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Accommodation for hop pickers

The early pickers were farm labourers' wives and children. By 1840 a good picker could earn around 1s 6d per day. With the coming of the railways to Herefordshire in the 1850s it became common to import labour from South Wales and the Black Country; the majority of this labour was still women and children who would have had no permanent job at home. At the beginning of the picking season as many as 2,000 or more workers would arrive a day on special trains running mainly on Sundays at a reduced rate. The first off the train when it arrived in the country would be the older children who would run on ahead to the farm to pick the best spot in the hut for their family.

Until the opening of the Bromyard Railway in the 1870s the Black Country pickers heading for Whitbourne, Knightwick and Suckley travelled by train as far as Stourport and were then taken by horse-drawn wagons to the surrounding farms. Once on the farms the pickers would be housed in farm buildings, tents or flimsy shelters known as barracks. Blankets and hessian sheets would be given out by the farmer on arrival and premises had to be whitewashed and viewed by the Sanitary Inspector before they could be occupied. Toilet facilities also had to be provided, although these were, at the most, basic.

In 1866 the Society for the Employment and Improved Lodging of Hop-Pickers was founded and members sent out circulars to farmers and landowners recommending improvements. These included 4ft square floor space per person, provision of metal or wooden beds, mattresses and waterproof tents.

In 1920 the following was written about the pickers' accommodation in Herefordshire:

"Hop pickers employed in the Bromyard, Dore, Hereford, Ledbury and Leominster areas in 1920 numbered 10,000-12,000. The quarters they occupied were either specially built brick barracks, wood and corrugated iron sheeting constructions, Nissen Army huts, or bell tents, most of which were of a satisfactory standard. The worst problems occurred when people were housed in barns, lofts, stables, cowsheds or pigsties." (Public Health Reports of a few Rural Districts)

In the Hereford area before World War I the hop growers had mainly employed local people, but later twenty farmers employed 1,750-2,000 pickers mainly from the Black Country and South Wales. The Sanitary Inspector noted "... one instance where privy [toilet] accommodation was bad and two instances where there was no separate accommodation for the sexes". There was a campaign for more local people to be employed in the hopyards, with the idea that gangs would be allocated to certain farms, but fewer than 200 local people applied for the work.

The accommodation for the pickers was cramped and basic, and often the authorities had no power to force farmers to improve them. In the Ledbury area in the 1920s some 4,000 pickers were housed on only 40 farms. Many of the farms had insufficient toilet facilities and rubbish was left to accumulate. Often the manure from the animals would not have been cleared away properly before the pickers were expected to live in the barns. The larger farms would have employed men to take care of the toilet waste and collect rubbish but often it was left to the pickers to care of their own accommodation.

In Weobley in the 1920s there were 600 pickers employed on eight farms, with 400 of them requiring accommodation. One complaint in this area was that there were not sufficient numbers of screens separating the sleeping quarters of the sexes and insufficient suitable cooking places. In 1934-6 the Public Health Reports called for better provision of medical and nursing facilities for hop-pickers and improvements were made in cooking facilities and washhouses.

The declaration of war in 1939 meant that many pickers were afraid to leave their homes in towns for the picking season. This led to a shortage of workers and the picking dragged on into October. War-time rationing was also hard but pickers were entitled to extra rations as agricultural workers.

In 1943, out of 100 farms inspected in Herefordshire only two were classed as having very poor conditions; coincidentally these were both owned by the same man. The Council brought charges against him and the farmer was fined £2 for each charge and ordered to pay £5 5s in costs.

By 1945 there were 8,000 pickers needing accommodation in Herefordshire. A Sanitary Inspector visited 99 pickers' quarters in the county but reported that he found it impossible to carry out follow-up visits to ensure his improvement suggestions had been carried out.

A Poliomyelitis epidemic in the late 1940s caused farmers to spray latrines and rubbish tips with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which meant fewer flies and is still used today in areas with high levels of cases of malaria. Gammexane (an insecticide) was used on living quarters. No serious outbreaks of the disease were reported in Herefordshire.

The Sanitary Inspector visited 395 premises, 130 of which were served with informal notices stating improvements which needed to be made. As usual the main complaint was the state of the toilets and rubbish heaps, overcrowding and non-separation of the sexes.

In April 1948 the authorities expressed further concern at the accommodation of the hop-pickers and twelve farms erected new barracks-style housing. Other improvements included the new bucket-type closet housed in brick latrines, piped hot water supplies, sinks, cookhouses and electricity.

In 1949 there was a suspected case of scarlet fever among the pickers in the Bromyard area. The family was sent home and the living quarters sprayed with DDT and Gammexane. During the September picking season the local doctors and nurses would be kept very busy tending to the pickers. Colds and chest infections were a common complaint due to the weather. Often babies were born during picking and the midwife was always sure to get her £2 fee before the pickers disappeared.

The start of the school term in Herefordshire and the Black Country was delayed by a few weeks so that children and their mothers could earn some money from the picking. However, in 1953 the school terms and holidays were brought in line with the rest of the country and parents faced fines from magistrates if their children were absent from school.

The Church of England Missionary Association and many other religious groups would regularly visit hop farms throughout the picking season in the hope of bringing some care for the soul. On Sundays, the day of rest for the pickers, they would spend the morning talking to the pickers and their families and in the evening they would often hold open air services with hymns, prayers, sermons and magic lantern picture shows. On weekdays they would spend time with the workers in the fields, reading Bible passages at rest breaks. Baptisms were also carried out.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]