I was working on a local history project in Kent (where I live) when a friend gave me some old photos. They showed men in frock coats handling hops on long trestle tables. These are city workers handling an agricultural product. It took me some time to track down where the photos were taken. It turns out they were hop factors in the 1920s, working in 15 Southwark Street opposite the Hop Exchange in London.
The vanished hop trade
The hop trade was once a major industry in Southwark. Back when there was only one bridge over the Thames (London Bridge) everyone passed through Southwark . Its coaching inns and breweries have been famous since Chaucer’s time; this is where the pilgrims gathered before setting off for Canterbury. There was plenty of traffic up the other way too. Kentish hops, grown in the Garden of England, came up the A2 and the Old Kent Road to the market traders in Southwark Street, around the corner from Borough Market.
The hops were dried in oast houses and then tightly compressed into 6 foot sacks called ‘pockets’ and sent up to the middlemen, known as hop factors, in Southwark Street. Each load was sampled by cutting a foot square brick of pressed hops out of one of the pockets. This cube was wrapped in brown paper and secured with brass chair nails. Samples from a particular grower were all strung together with waxed hemp.
Another set of middlemen, the hop merchants who acted for the brewers, came to inspect the samples. These photos show the merchants (e.g. man in top hat on left) examining the hop samples displayed by the hop factors. The room is starkly functional. A big glazed roof lets in plenty of natural light to help the inspection and a big clock to measure opening and closing times. Nothing else. No decorations at all. After all, this is a serious place of business.
Three factors kill the trade
Hop production peaked in Kent in 1878 and has been declining ever since. Kentish hop varieties, such as Fuggles and Goldings, add bitterness to beer and ales, whereas German hops have low bitterness and strong aroma and are used for lager. So a number of trends conspired in the decline of the Kentish Hop industry. First was the trend towards lager over bitter. Second was the decline in exports as Australia and South Africa began growing their own hops. The third blow came in 1973 when Britain joined the Common Market and cheaper continental hops wiped out most of the growers in Kent.
Bomb damage in WW2 meant that many warehouses were rebuilt in Paddock Wood in Kent and the hop merchants moved what was left of the industry down there in the 1970s.The last hop merchant, Wolton Biddell in Borough High Street, closed its doors in 1991. All the buildings have been redeveloped. The area around London Bridge and Borough has become one of the hottest development areas in London as evidenced by the Shard, Europe’s tallest building. The old Hop Exchange has become a general purpose office building.
A magnificent open outcry design
But what a beautiful building. Opened in 1867 and designed by R.H.Moore it is now Grade II listed. When you step inside you can see the vast open atrium and the three tiers of balconies overlooking it. It is designed to allow ‘open outcry’ ; traders on the floor, merchants on the balconies shouting their orders back and forth to each other. Its just like the old stock exchange before it became computerised, or the Royal Exchange where futures were once traded but which is now an upmarket shopping mall. The Lloyds Insurance building has the same “atrium and balcony” design, letting all the brokers hear the stroke of the Lutine bell to inform them of bad news. In the hop exchange, all the balconies bear the crest of Kent – a white horse on a red shield – to remind occupants that this is the trading place for Kentish hops.
I live opposite a oast house and travel to London Bridge every day. The oast house across the road from me has been converted to a spectacular county home. My daily journey encompasses the agricultural history of Kent both at the beginning and end; from an oast with no hops to a hop exchange with no brokers. A palace for a product that no longer exists. There are plenty of brokers getting off the train at London Bridge these days, but they are not broking hops any more but financial products instead.
If you build it, they won’t come
You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in all of this. This tale is not just a personal trip of nostalgia, because there is one more twist to the story: the hop exchange was never full of brokers. The Victorian developers built it in a burst of progressive optimism hoping to capture and consolidate the hop trade inside its walls. But the hop factors and merchants already had their own various premises and saw no reason why they should move. So the hop exchange has only ever been a general office building and not a commodity exchange at all.
The Victorians were keen on making the abstract concrete. Think of the statues of “Trade” or “Progress” that adorn Victorian metropolitan buildings. These are industrial versions of the ancient Greek muses; abstract concepts in female form. The Hop Exchange was an attempt to cast economic activity in architectural form. Sadly, it did not work. This building designed to house speculators was itself a speculative failure. This was a catataxic blunder. Just because a building exists at level 1 does not mean that the trade at level 2 will be captured by it. In this case, the motto is: if you build it, they will not come.
Markets are a bottom up phenomenon; a spontaneous eruption of emergent behaviours. They can not be created top down. Building a building to try capture that magic is a s fruitless as running around trying to capture lightning in a bottle. That does not stop people from trying. The latest disaster in the making of this type is the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Some $10bn has been spent building 59 skyscrapers in an attempt too lure international banks into the desert. These hopes are built on sand.