Above: Looking west towards Borough High Street at the Hop and Malt Exchange building with its graceful curve.
The grading and selling of hops were until the middle of the 20th century one of Southwark’s major trades. A look at an Ordnance Survey large scale map will show the large number of huge warehouses in and around Borough High Street that were used to store hops in the 19th century – and well into the 20th century. Not only was Southwark associated with the hop trade, but it also had several breweries which were operational until the 1970s and 1980s.
Hops were brought by horse and cart from the many hop fields in Kent. The dried hops were packed into very large sacks, known to those in the trade as ‘pockets’ and conveyed to Southwark where they were stored in large warehouses. This took place in late autumn. The hops were handled by ‘hop factors’ – men who had showrooms where samples were inspected under natural light. Southwark was so involved with the hop trade that even the telephone exchange had the dialling code ‘HOP’ on the old dials showing letters. In fact, the original code for Southwark of 407 is still in use.
The Hop and Malt Exchange stands near the fork of Southwark Street with Borough High Street. While Borough High Street started as a Roman Road, Southwark Street was laid out in 1860 by Joseph Bazalgette and opened in 1864. The site is constrained between Southwark Street and the railway viaduct on the north side – which had only just been completed in the early 1860s. The Exchange was built in 1866-67 as a speculative development under the name of the Hop and Malt Exchange, designed by R H Moore. Inside was a large trading floor with surrounding offices. It was built immediately after Southwark Street had been completed and its gracious curve followed that of the new street. On the north side, the building is so close to the railway viaduct that it is possible to look into the offices as you pass by on a train travelling westwards on the southernmost track.
The hop exchange in Southwark Street is one of the great surviving local reminders of the trade. It is certainly the grandest Victorian commercial building in Southwark and without doubt a great asset, but ironically it had less to do with the hop trade than you might think.
Hop factors in Southwark had their own premises and did not need an exchange. To quote a few figures, in 1878, only two hop factors, twelve hop merchants and forty hop traders had moved their business to the exchange. That was the largest number ever to use the building but a small number when compared to the available space. By 1920, the figures had dropped to five. The hop merchants remained in their old premises and their customers we happy to come to them in the warehouses. The stalls that had been set up in the central hall for exhibiting their wares only lasted some 18 months. The exchange was just used by the merchants as an extension to their own warehouses. As a consequence, the building was divided up into general offices and for many years it was known as Central Buildings. Some hop firms and associated trade organisations did rent offices in the building, but most of the occupiers represented other types of business.
Above: Detail of the ironwork on the gates showing the hop design.
On 20th October 1920, the building suffered an extensive fire. Until that date, the building had been two storeys taller. The fire totally destroyed the two upper storeys which meant that it was then only about half its height. To the visitor, the building may look impressive but the original one was even grander. The ironwork of the gates and other railings incorporates the design of hops and their leaves as a reminder of its original purpose. Nearby, in Borough High Street are two yards called Maidstone Buildings and Kentish Buildings which both used to lead to hop warehouses.
Prices of hops in the mid-20th century were set largely by the Hops Marketing Board. From that time major changes gradually started to take place. Warehouses were being built at Paddock Wood, in Kent, rather than in Southwark – to replace those that had been bombed in the Second World War. Hop pellets and concentrates came into widespread use. In fact, the demand for hops declined by almost half between 1950 and 1980. There was a trend away from the aroma hops such as ‘Goldings’ and ‘Fuggles towards the new high-alpha varieties, which meant that brewers needed fewer hops and the trend for less bitter and more lager had the same effect. Finally, exports from England diminished as countries such as Australia and South Africa grew their own hops. There was a marked decline in hops being traded in Southwark by the mid-1970s. A few firms continued for another few years and the last firm closed about 1991.
The Hop and Malt Exchange also has an enormous cellar, with an area of about one acre. It was acknowledged as one of the finest and largest private cellars in the country. In 1903 a company called ‘Hop Cellars’ moved into the below-ground space and was responsible for buying and storing all of the wines and spirits for J Lyons. They did not own the Hop Exchange until 1944 when they bought the entire freehold of the building. Hop Cellars, which later changed its name to Lyons Wine Cellars, continued to use the basement until 1972 when they required more space and moved to Greenford.
Today, nobody using the Hop and Malt Exchange is connected with the hop trade. The building is used for general office space by various companies. Occasionally, the main hall is rented out for functions.