Crown, and the Bell. The Bell is still there today, but the Crown has been turned into a private house. You could smell the fresh bread being baked as you walked across the fields towards the village, even today if I smell fresh bread I’m back in Bosbury. This one particular day, when we got to the bakers, we were in for a surprise. The baker had got a mechanical bread slicer. We had never seen sliced bread before so you can imagine how surprised we were. We were going to be the first kids on the farm to see sliced bread. When the bread was sliced, it was held together with elastic bands, no wrapping paper, I’m talking about large bloomer loaves, probably twice the size of a loaf today, but anyway, as there was no wrapping paper around the bread just the elastic band, we had to be very careful when handling the loaves. Out the bakers we came, started to cross the field back to the farm, I’ve told you before about the way Pat used to torment me, well today was no exception, as we got halfway across the field, she started to throw dried cow pats at me, then laugh, and run away leaving me with all the bread, so I sat down, and waited for her to come back. Just as she got near to me, I flicked a piece of the sliced bread at her, then it all started, she was throwing bread at me, and I was throwing it back, we couldn’t stop laughing, we were rolling about the field. But all of a sudden, we realized what we had done. The bands had come off all the loaves, there were slices of bread everywhere, we both knew we were in trouble, but Pat saved the day. “We will just gather the slices together, put the elastic bands back around them, and no one will be any the wiser,” she said. But I think our plan backfired, for when we got back to the barns, some of the loaves were six inches long, some two feet long, all with bits of grass sticking from between the slices. As usual I got the blame, and a few wacks, but at least we were the first to see sliced bread.
As I said before, Gran used to have to pay a fine for me not going to school, so l would have to pick some hops to help towards the cost of the fine. The way to pick hops was, first you would have to pull down the hop bines, which would grow to about twelve feet high, then once down it would be throw into the “crib”. This was a contraption made up of two cross pieces of wood at both ends, with a strip of wood down both sides, sticking out about two feet each end to act as handles. It was then covered in sacking to form a crib, in which the hops were held. One time our Audrey pulled bines down, and there was a wasp’s nest in it, some of the wasps went into her hair, and she had a few stings. But our Audrey is as tough as old boots; she soon bounced back, fighting fit. Once the bines were down, if there was any bit of the bines left on the wire, there were men with long poles who used to hack the pieces of and put them in your crib. The same men would help to move the cribs around the hop field as you worked your way up the furrows.
Twice a day, this was just before dinner and knocking off time, we would have the hops measured, to see how much money you have earned that day. The measurement was taken in bushels, (you were paid so much a bushel) by Mr Bill Mathews, he would come along to each crib with a wicker basket, which I suppose, when it was full, measured a bushel, accompanying Mr Mathews was Anita Cook, she married to Jack, who was one of the “Cook family” I told you about earlier. She would go on to look after the “Oak Pub” a few years later. Anyhow she would record, in your hop picking book, the number of bushels you have picked. The average for us was about 25 bushels a time; some of the travelling folks would record 35-40 bushels. This book was guarded like gold dust, for whatever amount of bushels, was marked in that book, that was what you got paid, at the end of the season. But every week you could sub some of the money to buy food, and the rest was left as a saving.
Also with Mr Mathews, was the counter, he was the one who held the hop sacks open for the busheler. As each bushel went into the sack he would call out, the number, 0ne, two and so on until the crib was empty. Once the sack was full, it would be passed on to another man, who would tie it, Throw it on his back, and on to the tractor, the tractor would then take it to the farm for drying out. The counter everybody remembers, was Jonnie Lovell, Eppie’s son, he would shout that loud, if you were up the barns half a mile away, you could still hear him. If you had a bad days picking, Jonnie would make sure everyone knew about it. Eppie and Jonnie Lovell came from Holy Hall, just outside Dudley, Eppie’s husband must have had been dead for a number of years. Our Billy and Eppie had a thing going, every time hop picking came along. How do I know this, you may ask, and then I’ll tell you?
One night I must have been about eight or nine at the time, I used to sleep in the same bed as our Bill, Gran and Audrey, were in the same barn, but we were separated by a curtain hanging down in the middle, well anyhow I was asleep, and before I knew it Eppie was in the bed with us. She must have climbed over the top of the dividing wall, for she had the barn next to us. Of course I didn’t know what was going on, but Gran heard them, and shouted at Eppie to get out, this racket must have woken me, and as I didn’t know what to do, all I could think of was to shout “Gran I want a drink of water”. Wack “get to sleep” said our Bill, obviously he wanted more than a drink of water.
When I say I our Audrey used to make me pick hops, this wasn’t quite true, yes, they would try to make me, but I had more important things to do, than earn money to feed us, Every single day, was the same, someone would say to me, “just pick a few buckets full and then we may let you go”. After just a few minutes of picking, my mind would be in the woods, bird nesting, fishing, and swimming in the brook, which we would dam every year to make it deeper. But my real passion was with “Tom” the cowman. I would say he was about 60 years of age, but with his weather-beaten face, it was hard to tell. Tom looked after the livestock, the cows in particular. Every day I would think up some excuses to get out of picking any hops, just so I could go and help him. “Gran can I go to the toilet? Shall I fetch some water? Do you want anything from the shops, or barns?” I would say anything just to be off. Most days they wouldn’t see me from dawn till dusk, I’d be mucking the cows out, helping with the milking, which was all done by hand, none of them fancy machines you see today.
Every now and then, we would have to dehorn the young calves; this was done with what looked like a pair of hollow electric curling tongs. You would have to hold the calf very still for this, but they wear very strong, I would be rolling all over the place with them. Tom showed me how to hold them in between your knees, and ONCE you got the knack of it, you were away. Once you had the calves’ secure, either Tom or I would place the tongs over the tiny horns, press very hard, you could smell the flesh burning, and smoke coming from around the tongs I never liked doing this job, but it was all over in seconds.
Come dinner time, Tom always used to have more snap than he could eat, so he would share it with me, it would be bread and a lump cheese most days, I like to think he used to put extra food in his bag just for me. Tom lived in Bosbury village just up the road from the Bell pub. Someone told me, many years later, he was hit by a passing car, as he came out of the Bell one night, and died from injuries. He had a sit-up-and-beg push bike, which he rode to and from the farm every day, seven days a week.
At milking time, Tom used to turn his cap back to front, sit on the milking stool, and away he would go, he would be talking to the cows as he went about his work, I’m sure they used to understand A him, he would say “come on old girl, turn around a bit” and sure enough, turn they would. It was my job to empty the buckets, full of milk into the milk churn, ready to go into the big house for pasteurizing. We would drink loads of milk every day straight from the cows before it was pasteurized. That’s another thing that happened to me. Many, many years later when l was in my forties, I had some kind of blood disorder, and had to go to New Cross hospital in Wolverhampton, for some blood tests. When the results come back to my local GP, Doctor Clews, I had to make an appointment to see him for the results of the blood tests. As soon as I walked into his consulting room, he started to laugh, “hallo our Eric” he said, “have you ever drank untreated cow’s milk?” “Yes” I said, “gallons of it.” “You have brisalotus” [brucellosis] he laughed, a complaint that comes with drinking untreated milk. Well I couldn’t believe it; it must have been in my blood system all those years. It was a standing joke in the family for years after.
Another thing I liked about being in the milking barns, was the wild cats, they would hide among the bales of hay, there must have been about a dozen of them, and they came in all different sizes and colours, I would try to make friends with them, but most of them where very nasty, spitting, snarling and the hair on backs going up if you got closed to them. But every now and then, you would get one, which would let you stroke it, once you had their trust, they would take food from you and a dish of milk, off which we had plenty. One of the cats must have been very fond of me, I could pick it up, and it used to follow me where ever I went. As a matter of fact when it was time for us to leave the farm, because the season had ended, I packed the cat away in the hop picking box, unknown to any one, when we got back to Marigold Crescent, I had to sneak it out of the house before anyone found out. But I needn’t have worried, if anybody came near, it would be off snarling and spitting nobody could touch the thing only me, some months later, our Audrey went upstairs into one of the bedrooms, and there was the cat, in one of clothes drawers with half a dozen kittens. I never saw the cat or the kittens again.
As I said before, the fire under the open barn, was where everyone done their cooking, the fire was never allowed to go out, someone was designated to look after it. But it was up to us (the kids) to make sure there was always enough wood there to burn. The wood came from the wood pile, which was just below the top barns, opposite the tractor shed. We would drag the logs out of the pile, and take then to the barn, where they were neatly stacked ready for use. The man I always remember as having the fire lighters job, was Billy Willets. Billy used to get paid for looking after the fire. Every week, everybody used to chip into a kitty for him. Bill came from Dudley, and he lived on the Estate at the back of where the Midland Red garage used to be, at the bottom of Castle Hill, the new by-pass runs there now. I think the estate used to be known as Brewery Fields. He used to work as an odd job man in the Station Hotel, just below Dudley Zoo when he wasn’t in the country. Bill would be up bright and early, to make sure the fire was roaring, and every kettle was on the fire boiling, before anyone was up and about. We kids had to make sure the kettle was full of water, and left on the side the night before.
When I think back the washing facilities were very basic to say the least. There was one water pump; you know the old fashioned ones where you had to pump the handle to get any water out. Later on we went all modern and the farmer had a tap installed on the wall, at the back of the pigs sty, everybody had to use this tap for washing and the drinking water. The tap was located; near to the bottom barns, I suppose this was central for everybody. To have what you would call a proper wash, You would have to wedge a house brick on the top of the tap to keep the water running. l always remember there being a block of carbolic soap, in a hole in the wall, where a brick was missing. l suppose that sound a bit primitive nowadays. You used to see the men early in the morning, stripped off to the waist, with their shaving mirror stuck on the wall and lather all over the faces and some mornings l can tell you it was a bit parky. Of course not everybody used these facilities, the girls and woman would wash in the privacy of the barn, the water for washing, cooking and making tea was all collected from this one tap. This was another job for us kids, you would have two galvanized buckets, which you would take to the water tap, fill then up and bring them back up to the barn, one bucket was always left inside the barn for drinking water, this was covered over with a piece of cloth but l can guarantee night or day when you lifted of the cloth for a drink, there was straw and sometimes beetles floating on the top of the water, you just scooped it off with your hand and didn’t think twice about it. Our bath time was in the river, which as l told you, we had dammed to make it deeper, we would spend hours swimming and playing about. Some of the men would come down for a swim. I always remember Horace coming down, at the time he was courting our Audrey. l used to cheek him rotten. He’d get me and throw me right in the middle of the river, this is how you learnt to swim or sink as the case may be. Talking about the place we used to swim, one day, a gang of men, Henry, Billy, Jack, our George and Arthur Woodall came down by the river, they were going “poaching”, catching rabbits with Henry’s dog and ferrets, anyhow the farmer must have seen them and he couldn’t have been very pleased, because he shot Henry’s dog. l don’t suppose Henry was too pleased after that. Margi and Henry were always “rabbiting”. They would catch a dozen or so rabbits with the ferrets, skin then, and them sell then on to make a few bob.
Another thing that springs to mind, when we were in the bottom barns, which ran down the one side of the concrete court yard, and then across the bottom. On the other side of the court yard was where the Hereford bull was kept, he was a huge beast and the only thing separated him from us was a five bar gate we used to go and see him nearly every day and feed him some apples which l had scrumped. I can still remember the bellowing noise he would make night and day, of course l now know it was when the cows where in season. This one day when our Pat and I had been to see the bull, we heard such a commotion. Eppie and Jonny Lovell were arguing, and as Jonny ran off from his mother, she threw something at him. It missed him and hit our Pat right on the head, off to Ledbury Cottage hospital for stitches.
Another thing about the pubs in Bosbury, years ago one of them used to display a “No Gypsies” sign on the wall, outside the entrance to the bar, which of course meant us as well, but after a few years the pub relented, and allowed us in, but unknown to us, you would only be served if you brought along your own drinking glass. The first time our Jack went in, with the new law in place, he was asked for his glass. Jack was taken back a bit. “Just a minute” he said, “l’ll go and get it”. Off he went across the road to the church, where he found, by the side of some discarded flowers, an empty jam jar; he rinsed it out with water, back he went into the pub, put it on the bar, “half pint please” he said.
Every Sunday morning the Salvation Army used to come on the farm, singing and playing their musical instruments. They would stand on a patch of waste ground just by the bottom barns, but l suppose they would visit all the groups of barns in turn. They always looked very smart in the well pressed uniforms. Our Betty told me, during the war, most of the hymns were for the people who died or had been bombed out of their houses. Betty still remembers one of the hymns. Betty also told me about one time, during the war when they were hop picking, my mother (Jenny) was scrumping apples. The farmer, Mr John Hawkins, saw her and gave chase. As she ran off, she lost one of her shoes. Mr Hawkins pick it up, obviously he know who it belonged to, he went to Gran with a collection tin and demanded a contribution to the war effort before he would give the shoe back. Another thing I remember about Gran, when I say remember, I didn’t really, but you won’t believe how I found out about the incident concerning her. I had a dream one night, (this was around October 2009) and in my dream, our Ivy gave me eight passports to hold and I was told not to lose them. I had to go into this departure lounge, but when I got there I was refused entrance by a girl in uniform, she told to go to the other side of this departure lounge. When I got there I saw our George, Jack, Horace and Ken in a bar having a drink, our George called me into the bar for a pint, as I walk into the pub, the woman behind the bar (which was the same one in uniform ) said to me, “you’re not allowed in here, you will have to leave” as I walk out, our Billy, emerged from behind a large marble column, he put his arms around me, and said “you know the story you are writing about hop picking, you’ve forgotten to mention mother’s foot” ( of course this is my Gran ), with that, he hugs me again and disappeared. When I woke up in the morning, I explained to my wife, Maureen, about the dream, as it was playing on my mind, I decided to phone our Audrey, to ask if gran had ever had any accidents in the hop fields. At first Audrey couldn’t think of anything, “no, no I can’t remember a thing, Oh wait a bit” she said. Well, you could have knock me down with a feather, when she told me about an incident that occurred years before.
Gran had trodden on one of the metal pole hooks, which was lying on the ground, these things where razor sharp. It went right through the side of her “wellie” slicing it open and taking her big toe nail of with it, gran must have been in agony, but what do she do? Stuck it back on again with sticking plaster, and that’s how it stayed until the day she passed away. What’s weird is the eight passports. Gran had nine children, but eight of them were dead when I had the dream. I don’t think our Audrey believed, what I had told her, on the phone that morning. Weird or what!
Later on in the middle 1950, some of the men would go and stay on “Hawkins’ Farm”, but unknown to the farm manager would work on “Shew’s Farm”, which was just across the lane from “Hawkins’”. Shew’s Farm was one of the first in the area to have a hop picking machine. A tractor and trailer would go along the hop furrows, pulling and cutting the hop bines into the trailer; these were then taken to the farm and fed into the picking machine. The only labour required for such a machine were people to pick the leaves out, once the bines had been striped of hops as they went through the machine and up a conveyor belt into sacks. No more people in the hop fields, the end of an era. This was the beginning of the end. Mrs Taylor would ask Gran if it was alright for me to take some snap to her son Colin, who was one of the men working on the hop machine. I know Colin well; his family lived opposite our house in Marigold Crescent. Colin’s job was cutting down the bines. Sometimes he would drive the tractor to the and from the hop field. Gran used to say “don’t be to long” but as usual, I’d be gone all day, helping Colin; sometimes he would let me drive the tractor What a thrill. There were quite a few men who stayed at “Hawkins’” but worked on “Shew’s Farm” .
Back to Hawkins’ farm. Some days I would go and help in the hop kilns where the hops would come once they had been picked. The two men, who worked for the farmer, were Jack Hoskins and Charlie Davis. Charlie lived in the cottage, on the right, just below the Oak pub. Anyway these two where always working in the kiln or oasthouse to give it its proper name, during the hop season. The full sack of hops would come up from the fields on a trailer towed by a tractor, it would reverse under the kiln and the sacks of hops would be unloaded. The top of the sacks where tied with string, this would be cut and the hops would be spread out on to the floor in the oasthouse. You have probably seen these yourselves without realizing it, they are the pointy thing on top of the round kiln and are made of wood, there’s a pointer on them rather like a weather vane, this helps them to turn away from the wind, this in turn aids the drying process.
The floor of the oasthouse inside the building, was about twenty feet from the ground, below this at ground level was the drying rooms. Jack or Charlie would open the bottom door to the drying rooms, which was at ground level, in there would be a load of metal dishes, in these, loads of sulphur sticks, about three or four inches in diameter, would be mixed with mentholated spirits, this would then be set on fire, then the door would be locked, I think the hops would be in there for a couple of days drying out. Once the hops were dried, they would be taken out of the drying room. Then they had to be put into large sacks for transportation to their destination. To get as many hops as possible into each sack, they were squeezed in with a press. Each sack would be placed into a ring which was fitted into the floor; the end of the sack would be hanging down into the floor below. The hops would be shovelled into the sacks with large wooden shovels; these were about three feet wide. When the sack was full, it would be pushed down with the press which was worked by conveyor belt I driven by a tractor, this process would continue until the sack was full, then it would be stitched together with string. These sacks once filled were called hop pockets, they were about eight feet long and as hard as a bullet, it took two strong men to move them about.
As I said before, it was one long holiday for me, I could never imagine not being there and I suppose it was the same for the other kids. Some of the families would have to leave the sons at home once they reach fourteen or fifteen once they started work. I remember one time Mrs Gardner left “Charlie” her son at home, so we presumed he had started work. One day Tony Timmins and I (or Tonto as everybody would know as he later) was sitting on the wall at the bottom of the farm lane, when Tony said “here comes Charlie Gardner”. Because Charlie’s mother had left him at home, and as he had no money, he walked it to Bosbury. He told us, it had taken him two days. He had blisters on his feet the size of half a crowns, and I can still see him now hobbling towards us down the lane.
Another time our Jack, George, and Arthur Woodall decided to get to Bosbury on their pushbikes. Don’t know how long it took them, but something happened to one off the bikes half way there, I think it was Jacks, so he threw it into the hedgerow and caught a bus the rest of the way. After a few days on the farm, George and Arthur biked it back to Dudley, but our Jack stayed with us, makes you wonder if there was anything wrong with his bike in the first place? S0 you can see some of the effort people made to get in the country, was it the pull of the place, or was it the good times they had, after all the sacrifices that had been made during the war?
Our Pat and me, used to run errands at night time, up to the Oak pub, this was in the week, to fetch the bottles of cider, this one night we took the usual short cut over the brook, but when we got to the road about half mile from the Oak, we were knee deep in water, the road was flooded from all the rain we had that day. So off we went back up the barns to tell everyone about the flood, there was uproar. “You pair haven’t been, we haven’t ever seen any floods on the roads” they shouted. So off we went again, across the fields, but as before, we were soon in the water, but this time there was no turning back, but our Pat couldn’t just wade through could she, oh no. She had to splash water all over me, then jump on my back and pull me into the water, the empty cider bottles where floating of in the flood and to make it even worse it was pitch black, we could hear the bottles empty clanking together as they floated in the water. All I could hear was our Pat screaming with laughter. Eventually we collected the bottle from the water and continued to the pub, everybody was laughing at us when we finally arrived at the “Oak” they thought it was hilarious. When we finally got back to the farm, all you heard was “what took you so long?”
I’ve already told you about the washing facilities, but the toilets where just as primitive, but back then we didn’t think so. The toilets where in the cherry orchard just behind the barns, there were usually three or four of them painted red, a deep hole was dug in the ground, over which was placed a corrugated tin hut about three feet by four feet square, inside was a wooden bench with a hole in the middle. This seat was about two feet from the ground and was the width of the hut, this is where you sat. Two of the toilets had two holes in the bench! What has always puzzled me, about the double seat is “what on earth would you find to talk about with someone sitting next to you?” When it came time to move the toilets, quicklime was thrown into the hole and filled in, the toilets were just moved to a new position the orchard.
Because I missed so much schooling, it was decided it would be best for me to attend the local village school in Bosbury just as our Audrey, Shirley, George and Arthur had done previously. The school stood next to the Church and the grave yard. The school its self consisted of only two class rooms, one for the younger children, and the other for the elder ones, anyhow I don’t remember much of the time I spent in class, my mind was always somewhere else. But I do remember playing in the field opposite, right beside an apple orchard, so you can imagine where I spent my play time. Bosbury School still stands today but the playing field is now part of the churchyard.
The following year, because I was older I had to attend Ashperton village school, which was about three or four miles from the farm. I think a few of the kids from the Dudley area had gone to this school over the years including our Shirley, Audrey and George. There were three of us who had to go this term, as well as me there was Freddy Harkins and Tony Timmins. Our first day didn’t get off to a very good start, we had to walk through the bottom orchard, across the road, then walk across four or five fields to catch the school bus, no school bus stopping at the end of the street in them days, anyhow one of us had what you would call “a bit of an accident” and of course, being mates, the other two had to accompany him back to the farm. If either Fred or Tony gets to read this story, I’m sure it will jog their memories, only we three know the full story, but the funny thing about it is, the other two kept trying to talk the one who had the accident, into trying to do the same every day, so we could get out of going to school, now that’s what I call mates! I’m sure Ashperton was a good school, but I don’t think it was for us townies, all I remember about it was playing in the field opposite the school, half the time we never went, we would be off, playing in the fields, scrumping or exploring the surrounding country side, we must have known every tree and blade of grass for miles around, but at least Gran didn’t have to fork any more money out in fines for me.
I would say about 95% of the folks never worked over the weekend, so every Saturday was shopping day for most of the families. Early on Saturday morning off we would go Gran, Audrey, little Louie, one of Gran’s mates, Mrs Birchill, Mrs Woodall, (but everybody called her Queenie) and of course me. We would wait for the bus into Ledbury at the bottom of the lane under the old oak tree; there must have been hundreds of initials carved into the oak tree over the years. Opposite the bus stop was where the travelling families used to stay, some of their vans where absolutely beautiful, especially the stainless steel ones, these would sparkle through the trees as the sun shined on them. Most all the travelling families where very friendly, most of they know my gran, but as a rule, they kept to themselves.
The bus to Ledbury would pull up and we would all pile on, it would take about half hour to get to the town. Gran, Audrey and I would do our weekly shopping and loaded with bags full of food, would all meet in the Royal Oak pub at the top end of Ledbury High Street. Everybody would be relaxed after a long hard week, picking hops; it was lovely to see Gran laughing with all her friends around her. Then it would soon be time to catch the bus back to the farm. The only other time I remember going into Ledbury, was to the hospital, or the picture house. I know I went there with Philip Hopkins and his mate, but cannot recall his name. (It may have been Colin Taylor). When our Audrey, wanted to go to the pictures, with her mates, she used to walk it there and back to Ledbury.
The weekend was when members of the families came to visit, that is if they had transport to get there, Horace, our Audrey’s boy friend (and later her husband), would come over with our lvy’s boy friend Ken, he too became lvy’s husband, he always had motor bikes. Don’t get me wrong, I suppose they would come over to see the girls, but when they got up the “Oak” on a Saturday night with Billy, Jack and the rest of them, they wouldn’t remember their own names, never mind who they had come to see. The very first car l ever saw was an Austin 7, it belong to one of the local lads a mate of our Billy’s, our Pat was with me when we first saw it, it was coming from the Oak and there must have been eight men in it, they were hanging out of the windows, singing at the top of their voices and waving to everyone along the lane. When they all came back from the pub on a Saturday night everybody would sit around the fire, it would funny to watch them singing, it was if their lips didn’t belong to their face, you could recognize the tune but hadn’t a clue what language it was, of course everybody thought they sounded like “Frankie Lane” or “David Whitfield” two poplar singers of the day. We would sit around the fire until the early hours of Sunday morning.
Other weekend visitors to come were the young men who had been called up, to do their “National Service” two years in the Army. Two of them were Mathew Pincher and Arthur Woodall a very good mate of our George’s. Arthur and Mathew were stationed at Norton Barracks in Worcester just a few miles from Bosbury, as soon as they had a week-end pass, over to Bosbury they came. Our George came over in uniform one year to say good-bye to Gran as he was being posted to Hong Kong. I think he was over there for twelve months.
Nearly all the people I know who went hop-picking came from around the Black Country, Dudley, Holly Hall, Walsall; some of the other folks who went came from the City of Bath. We got to know most of the kids from Bath, and used to play with them at night. We all used to meet under the old tractor shed by the drying room doors, because it was late September, and the nights could be pretty chilly, but standing by the doors you would soon be nice and warm. Some off the travelling kids used to come and play with us as well, as a whole you got on pretty well with them, but there was always one to shout his mouth off, this particular night, he had a go at me, he was showing of in front of the girls, anyhow there was a bit of pushing and shoving between the two of us, then he suddenly he hit me in the mouth, I felt like crying but I couldn’t in front of the girls, so I jumped on him, but he was too quick, I went straight into the back of a tractor and tore my arm open. When I say tore my arm open that’s not quite true, because that very morning when we were on our way to school, Tonto had climbed over a gate by the fence while I held it, but when it came to my turn to get over, Tony loosed it and walked away, I fell from the fence on to some barbed wire, and cut the muscle in my left arm, it was a right mess, so once again, off to the hospital in Ledbury and no school. So on the night time my arm just opened up again, but no worries, because the girls all felt sorry for me, so I had to play on it a bit, anyhow me and Tony got our own back a few nights after the incident, the same kid picked on someone else, he took off his coat, obviously he had seen the men do the same thing, he hung it on a wooden post for safe keeping, we got some sulphur sticks and meth’s put them in his coat pocket and set fire to it. After that we didn’t see much of him, he never bothered us again, bet he had a right belting off his mom. One of the local lads, Philip Hoskins went on to marry one of the girls from Bath and up until 2008 they were still together.
There was always things to do at night when it was dark, you could get around the barns beside the farmhouse, which were off limits, there we would find chicken eggs, one time Neil Millinson took me on the eggs run, Neil was a few years older than me, his family lived a couple of doors away from us in Marigold Crescent, anyhow, we were hours looking for eggs, then we struck gold, we found dozens among the hay stacks, but when we got them back to the barns, every single one of them was rotten, but the eggs wasn’t wasted, Neil hade great fun throwing them over the younger kids, boy did they stink.
Most of the folks went down the hop field just as it was getting light, early in the morning, so they had a good start before the “busheler” came around to measure how many hop was picked that day. Our Ivy never like going down to the hop fields, I think she thought, she was above that kind of work, she would say to Gran “I’ll clean the barn up, before I come down to you”. When she came down to the hop fields she would be wearing high heel shoes, not wellington boots like everybody else. Ivy was always very smartly dressed, not like the rest of us ragamuffins. Each family would take to the hop fields all the food which was needed for that day, always fresh bread, cheese, jam, a few apples of course and the tea kettle. The kettle would be boiling for most of the day; it was the youngsters job to make sure there was always plenty of wood available to last all day. Sometimes we would bring the wood with us from the farm. The water for making the tea was also brought down with us except, when we where working in the fields just below the ”Oak", there was a fresh water spring in one of the ditches on the edge of the field, not many people know about it, Pat and I used to take empty cider bottles and fill them up, the water was sweet and always freezing cold, if the spring is still there I suppose it would be worth a few bob now.
l’m 64 years of age now, I’ve been married to my wonderful wife Maureen for 45 years, and we have had, three fabulous children, Leeann, Marie, David and six beautiful grand children, Hayley, Danielle, Richard, Lauren, Jake and Millie.
Sadly most of my family (the Parkes) are no longer with us. Out of all of them, there is only our Audrey and Aunty Betty still with us. I still go to Bosbury village about twice a year, as a matter of fact I was there last week. I’ve just met up again (through our Audrey) with Arthur Woodall who is now 80 years of age (the last time he saw me I had no arse in my trousers). We went to Ledbury and Bosbury and ended up in the “Oak” pub, we could not believe the transformation the pub has had in the last few years. A few years ago, it was run down and I was afraid it would close for good, but now new people have taken it over and turned it into a restaurant and BB, brilliant.
When the lads from Walsall, came over one year, in their Teddy Boy suits it must have been around 1957 or 58, they were singing “Living Doll”, “Singing the Blues” and some of Elvis’s song’s around the fire at night. I was fourteen at the time, its funny but I know in my heart that night, I would never set foot on that farm again, and I never have. In about 1959 “Hawkins’ farm” acquired a hop picking machine. Gran was asked to go the following year, picking the leaves off the conveyor belt. l’m glad she never went.
Our George’s ashes are scattered behind the church and school in Bosbury, every time I go there I know, all my family are near by as soon as I walk in the village, I see them all again, not literally of course. Gran, Billy, Jack, George, Marg and Henry and of course our Pat (who sadly died in her twenties) all going to the hop fields maybe for one last time. As I got older I do regret not doing as much as I should have for Gran. The way Gran and especially our Audrey had to work, picking hops just to feed us, while I was off, gallivanting all over the farm, but there’s nothing a can do about it now is there? Anyway, if I had stayed by the crib picking hops all day, I wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, would I? Audrey and I still see a lot of one another; sometimes we must drive people mad, always talking and laughing about the “old days” the conversation always turns to “do you remember when we were hop picking”. Well I’ve tried to do just that, our Aud, for all of them.”