My parents moved over from Southern Ireland in the early 1960s. Like many migrants before them, and after, they were in search of work and a decent living. My dad went onto become a butcher. The job came with a house and mum went onto to have nine children in quick succession. Her greatest pride was that we were all well turned out, had good manners, and none of her six daughters became pregnant in their teens! In between having children, she was out early in the morning, or arriving home late, having cleaned a shop, house or pub. Her work ethic was second to none. But she really had little choice with such a huge brood to look after.
At the end of her life she would often say, in her still strong Irish brogue, ‘this country has been good to me’. And it was. It was a very different place from when she first stepped off the boat. She often talked about arriving in Britain in the early 60s, just fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, and pubs still had signs saying, ‘no blacks, no Irish and no dogs!’ Things have changed, thank goodness for that, and it’s useful to remind ourselves how much.
A hop picker from Ross-on-Wye, now 83, recalls the annual hop pilgrimage with a smile and a far-away look behind his eyes. ‘The best days’, he announces. With his mother and granny, they would join dozens of other local pickers to Deans Place in Yatton, Cottons in Upton Bishop, or further afield, as far as Ledbury!
The most striking image for this elderly gentleman was the arrival through the town of the streams of gypsy wagons and caravans: it was a spectacle he will never forget. ‘We didn’t have a dual carriageway then, so all traffic had to come through the town, people forget about that now. But it was wonderful to see these caravans every year. I remember the men were riding up on the wagon and the women were following behind. The women would shop and get their provisions, and the men would drink at the Railway Hotel that used to be at Fiveways, and there was always a bit of horse dealing down there. I’ve never forgotten that.’
There was a dark side too, with pubs displaying ‘no gypsy’ signs. But these were the early 1960s, the social revolution was a few years ahead and with it the promise of change. The signs are no longer up of course, but barriers do persist. Perhaps a film like ‘Stories from the Hop Yard’, can help dispel a few myths. On the whole, we are a good and tolerant people. Let’s hold onto that.
By Marsha O’Mahony