Gambling on the hops
This particular article, by Christopher Hussey, was written for Country Life magazine
and published on the 29th January 1943.
The Hen & Chickens
The Hen & Chickens around 1900
The Hen & Chicken is a neat red-brick Georgian Inn on the Farnham - Alton road, with one of the largest surviving hop grounds in the district almost beside it. On any evening when there is not a Home Guard parade one will find most of the worthies of Upper Froyle congregated for a glass of beer and a round of darts in the panelled bar. Indeed, although the quality of both is excellent, the nice old panelling and chimneypieces, a genteel staircase, and the beautifully built stables at the back tend, I must confess, to draw my mind away from the present company and set it wondering about the old days. The building is obviously a cut above a village pub, yet too small for a posting - house, and there is nowhere in particular to post to from Froyle anyway. So why these handsome little stables? Upper Froyle in the days when the Hen & Chicken was built by the Squire about 1760, was almost entirely a community of Yeomen, many of whom, prospering in the Farnham wheat and hop trade, rebuilt their own houses in the same solid red-brick style.
Three old manuscript ledgers have lately come to light which fill the old wainscoted parlour with its original patrons. They show that every year from 1798 (the year they begin) on about July 11th the farmers of the locality held a dinner there with the exclusive object, apparently, of wagering on the autumn crop of hops.

Several London clubs preserve betting books, and very entertaining they are. In contrast to their varied wagers, the Froyle yeomen had but a single interest. The books are filled, for sixty years, with lists of those present, the amounts of their stakes, and a wide range of side bets, but all bearing on hops. Some of the names are borne by men still, or within living memory, farming in the parish; visitors came from as far away as Farnham and Alton, or intermediate villages; but the gathering was evidently restricted to the yeomen. The squires, or those aspiring to squiredom, never once appear.

The ostensible business of the evening was “a sweepstakes for 5/- each for dinner, etc., etc.” on the amount of the Hop Duty for the current year, the gentleman making the closest approximation to be the winner. Apparently the result, and its proceeds, were not formally announced till the next year's meeting, when the winner was ex officio Chairman of the gathering. In Hubert Parker's The Hop Industry (P.S. King 1934) it is explained that the duty on hops, instituted in 1711 at 1d. a pound and gradually raised to 2½d. (the highest level) in 1802, yielded a large revenue to the Government. How variable the amount was is shown by the yield; one of the highest, of £203,724 in 1822 followed by one of the lowest, £26,058 in 1823. “The uncertainty of what it would yield gave rein to the gambling instincts of the eighteenth-century populace, and, for a great part of the century, gambling on Hop Duty was a well known and much practised form of speculation.”

So it would seem that these records of a single Hampshire village illustrate a widespread custom, though I have never heard of another instance of the full details being preserved.

The duty was a fruitful subject for speculation, with only one factor, the amount of the duty, certainly known. Since it was paid on the weight, and not the prices of the crop, one uncertain element was eliminated, but the rest gave plenty of scope for shrewd guesswork and lucky forecasts. The total acreage was not officially returned till 1807, and, in those days before control, was subject to fluctuations (though one argument in favour of the duty was that it acted as a check on speculative planting). And in July, when the wagers at Froyle had to be laid, much might happen before the crop was safely gathered in September. On the other hand, accidents of weather apart, a man with wide connections in the trade, a good eye for a hop, and weather wisdoms, would probably get nearer the mark than one less well equipped.

The estimates in 1798 ranged from £19,999.19s.11d. to £42,000 - this optimistic forecast being that of the winner, a gentleman from Farnham, and falling short of the actual amount of £56,032.1s.11d.

Many of the side bets are amusing reflections on the psychology of the company. A Mr. Andrews in particular (his descendants still farm in Froyle), appears to have been a spirited gambler, who laid numerous side bets, but melancholy in liquor. As the evening wore on his stakes rose (from 5 to 10 guineas) but his estimate of the season's yield in hops declined proportionately. In this year, a favourite wager was a pair of boots - ten or twelve pairs were pledged on various issues, and some £80 in the aggregate was laid in side bets - an indication of the prosperity of most of the yeomen. A frequent side bet was the weight of the squire's crop. Mr Lamport (who I think was mine host at the Hen & Chicken) laid Mr. Andrews a guinea that “Sir Thomas Miller's plantation gives 30 cwt. of hops.”

And so it went on for two more generations. Many of the names found in 1798 occur in 1858. The last meeting was soon followed by the withdrawal of the hop duty, in 1862. Whether Victorian sentiment disapproved of such goings on at the Hen & Chicken, or interest in this aspect of the hop business had declined, or whether the Hen & Chicken simply changed hands at that time, is not clear. The betting books kept by Mr. Lamport were carried on by his successor, Richard Bloomfield, and it is his daughter, Mrs. Walder of Alton, who has presented then to the delightful little Curtis Museum in that town, one of the most enterprising of local museums. To its secretary, Mr. W.H. Curtis, I am indebted for facilities for examining this curious and revealing document.