I never quite know what to make of some of Elspeth’s tales. I know for a fact that her sister Maudie has more bats in her belfry than York Minster but Elspeth encourages her nonsense if you ask me. What an old snob she is. She tries to make out it were for Maudie’s health but they went hoppin’ because they couldn’t afford nothing else if you ask me.
24 May 2000
Mr Nick Maddocks
12 Great George Street
I do not think that you can have realised, when you placed your request for information about hopping in the East London Advertiser, what a flood of memories you would awaken. My sister Maudie and I have been all of a flutter since the paper dropped on our mat this morning. If you’re ready then Nick, I’ll begin.
I would wish you to understand at the outset that Maudie and I come from a family of some means and considerable local respectability. None of your “Blow me down guvnor, I’ll ‘ave an ‘aporth o’ chitterlin’s”, if you please. I’ll have you know that Mother was the regular organist at St. Dunstan’s for 47 years. She never hit a wrong note in all those years apart, of course, from the one occasion when Mrs Howstese-Trollie – after one too many Pimm’s No. 1 cups – opened her clutch bag during the quiet passage of “Jesus my Gentle Redeemer Liveth” and honked in it.
Our one foray into the world of hopping began when Maudie had a particularly intractable bout of her recurring hysterical neurasthenia. All the usual cures had failed miserably and Dr Foster (from Gloucester) recommended that Maudie be given a change of scene, but with the proviso that she be kept busy at all times. Mrs Nesta Taybells, deaconess of St. Dunstan’s suggested to mother that hopping would meet the case, and before we knew it, we were on the Hoppers Special to Wateringbury in Kent. I should have known straight away that things were unlikely to work out well when we found ourselves being jollied into singing along with “Oops Mother, Mind Yer Bush (give it a clip, give it a trim, but whatever you don’t get too close to yer ****)”.
We arrived very late that first night and were looking forward to sinking into a comfy feather mattress and getting a sound night’s sleep. You will imagine our distress when we were shown by Farmer Porky Evans into a filthy bug infested hut furnished only with a score or so of ratty looking straw beds. The place was alive with vermin! The sleeping arrangements may have been basic but the lavatories were beyond human ken. These consisted of a long row of dented oil drums, topped by makeshift seats constructed of lengths of corrugated iron from an old Anderson Shelter, with jagged holes cut in. Oh, what a stench! It was worse even than the night when a land-mine fell on the Sewage works in Bow Common Lane and the whole area was spattered to the extent that you couldn’t see out of your windows for the wodges of Izal plastered to them. I have to admit that my eyes were rolling up into my head and poor Maudie swooned clean awa.
The thing is Nick, all of that filth and physical discomfort were as nothing compared to the coarseness, idleness, lasciviousness and sly opportunism of our companion hoppers. Take Old Ma Atkins, who claimed to have special gifts and took it upon herself to tell us our fortunes from the tea-leaves. I wouldn’t have minded, but we crossed her none too clean palm with a considerable amount of silver (4/6d) and couldn’t understand a word of her nonsense. “Lady, lady nose in the nude and bare, you’ll never see a man’s daft and silly, nor get a goose and duck, either. You’re round the make and mend, and you’re gaggin’ for a smoke and fag”. Of course, all the others pretended to be in the know and affected to find this very amusing.
While Old Ma Atkins was a minor annoyance, we were more seriously upset by the excesses of Betty ‘Blackeye’ Huggins, who earned her name by her propensity to take umbrage at any and every thing that was ever said or done to her, and some that weren’t. Goodness what a touchy woman! It began when I troubled her to pass the salt for the somewhat tasteless jellied peas that were served up every night for supper. “Are you tryin’ to ‘ave me for a pig and runt? Gawd blimey gel, one more crack like that, and I’ll do yer up like a parcel o’ ‘alf pay puddin’.” I didn’t bother to answer her back as I could see which way the wind was blowing, but that wasn’t right either. “Show yer ignorance, why don’t yer, you saucy mare, I’ll fetch yer a slap on yer kisser, if you don’t mind yer p’s and yer q’s”. I made an excuse that I needed the lavatory and tried to move away. “Turn yer back on me, would yer, so yer sayin’ that you’d rather ‘ave a Tom in that filthy old pisser than pass the time o’ day with me, are yer, you snobby piece?” And with that, she set upon me, pulling at my hair and slapping my head until it rang like the bells of St. Clement’s. And not one of those oafs as much as opened their mouths to offer me even a shred of assistance.
You will imagine that, hard as the work was, we were glad to get out into the fields and the fresh air as some respite from life in the dormitory. Even Maudie started to get a little colour in her cheeks. There were moments when I could say that I had begun to enjoy myself as we filled our baskets with the fragrant hops, singing along merrily as we went. What a fool’s paradise. To fully understand the enormity of what came next, I should, at this point, tell you a little of poor Maudie’s history. There is perhaps more than a passing connection between Maudie’s funny turns and those events which took place shortly after Uncle Wilfred’s return from duty in Uttar Pradesh. We never precisely pinned down the exact happenings of that fateful day, but suffice it to say that Maudie came out of that woodshed a changed girl. The laughing happy sprite of her early years was replaced with a dour, brooding, over-sensitive lass, given to spells of flying off the handle and whooping and a-wailing. Mind you, we suspect that Uncle Wilfred got quite as much as whatever he gave, since from that day hence, he developed a pathological fear of pre-pubescent girls, shying like a startled horse at the sight of a pigtail.
You will understand then Nick why I have made it something of a mission to protect Maudie from the attentions of the menfolk. It was a blazing hot September day and Maudie was skipping among the hop-sticks, without a care in the world, when Farmer Porky Evans wove his way towards us on his ramshackle Raleigh All-Steel Bicycle. At the moment that we raised our arms to give a cheery wave as he passed, we spotted that he had his old thing out, and it was painted in lurid shades of red, green and amber. As a true gentlewoman, I would have feigned to ignore this vulgar sight and tried to distract Maudie’s attention with a hastily constructed ruse. This was not to be as Porky Evans stood up on the pedals, and wildly waggling the offending part, he shouted “Green for go, me dearios”. Maudie’s eyes were out like organ stops and she began to emit a low humming noise that increased in volume until she was a-moaning and a-hollering at the top of her voice. So taken aback was Farmer Evans that his foot slipped off the pedal and he flew over the handlebars, landing awkwardly on a hop cane and ripping his scrotum from end to end. Now it was his turn to wail like a banshee.
The upshot was that we were unceremoniously bundled on the next lorry back to the Limehouse Cut by an irate Mrs Porkina Evans. In the teeth of the evidence, Mrs Evans refused to believe that her husband was anything other than the innocent victim of two malevolent town chits. To this day I cannot imagine how he explained away his elaborately decorated genitalia. Perhaps she was used to it?
You will of course wish to interview us in much more detail about our experiences but I hope, Nick darling, that I have already made the point that the rose coloured spectacles of many so called authorities on those far off days are just so much wishful thinking. I look forward to hearing from you.
Elspeth Pantswell (Miss)
Elspeth never said whether she got filmed for the documentary. I expect I would have heard about it if she did….