MEMORIES OF THE WAR YEARS AT THE MOOR FARM
By Janet Faraday
In 1940, when my father, John Price, became manager of The Moor Farm, Eardiston, he had had no experience of growing hops. Difficult as this valuable crop is to raise, to do so in the war years with all the shortages – not least of labour – was even more of a challenge.
The Moor, previously the home of gentry, had been bought by a London company and with the outbreak of war took on a workaday shabby appearance. Waterlilies in the ornamental pond became strangled with weed, the tennis court was unmown and hens requisitioned the asparagus bed. The attics, briefly home of Birmingham evacuees, were filled with the directors’ own sheeted furniture, safely away from the Blitz, and the rest of the house was divided between the families of the farm bailiff and the Clows Top doctor.
Air-raid precautions had been taken with the camouflage of the main kiln and the name ‘Eardiston’ was painted over on the farm carts to baffle any enemy invaders. These carts were drawn by five ancient horses, making no demands on the petrol ration. The pond served as a static water tank and, while no incendiary bombs were dropped, it proved invaluable when young hoppers lit fires in the hay bay.
The cowman represented The Moor in the Home Guard and was later – in 1945 – to march with his company, loudly and proudly, into Lindridge church for the Victory thanksgiving.
When a hundred acres of hops were ready for September harvesting, a large and varied labour force had to be organised. Many of the pickers were comparatively local, but the majority had to be recruited from the Black Country and accommodated in crude, if fancifully named barracks: Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square.
Earlier in the year my father would have driven round unfamiliar, unmarked territory in the hope of finding the ‘hiring women’ at home. These five formidable neighbourhood matriarchs undertook to bring down so many ‘head’ (payment was per capita). Formidable they certainly were, not least when leading the annual strike. This was traditionally held when the price per bushel picked was declared. They would advance to the front door to negotiate, grim-faced, in their uniform of cross-over pinnies, but hatted as befitted their status, turbans being otherwise women’s wartime wear. Days would pass, war-effort or no, with not a bine pulled and the gaffer growing ever gloomier as the hops passed their prime.
Before this crisis – always resolved – gypsy caravans would roll into the orchard, charas would deliver their loads in the yard and a long queue would form at the office window. Numbered crib cards would be handed out and ration-books taken in. These would be lodged with Gaius Smith, the Tenbury grocer, whose van each week would bring small chips of rations to be collected from the house. The meat ration, probably ‘utility’ sausages as cooking had to be on open fires, was sold from the back of Bowkett’s butcher’s van. Bread, still unrationed, could be bought from Lambert’s bakery in the village. It must have been difficult hacking ‘pieces’ from his crusty loaves to be washed down with cold tea in Kia-Ora bottles, thermos flasks being on the very long list of things unobtainable. (Gumboots were also a pre-War luxury item and had to be patched like cycle tyres.) Milk churns were trundled into the kitchen each day and my grandmother would measure the ration into jugs passed through the window. Once, sweets allocated on ‘points’ were distributed at the drive gates by a visiting director of the company, one of the Guinness family.
While the pickers were women and children, more muscle was needed for many of the jobs. The kilns were the 24-hours-a-day sulphurous province of the regular farm men too old for the call-up. More men however were needed in the field. The yard manager, who enforced picking hours to avoid hop-rustling, and heralded bushelling with his cries of “Clean ’em up, missus!”, was an old hand, as were two of the bushellers, one of whom wore shiny leather gaiters and a rose in his button-hole. But new recruits had to be tracked down by my father; there was the Pensax schoolmaster and two Bristol University staff, ‘new brooms’ who took a heavier bushel and so had to withstand blood-curdling threats.
My father must have fetched a great sigh of relief when, post-Armistice, the first lorry-load of Italian PoWs was dropped off. They filled the roles of baggers, loaders and flaggers with such good cheer, making a fuss of the ‘bambinos’, and even more of the girls. They were a burst of sunshine on the hop-picking scene, even on those sodden days which were only good for making mud-pies in the Teme Valley’s heavy clay.
With double summertime, much could be done in the evenings. In the farm office, the bushelling tally for the day was entered in the master-ledger. On ‘subbing night’, money already earned could be drawn for running expenses. In the kilns the great sacks of pressed hops, rather absurdly called ‘pockets’, had to be weighed and stamped.
In the kitchen, my mother’s realm, the local bobby, having cycled over from Newnham Bridge on a scrumping matter or in pursuit of a Borstal absconder, might need a cuppa. He could be the last in a stream of kitchen visitors, nursing sister nuns to be restored after their first-aid round, someone seized with stomach-pains, a request for a “dummy titty for the babby”.
At the end of the war with the dried hops sampled and sold to a factory, a dance was held in the main kiln to raise money for the Forces’ Welcome Home Fund. A few shrivelled balloons and streamers and the smell of powdered chalk mingling with that of hops were all that remained of brief frivolity, and The Moor Farm settled back to the serious business of raising and harvesting hops – in peace.