When I looked out of my bedroom window one morning I saw groups of men, women and children apparently picnicking in a field a little way off. They were standing in groups, or walking leisurely about, occasionally stooping to the ground.
For a moment I was puzzled, then suddenly I remembered the pea harvest. Only the other day I had heard it mentioned that the earliest peas were ready for pulling.
As soon as I could, I walked round to the field. A broad cart track ran down the side of it, and here under the shade of some tall trees was pitched a big wagon and a few men busy with their “thumb piece” and pipe. A motor van also stood by waiting for the bags of peas carried from the pickers on the heads of the men deputed to this task.
A man on horseback, presumably the employer, surveyed the scene, and exchanged remarks with the men sitting under the trees.
Perambulators were dotted all round the margin of the field, and a few resting comfortably in the midst of the workers. Some of these were eminently respectable in appearance. Others bespoke extreme poverty or shiftlessness, or both.
Babies of all ages and complexions were thoroughly enjoying the outing. I found one in its pram serenely sucking its dummy, a leafy pea stalk suspended from the hood over its head and another stalk or two bunched in front, if the infant should crave for a little change of occupation.
The toddlers were amusing themselves among the picked stalks and when they tired of the rough ground or were pricked by a thistle — for thistles grew abundantly among the crop —- they were bundled into a waiting pram, or nursed by a woman in the family group.
They appeared to work in parties or families and to me it seemed without any plan or order but this would be only superficial and certainly there would be an overseer, and each party would have its allotted strip of field.
In keeping with the perambulators, some of the groups were very respectably dressed and others looked vagrant, a few of the older women stamped with a life of hardship and unloveliness. A gipsy fire of sticks smoked near at hand, and here and there was to be seen one and another having a snack of bread and tea.
Some stood to pick, and others sat on the ground — hard, dry, and hot — laughing and gossiping together as they picked off the pods and threw them into a pail. The pea stalk is, of course, short. It is pulled right off the ground and then held in the left hand while the pods are quickly picked off with the right.
Some of the pickers are not too particular to clean the stalk as they say it pays them better to get over the ground quickly. In the earliest variety the pods are small containing an average perhaps of three peas. I heard much talk of prices but, as the size of the bag varies, I did not get any clear idea of the price to the grower.
The pea is a favourite crop in this wheat country as the nodules on its roots store nitrogen for the succeeding crop of grain. Then it is near the London market, and — a most important factor in the trade — there is a native race of casual workers in the adjoining town of Maldon who have been pea-pickers since the start of the industry.
A race apart these casual workers seem to be, and they inhabit a certain corner of the town which has almost a foreign appearance to a stranger passing up the steep, tortuous streets.
Many un-English types of countenance are to be seen there, and strangely apparelled men and women whom one turns to look at, but who are evidently quite familiar figures to each other. Whether there is really a foreign element in the town I do not know but on the marshes of East Anglia there are remnants of an earlier civilisation which somehow have escaped absorption with the very mixed race which we now call English.
That marshy coast must have harboured for centuries adventurers and refugees from the Dutch shores across the way, and its moated houses and inaccessible huts perpetuated a race of people half outside the influences of modern civilised life. Those who are familiar with the novels of Baring Gould will recall several strange, half-savage, characters, the originals of whom on this coast of Essex were well known to him.
To return to our own pea-pickers: Although a local body of workers is almost necessary to the success of pea production, travelling contingents also help. These, like the hop pickers, come from the East End of London and camp out. I heard that morning that they had been seen preparing their “camp” the previous evening. In dry weather, the preparations are slight. There chanced to be a little bit of common near these pea fields — a few clumps of gorse and thorns.
Nothing could be better, for these provide a warm shelter from the winds. A few rugs, tins, mugs, kettles, baskets, what once had been a waterproof sheet —- these are the necessaries for camping out. Milk, eggs, butter, they get from the neighbouring farms and a walk in the evening to the village for their bread and cheese, or whatever they require. As they are paid by the bag, they choose their own hours of working.
I was told that these had probably been at work since three in the morning, and I heard of one batch who last year started at 1am and cleared a field before 5 am., the peas going into Covent Garden by the early train. In the hot weather, which so often prevails down here, there is much to be said for early field work.
A pea harvest field has none of the picturesque beauty of hay or corn, whether in swathe, cock or stook. There is nothing to compare with the colour, the cleanliness, the symmetry, the fragrance of cut grass and grain. There is a rhythmic music in the sound of the mower. Since the days when grain was first garnered, the beauty of the loaded train moving slowly homewards has appealed to the imagination of the poet, the moralist, and artist, as the loveliest and homeliest symbol of human life.
But the pea field! The grey-green colour of it is unattractive. The refuse gives the field the appearance of a garden rubbish dump. Weeds — but this may be an effect of war conditions not yet overcome — appear to be little detrimental to the crop, and add to the impression of neglect and untidiness. (To be sure, another field of later peas just over the way appears to be tolerably clean).
To the artistic eye the sole interest lies in the human groups, the family parties, the infant side-shows, the by-play of lunchers, smokers, pickers, gossips and the string of tie-ers who stalk across the uneven ground, hands on hips with a tightly packed bag of peas poised on their heads.