Hop-picking, our summer holidays in 1950

by | Apr 8, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

At the age of 5 our mum must have had the worst possible start in life as in WW1 she lost her dad, John Sheldon. He died in Hamburg a POW on the 23rd December 1918. But her misery wasn’t to end there as in WW2 she also lost her husband Edwin Webb, this on the 30th May 1942 at the battle of El Alamein whilst he was serving with Montgomery, blown to bits in his tank.

In the 1950’s it was quite common for working class Brummie families to go hop-picking, not only to earn a few extra bob but as their main summer holidays in the country. Our mum had been made a war widow and left with five hungry mouths to feed the chance of extra income was more than welcome.

We would get picked up in Sparkbrook, by one of the farm hands, in an open backed lorry, very open! I often wonder how we managed to stay on the back with the wind clawing at our frail famished bodies and all the bumps in the road threatening to buck us off like a wild bronco. We were with many, Mum, sisters, Barbara & Margaret, brothers, Ronny and Ted, Auntie Liz, Uncle Fred, Cousin Fred, I was the youngest at 6 years old, and others from unknown back streets of Brum all huddled together like cattle going to some slaughter house. Most of us had only the clothes we stood in and greasy brown paper parcels tied up with string containing a few personal items. None of us had a suitcase, we were not that rich! I had heard that some hop-pickers were transported to the farms in a “Charabanc” (these days we would call it a motor coach), but in our case that was a luxury we just couldn’t afford! But to us kids this was the thrill of our young lives, our first real holiday, where we where being taken to or what we were going to do didn’t matter two brass farthings. For us the lorry had some wonderful new sounds and smells, the whining of the gears, the thrashing of tyres on a wet road all mixed up with the tang of spilt diesel fuel, fresh hops and pig swill, but it beat walking or cycling any day. The journey out of our small world seemed to take a lifetime and we finally stopped in a Worcester village farm yard. This turned out to be near Shelsey Walsh, famous (as we found out later) for its hill climb racing track. (Shelsey Walsh was the first car racing track in the world and it’s still in use today!)

On arrival we would be allocated into a freshly whitewashed barn presumably to hide the animal skid marks on the walls. This was divided into compartments made of cardboard sticks and old army blankets, and there was no privacy as such. We were all given coarse woven Hessian sacks to sleep on, sacks that had once contained god knows what, but to this day I can still smell it, and a bug-ridden hay stack to fill the sacks with. I know this must sound like hell in a concentration camp, but the mood was electrical and we had loads of fun and laughter getting settled in. The toilets as such were situated outside, composed of a shack placed over a large hole in the ground and a plank to sit on. On one occasion my sister Margaret slipped off the plank into the cesspit below! How on earth she survived without drowning or even dying of the stench was only due to the fact that it had only just been emptied. Had she fell in some days later I dread to think what that the consequences would have been for her health or her sanity!

In the daytime we had to help Mum, Auntie and Uncle with the hop-picking, the smell of the hops was terrific compared with the grimy smells of Sparkbrook. We were given cribs made of sticks poles and Hessian sacking made to collect the hops in. If we kids got tired we would crawl into the cribs and have a nap among the freshly picked hops, joining all the creepy crawlies that fed on the hop plants. I guess that in those days no pesticide was used; anyway not on the plants, but on the other hand we kids were dusted down daily with DDT powder!

At the end of the day the farmer’s help would come round with his tractor to collect the picked hops. He would scoop the cribs empty with a large wicker basket that was equal to one bushel, eight dry gallons. One of the other farm hands would ‘book’ what we had picked on piece of cardboard and we were paid by the bushel, how much? I don’t have a clue. At the end of the day I don’t think that there was much money left over, as most evenings ended with a visit to the pub.

With two young blond sisters we were bound to attract the attention of the local farmer’s sons, and my teenage sister Barbara started going steady with a farmer’s son, Gordon. Now the only form of entertainment that these lads could offer a young girl was a pint of cider and a snog at the local pub. Trouble was the pub was miles away and we had no transport, so the only thing we could do to chaperone the girls was to walk over the fields to the pub. We walked cross-country as it cut off many more miles that we would have had to do along the lanes. One night I can remember vividly we were as usual tossed out of the pub at closing time and we made our way back to our barn across the fields. It was on one of those ink black starless nights when you couldn’t see one inch in front of you. We knew the route by instinct and on reaching the big field we heaved our tired bodies over the farmer’s fence. Now on our way to the pub we had crossed in good moods, but now the mood turned to horror as through the inky darkness we could hear the thud of heavy hooves on the hard August ground. The field had been clear on our many crossings, but now the farmer’s cows had repossessed our short cut field for the night. It was nearly our short cut to the cemetery! We ran in fear as we were sure that the cows couldn’t see us anymore than we could see them and the thought of being crushed was prominent in all our minds. With our hands stretched out in front of us, hoping to feel the safety of the field’s edge, we ran for our lives. My tiny legs turned to jelly and I stumbled, my mother scooped me up in her arms as on the ground I was a sitting duck. With no more than a second to spare we reached the edge of the field and with our last drop of adrenaline scaled the fencing with one communal jump. We all tumbled over the perimeter like horses at Becher’s Brook in the Grand National, fortunately, that night we managed it without any broken legs, so nobody had to be “put down”. Afterwards we all had a good laugh about it, but it could have so easily ended in a horrible tragedy.

If we saw the chance my cousin and I would sneak off looking for adventure, and that was never too far away. We had often heard the growling of high powered engines coming from the woods and we just couldn’t resist exploring where the noise was coming from. Although we had been warned to stay away from the wooded hillside, it was said that area was haunted by the ghost of Lady Lightfoot and that there was also a wicked witch living in a magical white house. I even saw this white house that kept on changing position in the woods, one minute here then it would disappear and suddenly appear in another position on the hillside in-between the trees. Was this the power of adult suggestion or was it real, I’ll never know. We were either stupid or fearless, I don’t know which, but the pull of the engine sounds, the smell of burnt oil and rubber was greater than our fear so we ventured on through the thickly wooded area. We even managed to find some fresh provisions along the way, Hazel nuts, Pears and Apples, if they were ripe or not didn’t bother us, they were free grub! The noise we had been hearing was from high-powered cars that were training for the world famous Shelsey Walsh hill climb. The oldest motor car racing event in the world, dating from 1905. This is a twisting road with many high embankments climbing out of the Teme Valley to some 300 ft, this over a length of about a mile. One day a part of the steep embankments came in very useful as one of the cars got out of control and crashed with an almighty thud just below our feet, frightened the life out of me! I think we must have seen some very legendry cars and drivers of that era, all for free, a schoolboy’s dream!

On one of our walks through the woods towards the hill climb we found ourselves walking on very soft ground, it was like walking on a very thick carpet. We decided to investigate and clawed away at the soft covering. About a foot down we came upon a great treasure, hundreds of unsold hill climb programs had been buried there to get rid of them. They were in perfect condition, the burial must have been recent and none were affected by water or damp soil. For two almost destitute Brummie back street kids this was a treasure indeed, kids that couldn’t even afford a comic book now had some real books to read. I can still imagine the smell of printers ink that rose to meet us out of that buried treasure. We tucked as many as we could under our arms and traipsed off back to camp. What ever happened to our ‘find’ I’ll never know, but if we had them today I bet that they would be worth a few ‘bob’.

My cousin and I were not the only kids in the area, most of the hop-pickers that were scattered over the various farms were comprised of families with several kids. The majority were working class folk from inner city back streets, but there were also large gipsy communities with kids that were even shabbier looking than we were! On the evenings that we didn’t have enough money for the pub, we would gather round the oil drum camp fires, and there we heard stories of the kind of treatment we could expect if we were ever captured by these gypsy kids. It was said that they would burn our eyes out with red hot pokers heated up in the cokes fires! I’ll never know if these were more of those adult stories to keep us from straying too far from our allotted patch outside the barn. It didn’t help much though as we were always wondering off exploring this entirely new and wonderful adventure playground in the country. Sure enough one day it had to happen; we suddenly stood face to face with a bunch of scruffy, Black Country speaking, gypsy heathens. My cousin and I stood there petrified, but we tried not show it and I pretended to be examining some rubbish that the gypsies had piled up in a ditch. I was absently poking away at some old jam jars with a stick, trying not to look these gypsy kids in the eye, when I hit the jackpot. Hundreds of wasps flew up in anger at being disturbed from enjoying their free meal of gypsies home made Jam. Once again we ran for our lives, not from the gypsies or mad cows this time, but from a hoard of angry wasps. My cousin managed to escape unscathed but I was caught by the angry mob venting their anger with numerous vicious stings to my poor ears. I was never upset by the wasps stings as I always think that they saved us from having our eyes burnt out by those gypsies.

As a very close knit family that were used to hard work we all worked well together and there was never a moan or grumble. We had worked so well that the farmer was happy and that made us happy too. A neighbouring farmer was not so lucky with his hop pickers; they were a lazy lot causing trouble by arguing and fighting, packed it all in before the end of the hop harvest returning to Brum under there own steam. This farmer had heard how good we were and managed to do a deal with his neighbour thus getting us working on his hop harvest. At first we were a bit disappointed as we had to move out of our 5 star barn into old Army bell tents. Still we were determined to make the best of it and settled in with the same cheerful mood that we had done earlier in the barn. That night we could hear a terrible storm brewing in the distance. We could see the lightening flashes through the holes in the worn out tent, they looked like fairy lights on a Christmas tree. The crashes that came after the lights were very frightening and got louder and louder. I don’t know if anyone had thought about it or even knew about it, that tent ropes should be slackened off at night, especially when rain threatens. I don’t think that there was anyone brave enough to go out in that weather to perform this important task and the unthinkable happened. The tension on the ropes and on the tent became so great that the single central tent pole just snapped like a matchstick. The whole smelly wet linseed oil soaked tent fabric came down on top of us, dowsing the candles and storm lamps, leaving us in pitch darkness except for the occasional flash of lightening. By this time the wind had got up too and now it had free play under our sloppy tent and whisked the whole thing up into the air. Our bell tent had blown away in the middle of the night and we all had to evacuate to a nearby barn, one that was luckily not occupied by cows or pigs. There we cowered on the bare stone floor while, in pitch blackness, mom tried to keep the bats out of our hair. On nights like these we were glad to huddle round the cokes fires made from empty oil barrels punched full of holes to let air in and feed the cokes with oxygen. Sticks of foul smelling sulphur were thrown into the fire; I think to neutralize the harmful gasses that the cokes gave off. If you caught a whiff of it, it nearly knocked you out, like smelling salts but a hundred times stronger. We must have looked a sad sight hunched under our moth eaten army blankets, like some scene from a Nazi concentration camp. We could easily have passed for prisoners of war as not one of us had an ounce of fat to spare.

These fires were not only a comfort on chilly evenings, they also did service for cooking our meals on. Food that we had to buy ourselves from a little mobile shop that visited the farm every day. One of our favourites was baked potatoes, or baked spuds to a Brummie. This was a warm, cheap (we could ‘pinch’ spuds from the neighbouring fields), very filling meal that reminded us of the baked potato man in the Birmingham Bull Ring. If we were very lucky there was even salt and farm butter to make them really appetizing. There was often talk of ‘borrowing’ a piglet and roasting it over the fire, but as this never happened I can only guess that everyone feared the consequences of being caught.

For the hop-picking I had no clothes or shoes that were worthy of that name, and certainly no underpants. My ragged shorts, that were hand-downs from my older brothers, were only held up by string, string that was normally used to train the hop vines. Our mum, a war widow with 5 kids and a pride that was bigger than her family, only accepted help once in her life and that was a pair of Army hobnail boots for my bare feet. They were far too big for me and I had no socks to fill them up. I would traipse up and down the hop fields all day and the boots rubbed all the skin off my sock less heels. The inevitable happened, some bug got into my bloodstream and inflamed the back of my leg, it was like a fire burning inside my calf and travelled up my leg into my knee. I imagine that this was the same kind of thing troops had to put up with in the WW I trenches. At the hop-pick there were always nuns going up and down the fields, trying to convert us “heathens” from our evil ways. I think it was one of these nuns that realized how serious my condition was as I was rushed back to Brum for an emergency operation. There they put me to sleep with laughing gas and cut the back of my leg open scraping my knee joint clean of infection, I suppose it was something like gangrene. After the operation I was shipped back to Shelsey Walsh as my family were still there hop-picking. The nuns would come round daily to look at my knee. The first time that they renewed my dressing I nearly fainted, they pulled yards of draining wick out of my knee and had to stuff yards back in. For comfort and compensation the nuns would give me what looked like cigarette cards, not with footballers on them, but scenes from the bible and necklaces with a crucifix to protect us.

Due to all the extra work that had been given to us, the hop-picking carried on well into September and my mother received loads of threats from the school board man, threatening to have us kids put away if we didn’t attend school. Luckily my mum took no notice; after all she could


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