Hop Trade

In the nineteenth century, Borough was the centre of the hop trade where factors and merchants occupied offices and warehouses to carry out their business. They were the middle men between grower and brewer, factors dealt with the growers and merchants with the brewers. A hop market had existed in Little East Cheap from 1681, but it seems gradually merchants and factors based in Borough captured the trade. Reasons for this include Borough being able to provide warehousing, that there were many breweries in the area, and that it was on the main road from London to Kent where a large proportion of hops were grown.

The middlemen had become more important to the trade from about 1730. The navy at that time were placing large orders, and porter, which used great quantities of hops, was increasing in popularity. Factors generally took a commission on the hops they sold which was usually to a merchant who bought in bulk for resale. Whilst some brewers went direct to the growers, most preferred to buy through a merchant who was not only able to offer many months credit but also had an expertise and knowledge regarding the quality of hops, which, perhaps strangely, the brewers did not possess. The merchants rubbed the hops between their fingers and onto the palm of their hands, and, in this way, were able to detect subtle differences. The brewer depended on the merchants judgement and once a successful partnership had been formed, it was likely to endure.

THS Borough High Street 1838

Borough High Street 1838. Thomas Hosmer Shepherd
Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

In 1841 out of a total of 37 hop factors listed in the London Post Office directory, all but two were based in Borough and out of 49 hop merchants in London, all but 16 were based in Borough. A large proportion of both factors and merchants were based in Borough High Street, many in the yards of inns. Many factors and merchants also dealt in seed.

The Hop Exchange opened in the newly built Southwark Street in 1868. The intention was that merchants would set up their stalls and the brewers would sample the different hops available and make their selection based on wider choice. The grandiose scheme failed. Mr Le May, whose name is protected today in Borough High Street, explained why to a Select Committee in 1890:

Hop

Frieze at 67 Borough High Street. Grade II listed.

The Hop Exchange was started with the idea of having an open market for hops, that the brewers should come and buy off merchants in the open market. The reason why it failed was because the brewers objected to buy off the merchants in the open market: they preferred to buy through the ordinary channels through the merchant. All the stands were let: the small merchants took their samples and exhibited them but no customers came to buy them. The market lasted for something like 18 months the thing simply collapsed.

Hop Exchange exterior
Hop Exchange internal

The London Post Office directory for 1882 showed that six hop factors out of a total of 40 were based at the Hop Exchange and 14 merchants out of a total of just under one hundred. It soon became a general office building and was renamed Central Buildings. But while the Hop Exchange failed, factors and merchants overspilled from surrounding streets into the new Southwark Street with their own offices and warehouses where they continued to thrive.

Hop Exchange gallery
Hop pediment

Left: A cast iron gallery inside the Hop Exchange. The ironwork consists of stylized hops and the red shield depicts the emblem of the County of Kent. Right: The pediment over the entrance depicts scenes from the cultivation of hops. The Survey of London, vol 22 (1950) maintains the building impresses by its sheer bulk and repetition of design.

But the Hop Marketing Board, established in 1932, began to set the prices of hops which saw the beginning of the decline in the Southwark hop trade. Perhaps more catastrophically, 25 out of 37 hop warehouses were destroyed in the second world war. These were rebuilt after the war at Paddock Wood in Kent which became the centre for the trade. The telephone exchange code for the area, HOP, which had signified the importance of the trade to the area was replaced by all digit numbers in the 1960s.

Today, in a quirk of fate, it is the failed Hop Exchange that is the most prominent reminder of the past commercial activity. It has recently been refurbished and is Grade II listed.

Sources:

Hubert Parker, The Hop Industry (1934)
Charlotte Cordle,Out of the Hay and into the Hops(2011)
Post Office Directories 1841 and 1882 (courtesy of www.historicaldirectories.org)
www.breweryhistory.com