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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Kent

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Hoppers around the hop bin

© Richard Filmer
The hoppers of Kent

“No dogs, gypsies or hoppers”

Hopper child
Hopping cound begin early
© Richard Filmer
In her modern day study ’The Encircling Hop’, Margaret Lawrence estimates that at the hop gardens’ peak in the mid to late 19th Century, over 80,000 people invaded Kent every year for its hop picking season. At this time, provision for seasonal workers was virtually non-existent. Workers could try the Union Workhouses for accommodation, but the sheer number of hoppers dwarfed the capacity of these workhouses. Many chose to sleep outside, underneath roughly constructed canvas shelters provided by the hop farmers.

The similarity between the hoppers’ conditions and livestock was drawn in 1860 by Reverend J.J. Kendon when he visited a village in the centre of Kent’s hop gardens. His first report was a powerful condemnation of this largely ignored social problem.

“They sleep… almost like the cattle in the field. To mingle with these poor creatures, to see their habits and hear their language, to witness the awful lengths to which they go makes it seem almost impossible that we can be living … in the nineteenth century.”

Kendon was not alone in being shocked at the poor conditions and inhuman manner in which the hoppers lived for the several weeks of the hop season. In the closing decade of the 1800s, various missionary organisations had set up in the area, campaigning to improve the hoppers’ accommodation and amenities.

One of the most notable missionaries was Father Richard Wilson, a priest from Stepney who followed one of his parishioners to Kent on his annual hopper trip. His shock at the horrific conditions prompted him to set up the Hoppers’ Hospital in a disused public house at Five Oak Green in Kent.

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