The Borough High Street area in Southwark has always been the area where the hops from the southern counties, and especially from Kent were brought to after the autumn picking. Up to the 1960s, many of the poorer London families went to the hop gardens each September for a working-holiday. Not just for the fresh air, but to supplement their all too meagre income. “Women generally work best, and some of the smartest fingered among them will pick their thirty bushels at a penny or three half-pence her bushel; but twenty-two is a good average.” Accommodation for the workers was varied, “some of them sleep in barns or cattle sheds, which are ‘feltered up’ annually with boards and brushwood to keep out the wind; but a few hop-garden owners furnish a regular set of marquees for their illustrious visitors, who are more necessary than welcome”.(1)
After picking, the hops were dried in the oast houses and then packed into large compressed sacks of 6 by 2 feet, called ‘pockets’. These pockets were then transported to Southwark, first by horse and cart, but later by train.
The hops were stored in the warehouses around Borough High Street and the hop factors then tried to sell the produce on behalf of the growers – at a commission of course – to the middlemen who subsequently sold the hops on to the brewers.
Southwark Street was laid out in 1862 by Sir Joseph Bazalgette. It was the first street in London with water and gas pipes in the middle of the road. The developments on Southwark Street was brought about by the Metropolitan Board in a major engineering scheme to link London Bridge and Blackfriars and, at the same time, to do something about the poor, overcrowded, and insanitary housing. On an awkward triangular plot between the new street and the railway elevation R.H. Moore designed the very elegantly curved building of the Hop and Malt Exchange.
The first stone was laid on 31 August 1866 and the building was opened in October 1867. It was to promote and facilitate the hop business which had of old been concentrated in the Borough area. The design consisted of a central exchange hall with offices off the galleries and warehouse space at the back. The original building was higher than it is now, but the top floors were removed after a fire in 1920.
According to the Illustrated London News, “the hop growers, merchants, dealers, and buyers will have all the advantages of a complete and well-attended market close to the termini of all the railways which pass through the hop-growing districts of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, and will thus be enables to avoid the trouble, expense, and loss of time incurred in visiting hop merchants’ counting houses in various parts of the Borough”. Sounds good, but the reality was less straightforward. It had been assumed that there was a need for a central place to conduct all hop business, but the 100 offices were never all rented out. In 1878, two hop factors, twelve hop merchants and forty hop traders had moved their business to the exchange, but that was the largest number ever. By 1920, the figures had dropped to five. The hop merchants stuck to their old premises and so did their customers. According to one of the factors, the stalls that were set up in the central hall for exhibiting the wares only lasted some 18 months. The exchange was just used by the merchants as an extension to their own warehouses.(2)
The iron railings on the galleries consist of intertwined hop tendrils with red shields figuring a white horse, the coat of arms of Kent county to emphasise the origin of the hops.
What is less obvious is the large cellar space underneath the building covering about an acre. In 1903 J. Lyons & Co. moved their business to the Hop Exchange and it became known as the Hop Cellers, later as the Lyons Wine Cellars. The firm moved out again in 1972, but for almost seventy years, bottling and storing wines was taking place beneath the Exchange offices and warehouses. Wine bottles were used on average about six times and each time they were returned, they had to be cleaned and re-filled. The actual filling was done by a machine with the exception of special wines which were bottled by hand. The filled bottles were stacked in rows in so-called ‘bins’ with wooden laths in between the rows. Photos can be found here.
(1) H.D., ‘A Kentish Hopyard’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1868, pp. 532-538.
(2) Celia Cordle, Out of the Hay and into the Hops (2011), p. 123-124.
You may also like to read the post on W.H. & H. Le May, hop merchants