At 67 Borough High Street you can find the former offices of the hop merchants, or factors as they were usually called, W.H. and H. Le May. It is a Grade II listed building with a spectacular frieze on the front depicting hop gatherers and proudly displaying the firm’s name. One may easily assume that the building is constructed of red sandstone, but according to the description on the British Listed Buildings site, it is ‘just’ coloured stucco.(1)
W.H. and H. Le May were William Henry and Herbert Le May who had been in partnership at least since 1878. In that year, they arranged with their creditors the liquidation of (some of?) their assets, but that was certainly not the end of their business.(2) An 1881 newspaper report on ‘The Markets’ offers a glimpse into the variables of the hop market when they have the Le Mays saying that
there is a large business going on in the Mid and East Kent golding growths, and some high figures are being made. The small lots of Wealds and Sussex are rather neglected for the moment, but as the growers of that class are almost to a man cleared out the market remains exceedingly firm. There is a further rise, equal to 10s in Bavarian hops and 5s. in Belgian. The Americans are very slow in offering any hops on the market. The imports of foreign hops into England last week were 1,484 bales.(3)
Golding was “the choicest, richest, and most valuable variety of hops grown”, raised by a Mr. Golding of Malling in 1790.(4) Two weeks later, the Le Mays report that the Continental home market “has increased to such an extent that it is almost impossible to obtain any really choice continental hops”, but despite that, the import of foreign hops in the last week amounted to 3,620 bales.(5)
In 1887, the Merchandise Marks Act was issued which stipulated that all foreign hops imported into England should have the name of the country from which it originated stamped upon the package to protect English interests. But, as Le May alleged in a letter to the editor of The Morning Post, official acts were one thing, enforcing such acts quite another.(6) Le May had purposely bought ten pockets of Dutch hops from the Netherlands. The cloth which covered these bundles was the same as that used in England and was probably even made in England, so offered no distinguishing feature. The parcels arrived in the Le May warehouse bearing a number and date, but no country of origin, and as such, they should have been stopped at the customs, but were not. According to the new legislation, the Continental hops should have been packed “in rough cloth, cylinder shape, and weighing about 2¼cwt. to 3cwt. each, and American hops packed in a flat oblong bale – the cloth being finer than the Continental – and weighing 1¼cwt. to 1½cwt. each”. If the imports were done according to these new rules, the English hop growers “would stand a little better chance of competing with the free importations of the manipulated and falsely described and preferentially freighted foreign hops”. The Le Mays felt sure that if the editor would place their letter in the paper, it would draw the attention of those concerned to these malpractices. Whether it did, is unclear, but no more letters about the illegal imports appeared in the papers that I have seen.
The Le Mays bought their hops from individual growers of whom we rarely know the name, but in 1884, one of them, one Edward Albert White of Beltring, Paddock Wood, got his name in the papers when he received a “very handsome fruit-stand” from Messrs W.H. & H. Le May as a prize for producing the first hops of the season.(7)
But Mr. White was more than just a simple hop grower. He attempted to improve the quality of the hops by trying to breed disease-resistant varieties and he invented Spimo, a wash based on a mixture of soap and quassia (the bark of a hardwood South-American tree) which was claimed to eradicate aphids, red spider, caterpillars, maggots, weavils, mildew, etc.(8) Not bad, especially as it alleged to be non-poisonous. Well, except for the bugs it tried to destroy of course.
Eye-catching as the premises of the Le May firm in Borough High Street no doubt are, they are not the only reminder of the hop empire that once dominated the area. Turn into the little alleyway between numbers 61 and 63 (Three Crane Yard) and you can find the gate to what was once no doubt the entrance to the backyard of Le May’s. If you look through the gate, you can see the courtyard of The George Inn.
But there is more, a bit further up Borough High Street, across the road, the St Saviour’s parish war memorial of an infantryman can be seen.(9) This monument was designed by Philip Lindsay Clark and unveiled in 1922. But look at the wall on the nearby building, and you will see a plaque with the names of the men of the London hop trade who lost their lives in WW1. And among them is Lieutenant A.E. Le May. The people at Researching the Past have done excellent research on the names on the plaque and A.E. Le May was Algernon Edward Le May of the Royal Field Artillery who died of his wounds on 24 July 1917, aged 34. He is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinge, Belgium.
I could go on about the Le Mays and the general hop trade for quite some time, but this blog post should not turn into a book, and besides, other people have already done extensive work on the subject (see for instance footnote 8), so I will leave it as this, but you may also like to read my post on the Hop Exchange.
(1) Listing NGR: TQ3265280124.
(2) The London Gazette, 26 October 1878.
(3) The Morning Post, 13 October 1881.
(4) George Clinch, English Hops. A History of Cultivation and Preparation for the Market from the Earliest Times (1919), p. 18.
(5) The Morning Post, 27 October 1881.
(6) The Morning Post, 1 February 1888.
(7) Isle of Man Times and General Advertiser, 23 August 1884.
(8) Celia Cordle, Out of the Hay and into the Hops (2011), pp. 66-67. There is a relevant book by R. Walton, Beltring Hop Farm, Paddock Wood, Kent: 150 years of history (2002), but I have not seen that.
(9) Picture of the memorial on the London Remembers site here.