Lorraine Stoker: The Hop Exchange

Audio Version

Read by Celia Cockburn

Text Version

The Hop Exchange is one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the South Bank/ Southwark area. In fact, Southwark was for centuries associated with hops, breweries and coaching inns with the local area being the centre of London’s brewing industry. All road traffic from Kent, Surrey and Sussex came through Southwark with Borough High Street and Old London Bridge the only land route from the south into the city until as late as 1750. Eventually traffic began to by-pass the Borough as hops were transported by railway to London Bridge Station, or by boat up the River Thames.

A photograph of the Hop Exchange in Southwark. The photograph is a close up detail of the classical style pediment (triangular detail) above the front entrance. The pediment features carvings of hop harvesting figures and plants.

‘London, Hop Exchange’, detail of design by RH Moore. CON_B04088_F001_008. The Courtauld, CC-BY-NC.

The Conway library image CON_B04088_F001_008 draws your attention to the portico and the tympanum, with the hops and malt crop depicted either side of the ‘hop picking’ central scene, indicating the importance of this industry to London. This building was designed by R. H. Moore and built in 1866-67, and although it is neoclassical in design this was not just an idealised vision of ancient agriculture: in reality the same hop picking scene was visible in the fields of Kent until the late 1950s.

Traditionally, the impoverished local population and Londoners would descend on the Kent hop farms. This ritual saw mainly women and children (with male overseers) hop-picking for a few weeks every year to supplement their meagre income.

The tympanum (the decorated area) clearly shows the long hop bine hanging from above, being pulled or cut down for the women to pick the hop flowers. (Hops have ‘bines’ rather than ‘vines’, with ‘hairs’ rather than tendrils to help them climb).

This Pathé newsreel gives an excellent and accurate account of the process of hop-picking and an insight into the so-called ‘holiday spirit’ of the families who travelled to the hop fields to bring the harvest home.

Close up of CON_B04088_F001_008. The carvings show hop harvesting figures and plants.

The photograph in the Conway library of the Hop Exchange portico is not ‘picture perfect’ in many ways: it is oddly cropped and at something of an uncomfortable angle. However, I chose it as a starting point for this blog for several reasons. Born and bred in Kent, I have fond memories of hop-picking with my grand-mother, with the smell and the beauty of the hops and making mud pies with other children. Almost sadly, within a few years, mechanisation was to spell the end of this labour-intensive tradition. On reflection, it is also an indication of the vast improvement in the lives of ordinary people in Post-war Britain, with food rationing coming to an end, an increase in the social housing building programme and a society who wanted better for the next generation.

It is ironic that this beautiful grade 2 listed building actually had a very short life as a trading floor for the hops and the brewing industry. Some hop firms did rent the offices within the Hop Exchange but it was built too late to be effective or profitable and fell into disuse in the early 1900s. To understand why, we need to understand the industry. The building had eleven storage areas and was intended to be used as a single market centre for dealers (like the Stock Exchange) where trade was conducted on the trading floor. The dried and packed hops travelled to London and were originally intended to be viewed under the gallery roof which provided the natural light needed, even if the hop picking season started in September and inspections took place in February and March. Unfortunately, for the Hop Exchange, the buyers acting on behalf of the growers – called hop factors – now owned their own showrooms and acted very successfully as middlemen. Just a little further south from the Hop Exchange there is still the façade of an original hop factor showroom owned by W.H & H. LeMay (No. 67 Borough High Street). Its frieze also shows a scene of hop picking. Within such showrooms hop merchants would buy on behalf of the brewers.

A photograph showing WH and H le May Hop Factors Southwark by Lorraine Stoker. The building is a terracotta colour, and above the windows the name of the hop factors is displayed along with carvings of idealised hop picking scenes.

WH & H LeMay Hop Factors, 67 Borough High Street, Southwark, photograph by Lorraine Stoker.

Selecting CON_B04088_F001_008 was also an excuse to showcase the beauty of the interior of the Hop Exchange. Southwark’s hops came from Kent and the symbol of their origin can be seen in this beautiful interior of the Hop Exchange. The main hall is a vast open atrium with three levels of ornate balustrades with hop plant ironwork decoration. The green of the ironwork contrasts beautifully with the red of Kent’s county arms – Invicta – a white horse on a red background, and the muted cream tones of the paintwork. The interior draws us in, almost envelops us – not merely to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and long-lost memories of childhood, but also inviting us to stand in awe of the Victorian design.

A photograph showing the inside the Hop Exchange, by Lorraine Stoker. This is a view of the central hall, with three levels of balconies around the hall, all decorated with green ironwork with red details, and a huge skylight.

Inside the Hop Exchange, by Lorraine Stoker.

The Hop Exchange building exudes a confidence both with its name and design but what started as a ‘speculative building’ became too great a risk and the venture failed miserably. Originally the Exchange was two stories higher with a glass barrel-vaulted transept for natural light, but a fire in 1920 saw the removal of these damaged levels and the building was then used for offices. Acquired by a private company specialising in property investment, development and management in 1983, this company then restored and transformed the interior, changing the dirt and tarmac flooring (highly suitable for its previous trade) to a Victorian style replica. The building remains a general-purpose office and event venue, and successfully conveys a very functional, business-like environment.

There were many similar floor exchanges across London (originally eleven in total), including the Coal, Metal and Stock exchanges. However, wartime bombing, redevelopment and modernisation have left the Hop Exchange as the last remaining Exchange building in London. It remains a grand Victorian commercial building, gently following the curve of the then newly constructed Southwark Street, which had been laid out by Joseph Bazalgette in 1860 and opened in 1864. Although Grade 2 listed, its future can never be assured given the tide of demolition and facadism within the Borough of Southwark.

Layers Of London Highlights: Records By Emily Redfield

Introduction by Fran Allfrey, volunteer officer

You can now find over 100 photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. Layers of London is a fantastic resource and website run by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. In brief, Layers of London allows you to pin photographs into a digital map of London, and add a short description.

Since lockdown in March 2020, 28 Courtauld volunteers have been extremely busy sharing photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. In a series of blog posts, we’ll be sharing just a few of the records they have made to try and encourage our blog readers to go explore the map and photographs!

In this post, we have reproduced three of four records (and counting) made by our volunteer Emily Redfield. Thank you, Emily, for writing such evocative descriptions of these photographs of modernist and post-war gems in London, and bringing together photography, art history, and experience.

Emily says:

“Despite being locked down halfway around the world from London at the moment, writing and researching for Layers of London has virtually transported me to corners of the city I never would have otherwise discovered.

I’m far from an expert on London’s architecture—as an MA student at The Courtauld I took Dr. Jo Applin’s New York-centric course, ‘The Sixties’—so examining the Conway Library photographs has been a total learning experience. But it’s probably no surprise that among my favorite discoveries is St. Paul’s Bow Common, a post-war building that’s been completely shocking to parishioners since it opened in 1960.

Looking beyond these sometimes strange, sometimes nondescript building exteriors, I’m excited to feel like I’m beginning to better understand so much of the architectural thought and theory that created the London we see today.”

Records researched by Emily Redfield

Interior view, St. Paul's, Bow Common, Tower Hamlets, London E3 5AR. Designed by Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, 1958-60. CON_B04248_F001_030. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Interior view, St. Paul’s, Bow Common, Tower Hamlets, London E3 5AR. Designed by Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, 1958-60. CON_B04248_F001_030. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

St Paul’s, Bow Common

“Defined by expanses of brick and little decoration outside and in, architect Robert Maguire’s building has drawn mixed opinions since it was consecrated in 1960.

In this image, the church’s central altar emerges from the startlingly barren brick-and-concrete space of the building’s interior. Defying convention, the open floor plan shocked parishioners, but it created possibility as well—an opening, literal and symbolic, of the space the church would provide its East London community. Lighting and defining that space is the main identifying feature of St. Paul’s: the light-filled lantern above. Where stark walls and concrete floors stretch unbroken, its effect is sublime, casting a geometry of light in angular forms.

In another Conway photograph uploaded to Layers of London, part of artist Ralph Beyer’s inscription above the church’s exterior entrance can be read. The full quote from Genesis works in no small part to identify the otherwise ambiguous building to passersby: ‘Truly this is none other, But the House of God, This is the Gate of Heaven’. Not unlike the unyielding modernity of St. Paul’s, the lettering declares itself resolutely, less a whisper, more a shout.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.

Playground, Benthal Road Primary School, Hackney, London N16 7AU. Designed by Paul Maas (Greater London Council’s Architects’ Department), 1966-67. CON_B04266_F002_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Playground, Benthal Road Primary School, Hackney, London N16 7AU. Designed by Paul Maas (Greater London Council’s Architects’ Department), 1966-67. CON_B04266_F002_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Benthal Road Primary School

“Elements of play and whimsy are clear on the exterior of the buildings of Benthal Primary School, photographed here in 1998… The buildings shown here were designed by architect Paul Maas.

These black and white views of the building exteriors evoke a futuristic, space-age geometry of sinuous lines and questionable functionality. Each of the eight Maas buildings houses a single classroom, with the Moorish pavilion-inspired roofs providing light as well as a distinctive tent-like appearance…

‘Nobody seemed to be designing schools for small children’, Maas said, reflecting upon his design, ‘I wanted Benthal to feel like a children’s world in which adults were invited’.

Thus, taking his own children as inspiration, he lowered windows to children’s eye levels and transformed classrooms into doming, cave-like spaces. The curves and portals serve an essential purpose. They create an environment scaled and suited to a child, like a secret hideaway, designed to invite curiosity in.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council's Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council’s Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Alexandra Road Estate

“Commonly known as the Alexandra Road Estate, the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in the London Borough of Camden exemplifies 1960s brutalist architecture in concrete. 

In these photographs, the clean lines and stark monochrome of concrete may appear harsh and imposing. If so, they bely the true nature of the Alexandra Road Estate. Brown was one of a generation of architects committed to elevating London’s council housing beyond the generic tower block. Rejecting a cheap, one-size-fits-all solution, Brown designed Alexandra Road for the brief at hand. The result is humanistic high density housing centred around shared community spaces… Pictured here as largely empty, the balconies are now lush with verdant growth, carefully tended gardens indicative of the life overflowing from within.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.


See all the records created by Emily here https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/users/2626 

And all the Conway Library photographs on Layers of London can be seen here https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446