At the Heart of the Hop Trade

At the Heart of the Hop Trade

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David Charnick’s new walk Booze and The Borough heads south of the river to explore the historical links between the area and all aspects of the drinks trade.  You can join him on November 2nd for the full story (click the link above to go to his booking page), but meantime by way of “a little sharpener” he recounts below the story of the hop trade in the area.


67 Borough High Street has a very decorative (and much photographed) frontage.

hops-02-c-looking-at-london-comOnce the premises of William Henry and Herbert Le May, Hop Factors,  it is unsurprisingly a Grade II listed building. Just to the left of 63 Borough High Street however is White Hart Yard, a shadowy reminder of an important local inn which has long since been lost.

Walk down this side-street and there on the right is a black-painted archway, once the entry into the Le May yard, but now incorporated into Chaucer House. While less decorative than the main frontage, it is still imposing.

hops-03-c-baldwinhamey-wordpress-comThese are reminders of the hop trade that once was at the heart of the Borough, the area of Southwark which adjoins the River Thames.

There are other, humbler reminders of this trade locally, though some at least are in danger from development. Indeed, at the time of writing one hop warehouse is being demolished; sadly this means that the rare timber-framed opening below, which once gave entry to the former Spur Inn, seems unlikely to survive.

The development of the hop trade locally coincides with the rise of commercial brewing. Once there was a hop market at Little Eastcheap in the City of London, but the increasing demand for hops from Surrey, Sussex and Kent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw ever more hop wagons queuing to cross the heavily congested London Bridge. The pragmatic solution was to relocate the hop trade south of the Bridge.

Hop factors represented growers, selling hops to dealers who would in turn sell them on to brewers. The Le May family were one of the more outstanding of many firms of factors whose premises were spread throughout the area. Though in 1878 they were arranging with their creditors to liquidate at least some of their assets, a newspaper report from 1881 cites the Le Mays as saying that trade was prospering, there being a large market for Golding hops from Mid Kent and East Kent.

So widespread were the premises of hop factors and hop merchants that the ordered Victorian approach to business was brought to bear on the seeming confusion with the creation of the London Hop and Malt Exchange, which opened in October 1867 and still curves proudly yet gracefully along Southwark Street; though its top storey was lost to fire in 1920 it is still an impressive sight.

The Exchange’s great hall, lit by a glazed ceiling and surrounded by galleries leading to 100 offices, was to contain stalls to be used by merchants to exhibit their wares to brewers. Though meant to make things more business-like, it was unpopular with local traders who preferred to deal in the usual way. In 1890 an unspecified ‘Mr Le May’ explained to a Parliamentary Select Committee that though the stalls were all let, the brewers objected to buying in the open market, preferring to buy through the merchants.

hops-05-c-baldwinhamey-wordpress-comTowards its northern end, Borough High Street forks at the site of the old Borough Compter. At the fork is the local War Memorial, erected to commemorate Borough residents who lost their lives in the First World War.

However, this dramatic memorial, surmounted with an intrepid advancing infantryman, draws the attention away from a plaque on the right-hand corner of the frontage of the Slug and Lettuce bar. This plaque records the names of local hop workers who lost their lives in World War One, and is a poignant reminder of how central to the local community the hop trade was.

hops-06-c-tonbridgeatwar-daisy-websds-netAmong the names listed alphabetically on this plaque is that of ‘LIEUT. LE MAY A.E.’ This is Lieutenant Algernon Edward Le May of the Royal Field Artillery. Wounded in Flanders on 23 July 1917 while acting as a liaison officer, he died of his wounds the following day in a military hospital at Poperinge in Belgium. He was 34 years old, and had arrived in France just six months earlier.

If anyone standing in front of the plaque and noticing Algernon Le May’s name should look across the road to the right, they will see the decorative façade of 67 Borough High Street. Not only were the Le Mays at the heart of the local hop trade, but among the dead hop workers is one of their family members. To add irony, Poperinge is located in a region which provides the Belgian brewing trade with 80% of its hops. Poperinge itself is known locally as the ‘Hop City’, and features five hops in its town flag.

Various factors led to the decline in Britain’s hop trade. The development of pasteurisation and of hop strains high in alpha acids reduced the quantity of hops required to preserve beer. The early twentieth century saw increased imports of foreign-grown hops for brewing beers under licences requiring the use of hops stipulated in the original recipes. Hope for the local trade was kept alive however by Wye College in Kent, principally through their development of hop varieties such as Wye Challenger, Wye Northdown, Wye Target and Wye Yeoman.

Though the focus of hop development moved further into Kent, and away from London, the Borough reminds the visitor how central the hop trade once was to the capital’s economy.

Moreover, with today’s increasing interest in the characters of individual hop varieties and the consequent development of varietal beers, this heritage is becoming increasingly relevant to today’s discerning drinker.

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