Artist Kathrin Böhm describes how a drinks company links the history of Londoners going hopping in Kent to a new community drinks enterprise on the suburban fringe
A group of boys jump into a recently dug pit. It’s summer, and they appear to have made their own way to the water unaccompanied by adults. The photograph was taken in 1939, and the lads are probably the children of East End families who had recently moved to the new Becontree Estate in Dagenham, the largest residential development in Europe at the time.
Many of these carefree youngsters would have spent their late summer holidays, along with their families, going hop-picking in Kent. They would jump on the ‘Hopping Express’ from London Bridge, or share a small lorry with neighbours and extended family, and head for the Garden of England.
The contrast between leaving the East End and going to Kent still confirms preconceptions of urban-rural distinctions. One was inner London; densely populated, highly polluted, no green outdoors and with little to do for the children. The other was Kent: countryside, hop gardens, fresh air and space, where whole families would stay in tin dwellings known as hoppers huts. While the (mainly female) adults spent the day picking to get paid by the bushel, their children deemed too young to help were left to roam the orchards and fields beyond.
Leaving London for the countryside seems less of a clear-cut affair today. Firstly, what counts as London? Barking and Dagenham, where our drinks enterprise was founded, is officially an Outer London Borough, but locals consider themselves part of Essex. The lake pictured above is the Eastbrookend Country Park and is part of London’s Metropolitan Green Belt. No one from Barking and Dagenham is going picking to Kent anymore.
The economic need for working-class women to take on casual work, and give their families a break away from home, has been made redundant by a range of factors. Workers’ rights and laws introduced after WW2 meant that East End women and men could get formalised work, wages and regular holidays. The mechanisation of harvesting across the agricultural sectors, including hop growing, meant a much reduced need for seasonal workers. Many of the remaining manual picking jobs are now done by eastern Europeans.
In those days, the East End pickers were often known as ‘foreigners’ in Kent. But however unfair, exploitative and polarising the long-gone ‘hopping’ holidays might have been, they are fondly remembered by many as a get-away from everyday drag and rules of city life. It was a temporary matriarchy and ‘freedom’ (a term used by many former pickers) where kids could roam and women could be financially independent and in charge of making decisions, while being close to their family and friends and having a good social time. ‘Going picking’ and ‘hopping season’ allowed for a strong collective culture to evolve and is still vividly remembered and appreciated by those who went picking. ‘It wasn’t just about the money, it was about being in good company’, remembered one former hop-picker during one of our monthly Hopping Afternoon events in Dagenham.
Launched in May 2014, the ‘Company: Movements, Deals and Drinks’ project is about revisiting the surviving and valued memories of the pickers. It was the brainchild of the artist collective Myvillages and had support from Create London and Barking and Dagenham council.
The project offers the chance to revive, alter and collectivise everything that going picking was part of. This time the plan is not only to harvest the crop, but to keep it, to produce distinctive drinks and sell them directly. The profits are fed back into a company both owned and run by the community behind the production itself.
‘Company Drinks’ is a year-round public programme, extending the collective labour process of going picking to local groups, communities and individuals who live in Barking and Dagenham today and including new urban and rural landscapes and places in order to make the act of picking part of a whole cycle of production, trade and reinvestment.
Today it’s difficult to read the Barking and Dagenham landscape as former agricultural land. Before the rampant industrialisation and residential development of the last century, the land here was once a fertile breadbasket. Bountiful market gardens supplied the kitchens of Colchester and London before they made way for the Becontree Estate – and the site for 26,000 new homes for 100,000 people in the late 1920s and 30s.
I’ve met one man who remembered that his parents’ farm had been compulsorily purchased for the Becontree development. Some of the road names suggest this pastoral past, but overwhelmingly the feeling is suburban. Some of the derelict industrial wasteland near the Thames has turned into temporary wilderness, with birch trees as tall as houses growing out of plastic wrapped waste stacks.
So now we go picking again, in all those different landscapes and places, in the country park and along avenues, in people’s back gardens and the walled garden of Eastbury Manor House, an organic vegetable farm set up in a disused municipal nursery and various parks. We leave the borough to go gleaning in Essex and hop-picking in Kent, but most is picked and foraged in Barking and Dagenham. We could pick enough elderflower to make cordial for the whole country.
Organic strawberries grow en mass at Dagenham Farm in Central Park. Dozens of residents call in to offer unwanted boxes of apples and other soft fruit from their gardens. The blackberries grow in abundance in the heath-like wilds of East Dagenham, yet another obvious fruit to pick. Wild plums, cherries, currants, gorse, lime flower, rosehip and sloes grow faster than we can arrange groups to gather them.
What we pick needs to be processed, and Company Drinks became a Community Drinks Enterprise in June 2015, and a book with the same title was published in October.
The model is to produce a drinks range that is as diverse as the possibilities for making drinks and the groups we are making them with. We are taking new group photos, this time not of extended families sitting and picking around the traditional hop bins, but instead showing this new geographical, ethnic and botanical diversity.
This year our range included eight sodas, one cola, one green hop tonic, one green hop beer and six different cordials. Our beers are made by the Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey and our sodas at the small-scale Square Root Soda Work, Hackney. The cordials are made by our group of regular volunteers, using small domestic-style kitchens.
The range of drinks grows with the project and the production process is flexible enough to accommodate small-scale crops and experiments.
This way of sourcing and making drinks is not streamlined and cost-efficient in a straightforward commercial sense, but it is collective and productive and the drinks are tasty. It demonstrates the possibility of building new local economics and cultures.
We are selling the drinks at public events and across a range of cafes and restaurants in the borough and West London, with individual prices varying by 300 percent, depending on where they are sold.
Looking at the two different meanings of the word ‘company’, this project shows the business meaning being reclaimed by the social and cultural, as a way of taking back the economy for people and places.*
Company Drinks is in fact both, the socio-cultural collective and get-together where we pick, socialise, spend time together, and a new type of company that aims to sustain itself through a broad range of mutual deals and fair sales.
As much as the hopping days were streamlined and focused on single production lines, and used a clear polarity of places and communities (working class East Enders and Kent farmers), Company Drinks is set up as an enterprise which can incorporate local social and economic needs, together with the resources that can make that possible.
What we’re doing on the outskirts of London is not a re-enactment of pre-WW2 and Victorian conditions. It expresses a modern reality of people who are excluded from the modern economy, and counters the lack of opportunities to make a living in a fairly paid and fulfilling manner.
Company Drinks is still very small, but it is set up to stay and to grown from within local opportunities and suggestions. It is an optimistic project where the glass is always half full.
Kathrin Böhm is an artist and founding member of Myvillages
* J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (1996) and Take Bake the Economy (2013)