Radio actuality recordings

A unique collection of original BBC and other radio actuality recordings brings to life the London of the 1920s to the 1950s. These sounds were captured at street markets, fairgrounds, skittle alleys, auction houses, hopfields and elsewhere.

Hop-picking holiday 1934

‘OPPING ‘OLIDAY, SUBTITLED ‘An excursion in sound to the hop gardens of Kent’, is the source of the three recordings featured here. It was recorded during the harvest month of September in 1934 and the BBC catalogue number is 870077.

Hop-picking holidays were products of the demand for seasonal workers, the absence of paid leave until the Annual Holiday Bill of 1936, and the communal nature of working-class holidaymaking which lasted into the 1950s. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Kentish hop-fields were attracting around 250,000 pickers during harvest time. According to Sue Barton’s book Working-class organisations and popular tourism, the Southern Railway was running over 70 ‘hopper specials’ from London Bridge for the hop-pickers and their friends, with some 35,000 travelling on Saturdays alone.

The first recording is of a slightly staged-sounding dialogue between a London Bridge station porter and a little boy off to visit his family at a hop farm. The porter speaks to the boy in the friendly-formal way that adults used to reserve for addressing small children, as if the matter under discussion was of the utmost gravity.

The next recording is of a hopper special departing London Bridge with whistles blowing and the steam engine labouring away. An entry in the London Sound Survey’s historical references section has a fine description by the writer V.S. Pritchett of the voices of station porters at London Bridge.

While not working ten-hour days in the hop fields, the pickers and their families enjoyed themselves with music, dancing and communal singing. At the end of the season a king and queen of the hop pickers were elected and processions held. There was also the local village pub to visit and, as George Orwell wrote in 1931:

There were uproarious scenes in the village on Saturdays, for the people who had money used to get well drunk, and it needed the police to get them out of the pub. I have no doubt the local residents thought us a nasty vulgar lot, but I could not help feeling that is was rather good for a dull village to have this invasion of cockneys once a year.

The last extract features a lively pub singsong with the pickers and their families singing ‘Daisy, Daisy’, ‘Play to me Gypsy’ and ‘Just a Song at Twilight’.

Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.

Station porter and boy 0:42
Train leaves London Bridge 1:26
Hop picking pub singsong 2:55