HOP HOODENING – celebrating the hop harvest in East Kent – started as an annual folk event in 1957, following the re-naming of ‘The Swan’ public house in Wickhambreaux on 21st July 1956. The name was changed to ‘The Hooden Horse’ with the inn sign unveiled by Sir Stephen Tallents, Chairman of the Conference for Local History. In attendance were many local dignitaries, alongside representatives from the Morris Ring and the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Displays were given by East Kent Morris Men and Ravensbourne Morris Men, and traditional airs were played on handbells. Community country dancing in the school playground followed the unveiling ceremony.
The change had been arranged through the offices of Commander Findlay (Managing Director of Mackesons Brewery) and his wife, Lady Mary Findlay, who were both interested in local customs. In recognition of the gesture it was decided to arrange an annual folk event to culminate in Wickhambreaux. The publican and brewers reciprocated by exhibiting a notice in the pub which read as follows.
“Here is the Hooden Horse named from the ancient mystic man animal found only hereabouts, erstwhile appearing with carollers and handbell ringers, now furthermore adopted by morris dancers of Kent. So be it known that all morris men truly garbed, who to their music, do properly dance without, may enter and rightfully claim their draft of good ale.”
The Handbell Hoodeners and the East Kent Morris Men had been formed from Folkestone District National Dance Group in 1953. With their help and that of Kent District EFDSS, with Harold Downing as Chairman, Hop Hoodening began in September 1957 as an autumn tour. The Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral gave permission to dance in the Precincts at noon. Other locations on the tour were the East Cliff Bandstand at Ramsgate at 2.30 p.m., the Oval Bandstand at Cliftonville at 4.00 p.m. and the Central Bandstand at Herne Bay at 6.00 p.m. The tour ended in Wickhambreaux at 7.30 p.m. The crowd in the little village street, lit only by the floodlit pub sign, was always intense and the programme of morris dances and handbell ringing became somewhat chaotic. The day ended with a barn dance in the village hall which was also crowded but the more fun for that. Proceeds from the barn dances paid for re-furbishments in the hall in the early years.
The term ‘hoodening’ refers to an ancient East Kent tradition, usually performed around Christmas, whereby local farm workers, dressed as various characters, would tour the local big houses and perform a play in return for refreshments or money. They were accompanied by a Hooden Horse, which consisted of a man bent double, covered by a black cape and holding a wooden horse’s head on a pole. The horse’s jaw was hinged to make a clapping sound and help create its character. The tradition more or less died out between the wars but was revived in the 1950s. Hop Hoodening made use of the term because of its Kentish origins and to denote the celebratory theme of the day.
For a detailed history of hoodening, please visit hoodening.org.uk.
Obviously, a prime feature of Hop Hoodening had to be the Hooden Horse (or Horses). For a few of the earlier tours, E.W. Mowll brought the original Walmer Court Horse (now in the Folkestone Museum) to join the Brown Horse, which was made by Barnett Field in 1953. East Kent Morris Men’s White Horse “Invicta” was made in 1960 because the Brown Horse was in Salzburg that year with the Handbell Hoodeners. Percy Maylam’s book ‘The Hooden Horse’ (1909) established that Hooden Horses were accompanied by handbell ringers, though never it seems by morris men.
To have an entry procession seemed natural and a Hop Queen, in a bower decorated with hops, became another important part of the event. This was adapted from a discontinued children’s May celebration which took place in Yalding.
For some years Hop Hoodening was primarily organised by Kent District EFDSS. Francis Hawkins, Jack Hamilton and Keith Uttley acted as M.C.s. The latter introduced his show team of folk dancers, the Kentish Travellers. East Kent Morris Men took over organisation in the mid-1960s until 1978. In 1979, the newly formed Thanet Morris Men took charge.
After Thanet Morris Men disbanded in the early-1980s, East Kent District EFDSS resumed responsibilities for the organisation of Hop Hoodening. In the late-1990s, members of Wantsum Morris Men joined this group. Then in 2003, Wantsum Morris took sole responsibility for the event. This continues today.
In 1980, David Stephens (then Squire of Thanet Morris Men and a founder member of Wantsum Morris Men), enhanced the event by working with clergy to initiate the hop blessing service in Canterbury Cathedral. During this joyful service, harvest hymns are sung and one or more participating groups perform.
The Blessing of the Hops given during the service was written by Rev. Peter Cotton of St. Laurence-in-Thanet Church, Ramsgate.
“Father of Christ and Our Father, Lord of all creation, by your blessing let these hops be a reminder that the seeds of your kingdom are sown in this world, in our labour and leisure; and grant that we may be active in your purposes and share in your joy. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.”
Since 1980, there have been two occasions when the service was held elsewhere. In 1997, arrangements were changed at very short notice following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Hop Hoodening was re-scheduled to take place a week later than originally planned so that it was not held on the same day as her funeral. The service was held in St. Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury. In 2004, the Cathedral was being used for another large event, so the participants processed from the Franciscan Gardens to St. Peter’s Anglican Church in St. Peter’s Street, Canterbury.
In 1992, EFDSS celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. A competition was held to create a pictorial wall hanging to represent all types of folk activities. A panel depicting Hop Hoodening was designed by Phil Edmonds (Wantsum Morris Men) and stitched by Marjorie Lang (East Kent Country Dancers). The wall hanging is displayed at the headquarters of the EFDSS, Cecil Sharp House, in London.
In 2007, there were extra celebrations as it was the 40th anniversary of the formation of Wantsum Morris Men and the 50th anniversary of Hop Hoodening. Many past members of the side attended the service and dancing in Canterbury, which was followed by more dancing and a feast in Chilham. Our guest of honour was John Pilfold, who founded Wantsum Morris Men in 1967. John was also involved with the organisation of Hop Hoodening in the early 1960s and he presented the side with a poster from that time for the archive.
The hops for the event are kindly donated by a local hop farm (in 2021, this will be Wye Hops Ltd., China Farm, Harbledown). As well as using hops to decorate the bower, the altar in the Cathedral is dressed with hop bines. After the service, hops are distributed to people watching the performances.
In 2019, our namesake Wantsum Brewery brewed a special Pale Ale to celebrate the festival.
In 2020, Hop Hoodening was unable to take its usual form due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, a small, private service was held on The Oaks in the Cathedral Precincts to celebrate the hops and to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first Hop Hoodening service in the Cathedral. Photographs can be found in our Gallery here.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The information included in this history of Hop Hoodening was provided by Barnett Field in 1979 for the Wantsum Morris Men’s archive, with additions by David Stephens (Archivist of Wantsum Morris Men).
If you have any information about Hop Hoodening that can be added to our archives, please email email@example.com