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Picking the hops

The pickers' day would start early with many heading out at dawn whilst others waited for the foreman to blow his whistle at 7am. The early morning was the best time for picking as the hops became harder to pull when it got warmer in the afternoon.

The early method of picking hops in Herefordshire was to spread a picking sheet on the ground and pick the hops onto it. From the 1700s onwards there are records of hop cribs. These were rough wooden frames about 7ft by 3ft with hessian strung across, and the hops were picked into them. When a field had been completely picked the pickers would move to another part of the hopyard and the quickest pickers were allowed to have first choice of where to set up.

After the hops had been picked they had to be measured and bushelled so that the picker could be paid for the day's work. The busheller would call out the number as he measured the hops into a sack, which had a mark inside giving a measurement of one bushel. The count would be kept by the tally-man who carried a number of tallies on his belt. Tallies were pieces of wood about 15 inches long, split into two pieces. One of the pieces would be given to the picker as a record of their total. The two pieces would only fit together in a certain way and the count was recorded by file marks across both pieces so the picker could not alter his or her total.

By the late 19th century Herefordshire hop growers had changed to the hop-check or token scheme. Tokens were coin-like metal discs of various sizes, all stamped with the farmer's name. The smallest represented a single bushel and these could be exchanged for ones marked 1, 3, 5, 10 and £1, indicating the amount earned by the picker in shillings and pounds. These tokens could then be exchanged for cash at the end of the picking season or, if strapped for cash, at the end of the day. The tokens could be spent at the local pub or shop and were accepted by most local tradesmen.

The token system was later replaced by the booking system whereby each picker and busheller was given a book and the amount picked was recorded by the busheller in both books. If you wanted to have some of your earnings early then the bushellers would enter the amount paid out in both books.

The rate of pay for hop picking was agreed between the farmer and the picker at the start of the season, and in the 1920s-30s in Herefordshire it varied between five bushels to the shilling for healthy, big hops and two bushels to the shilling if small and diseased. A fast picker could pick up to 25 bushels a day in fine weather. Often there were strikes by the pickers demanding more money, but these never seemed to last very long. The hop farms in the Little Frome area seemed to be prone to having strikes on Thursdays but this may have had something to do with the fact that Bromyard market was held on this day.

Of all the villages in the Bromyard area it was Bishops Frome that received the greatest number of pickers. During the 1920-30s the usual population of 700 would rise to about 5,000 during picking time.

During the afternoons various "shop" vans would visit the hopyards looking to entice the pickers into spending their hard-earned money. These included the butcher, the baker and the ice-cream man. Saturday afternoons meant time off for the pickers and many would walk into the nearby towns and villages to spend their money or visit the pub.

After World War II it became increasingly more difficult to find pickers as higher paid jobs could be found in the industrial areas with paid holidays and better standards of living. Workers were now moving out of the county to find work in the Black Country and South Wales. Education authorities in the Black Country and Herefordshire ruled that the school terms and holidays should fall in line with the rest of the country, and this meant that children were no longer available for picking in September.

There were attempts to use machinery after a picking machine was imported from America but it was not until the 1950s that machine picking became the norm. By 1955 there were 75 machines in operation in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and demand was high. The main problem with the machines was that they were not as gentle with the hops as the pickers and many of the hops broke up during drying.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]