White Heat

Hopping: An East End Family at Work and Play

first published 2009 (Fourth Estate)

For a hundred and fifty years hundreds of thousands of London East Enders made the annual pilgrimage to the hop gardens of Kent, eager for work – and, especially, for fun – harvesting hops. Daisy was one of them. Each year from the First World War to the 1950s, with or without her family – flighty sister Fanny, gentle husband Harold and adored nephew Ritchie, Daisy left the smoke and bricks for carefree times ‘down ‘oppin’.’ The grit of life never went away completely – there was sickness, family feuds and – during the years of the Second World War – almost daily incursions of German bombers to deal with, but there were also jugs of beer, apples roasted in the fire and new faces to see, and perhaps steal a little kiss from. Warm memories to save up for the long cold months of harsh dock work back in London’s East End.


Daisy Baker arrived at Selling Station on 1 May 1940. In the six months she’d been away the place had changed. Every straight road and strip of field had been filled with heaps of junk – old cartwheels, barbed wire, scatterings of this and that – to prevent German planes landing, and she suddenly had the sense that here was frontier country, a sense confirmed a few days later on 10 May, when the Germans attacked the Low Countries.

On 29 May, the evacuation from Dunkirk began. Daisy and the other women working on farms about were drafted in to provide tea and sandwiches for the weary-looking soldiers rumbling in on the trains from Dover. Just three days later, lying in her hut, Daisy heard the terrifying sounds of the Luftwaffe’s bombardment of Dunkirk. For a while, though no one said it, everything seemed lost. The Germans were advancing.

Pretty soon, the Luftwaffe were sending Junkers out to attack shipping convoys in the Channel, and for the next two months life in Kent became if anything more perilous than it was in London. Phalanxes of Hurricanes and Spitfires daily buzzed east to confront the enemy. German dive-bombers continued to attack merchant ships, and on 31 July, a party of Messerschmidts managed to dislodge the Dover balloon barrage, sending runaway blimps scudding across the Kentish hills. From the hop gardens, as she worked curling the new tendrils around their wires, Daisy witnessed ferocious dogfights, often ending in a scattering of burning metal and human flesh as one aircraft or another fell to earth.

The raids continued through the summer. If Daisy wandered along towards Danebridge she could see the vapour trails of downed planes strung along the horizon like streamers. From the platform in Perry Wood, she could see plainly the glow in the sky from artillery fire in France. Night after night and day by day, she could hear the booming and shaking of the guns. The noise was almost continuous now. The Junkers were gone, but she quickly learned to distinguish between the engines of the Spitfires and Hurricanes and those of the Dorniers, particularly after the Dorniers began their low-level raids. On 15 August more than 500 German bombers escorted by 1250 fighters attacked Kentish airfields, and yet she felt calmer than she had in Poplar during the phoney war months before.

Towards the end of August she received a letter from Harold begging her to return to London. Notwithstanding their agreement that she should stay in the countryside, things now seemed safer in the city. She wrote back to him to say that she would come once the hops were picked. On 1 September, night raids began. London was hit, accidentally as it turned out, and civilians, including children, killed. The RAF retaliated with attacks on Berlin. In Kent, country roads were closed and road bridges demolished, and across the North Downs church bells rang to signal the start of an invasion. But no such invasion came until 7 September, just after 4.30pm, while East Enders were watching West Ham play Spurs at Upton Park, when 150 Heinkel and Dornier bombers, protected by Messerschmidts, began their assault on the London docks, Hitler’s Target A.


‘A sublime successor to the beautiful Silvertown, [Hopping] is a classic of its kind. Melanie McGrath is a Henry Mayhew for modern times.’
The Times, London

‘I have never read a book of English social history which has made other people’s physical existence so sensuously and sympathetically real. Hopping is a book of astonishing empathy, eloquence and understanding.’
Adam Nicolson, The Guardian

‘A full-blooded family saga with fascinating glimpses into the life of the times.’
Daily Express

‘A vibrant social history [recounting] the story of ordinary people living through the extraordinary period of two world wars, bearing hardship with fortitude, and longing for those brief moments when they could escape.’
Sunday Times