Despite his middle class background and apparent financial security (or maybe because of it?) Orwell spent several periods of his life deliberately homeless, to find out for himself what it actually felt like to be destitute – and so he could write about it afterwards. His equivalent today would be one of those undercover journalists who hide a microphone somewhere discreet about their person and then infiltrate an organisation under an alias to reveal the truth about what they get up to. His diaries show that for three weeks in September 1931 he journeyed down to Kent to work in the hop fields, getting to know the type of people involved in this activity, and in particular befriending a chap called Ginger. Orwell describes him in his diary as “a strong, athletic youth of twenty six, almost illiterate and quite brainless, but daring enough for anything. Except when in prison, he has probably broken the law every day for the last five years.”
Accompanied by other characters populating his diaries, he and Ginger travel, work, sleep and generally survive side by side throughout the whole exhausting adventure. Never averse to using pseudonyms, Orwell (Blair) adopted the name P S Burton when roaming around the country, assuming a cockney accent, and seemingly fitting in very well with his new-found companions, although he never shies away from judging these people – he often weighs them in the balance and finds them wanting.
Following these experiences he wrote up the essay Hop Picking which was published in the New Statesman & Nation on 17th October 1931, under his real name of Eric Blair. For the most part, it’s a piece of factual reporting, explaining what the work entails, how much people earn from it, what kind of people work there, and the reality of their day to day existence/survival. But Orwell never attempts to conceal his natural concern for and disgust at the conditions and exploitation faced by the working man (and woman, and child).
Just as in his diaries, he’s quick to cast judgment where he feels it’s appropriate. The essay starts with quotes from two experienced hop-pickers, “a holiday with pay” and “keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fares both ways and come back five quid in pocket” – and instantly Blair remarks that these experienced workers “ought to have known better”. He then sets out his basic tenet about hop picking: “hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.”
He explains that the work entails long hours, but is basically a simple process. He accepts that it’s “healthy, outdoor work” but quickly points out how painful the inevitable cuts to your hands are, as a result of the plant’s spiny stems, and the revulsion you feel as plant-lice crawl down your neck. He also explains the system of payment; piece-work, with the usual rate being six bushels of picked hops for a shilling – in other words 2d per bushel. At today’s rate, that shilling is now the equivalent of about £2.40, so a bushel would have earned you 40p. But it’s not that straightforward; depending on who was accepting and measuring the bushels, it was perfectly easy for the hops to be crushed down low into the bushel, so that what one man might measure as a bushel another would measure as only half a bushel – so if you were unlucky – or victimised, or exploited – you could end up having to work twice as hard for the same income. Blair estimates that he and Ginger earned about nine shillings a week each (£21.60). Even the best pickers in their gang earned only an average of 13/4 each – today’s equivalent being £32. The manipulation of the language used to describe the payment system is not lost on Blair: “six bushels a shilling sounds much more than “fifteen shillings a week””.
As well as being tricked into working twice as hard, there were other ways in which the employers’ rules could reduce the hop-picker “practically to a slave. One rule, for instance, empowers a farmer to sack his employees on any pretext whatever, and in doing so to confiscate a quarter of their earnings; and the picker’s earnings are also docked if he resigns his job.” Then there were the sleeping conditions: “My friend and I, with two others, slept in a tin hut ten feet across, with two unglazed windows and half a dozen other apertures to let in the wind and rain, and no furniture save a heap of straw; the latrine was two hundred yards away, and the water tap the same distance. Some of these huts had to be shared by eight men – but that, at any rate, mitigated the cold.”
But Blair being Orwell – or vice versa – this is no turgid piece of dry journalism. Using that same appreciation for the sensuousness of language that he used in A Hanging, he is able to transport the reader into experiencing the same hardships – or indeed pleasures – with his words. With the phrase “the spiny stems cut the palms of one’s hands to pieces” you can feel the sharp stem digging into you, just as you can feel the uncomfortable irritation of “the plant-lice which […] crawl down one’s neck”. You can sense the slow dull progress of “trying to coax a fire out of wet sticks”. But you can also smell the scene and sense the welcome cool with the sentence “on hot days there is no pleasanter place than the shady lane of hops, with their bitter scent – an unutterably refreshing scent, like a wind blowing from oceans of cool beer”. Who couldn’t resist breathing deeply to enjoy the wind from oceans of cool beer!
With good journalistic balance, he notes that hop pickers come back year after year, so despite the hardship they have to endure, “the Cockneys rather enjoy the trip to the country” and it still “figures in the pickers’ mind as a holiday.” Part of his conclusion is that “whatever the cause, there is no difficulty in getting people to do the work, so perhaps one ought not to complain too loudly about the conditions in the hop fields”.
From my own experience, I know that in the late 20s and early 30s my mother and her brother worked on the hop fields with their parents, and I don’t recall her saying how terrible an experience it was. This is a fascinating, personal piece of journalism, written directly from the writer’s current experience, balancing the rigours and hardship of the activity with its unexpected popularity and the cheerfulness with which it was endured. It’s also a description of a now historical activity that has thankfully been taken over by machinery. Orwell got it right when he says “hop-picking is in the category of things that are great fun when they are over.”