Coo-ee: Hop harvest strike

Grand: The old Panlook oast houses. Photo by Contributed

On July 4, 1857, Pan Look was one of more than 2000 Chinese miners driven out of the Buckland Valley near Porepunkah by European miners.

The Chinese were beaten and their houses burnt. Local newspapers reported that the riot was “led by Americans inflamed by liquor.'"

Pan Look and two others died in the riot or its aftermath. Thirteen miners were arrested in relation to the riot. All were acquitted to resounding cheers in the court.

The Chinese were later invited back to the Buckland Valley but, not surprisingly, only around 50 returned.

William Panlook was 11 when his father was killed.

Cash crop: A hop garden. Photo by Contributed

With the help of his mother and five siblings, Panlook began a hop garden beside the Ovens River. The garden, ‘Rostrevor’, flourished.

Hop plants or bines are trained to grow up strings held by a large trellis supported by large upright posts.

In late summer, when the flowers are ripe, the bines are pulled down from their strings.

The flowers or seed cones grow at the top of the bines. The flowers are picked and separated from each bine.

The flowers are then placed in an oast house to be raked and dried. These oast houses can still be seen around Myrtleford.

Pioneer: William Panlook. Photo by Contributed

Workers in the hop gardens were paid at piece rates to train the hop plants up strings and to harvest hop flowers.

Like fruit picking, training or harvesting hops requires mass labour for a short time. It is hard manual work.

In March 1924, hops in the gardens of the Panlook family and other farmers of the Buckland and Ovens valleys were ready to be picked.

That year, hop pickers in the Ovens and Buckland valleys went on strike for a higher piece rate.

A quick and experienced picker earned as much as $1.70 per day, much more than the average man’s wage at the time.

As a result, the striking pickers had to dissuade ‘scabs’ from harvesting the hop crop.

According to local newspapers, there were many eager to work. The newspapers suggested that the strikers dissuaded these workers by means of threats and intimidation.

As the urgency to harvest the hops grew, the hop farmers became desperate.

Talk began of strikers’ violence. As might be expected, police from Myrtleford and Bright were brought into the two valleys to ‘prevent’ the violence anticipated by the farmers.

Ready: Hop flowers prior to harvesting. Photo by Contributed

Pressure at harvest time paid dividends for the pickers. The Panlooks offered a two cent increase on their piece rate. The other hop farmers followed suit.

The hop harvest was then completed without incident.

Although farmers no longer grow tobacco, the other crop in the two valleys, ‘Rostrevor’, the Panlook family’s hop garden, is now the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

The family has owned the same land since 1857.

Today Australia produces around 1200 tonnes of hops each year.

Of course, this harvest is dwarfed by 40,000 tonnes harvested by both the United States and Germany each year.

The crop is harvested mechanically these days.

– John Barry