Thomas Tanner (1830-1918), the owner of the extensive Riverslea Estate he had leased and then purchased from Māori since the 1860s, which now forms most of modern Hastings, attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) business ventures from the 1870s to try and stimulate economic growth in Hastings.
One of the ventures was hop growing that he began in 1883 (used in brewing beer) which would eventually cover an area of around 26 acres (10.5ha) along the north side of Havelock Rd, between what is now Windsor Ave (then Selwood Rd), and St George's Rd.
Thomas Tanner was advised in the venture by Mr Whibley, who had been a hop grower in Kent.
Alfred Masters and his family, also from Kent, arrived in Hastings in 1884, and he would be the garden supervisor of the Riverslea hop gardens. The family lived at the Riverslea hop garden block.
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The hop gardens were said to "form a beautiful feature of the Hastings to Havelock Rd" before they were picked in February.
A journalist wrote in 1886 that he dare not venture into the Riverslea Hop grounds as "the sight of the long vistas of bines overtopping their high poles and hanging down in luxuriant clusters, with the sunlight glancing and dancing through the gently rustling leaves, brings to mind the hop grounds of the Old Country, and gives me a fit of homesickness …".
In 1883/84 a Oast house (pictured around 1940s) was built to carry out the processes of pressing the hops and contained cooling and storage floors and two brick houses containing the kiln and drying floor where at both ends of the building (destroyed during the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake).
Its location was said to be on Selwood Rd (now Windsor Ave) "just off Havelock Rd".
Thomas Tanner acted as a patriotic figure in his business ventures towards his workers. Upon the completion of the Oast house in 1884 – reported to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere, to celebrate its opening he held a "Riverslea Harvest Home and Hop Ball" for 200 people in the building.
Thomas Tanner was innovative in using new technologies and was the first to bring into Hawke's Bay the steam traction engine in 1883 for his farms. In 1885 he purchased a hop press made in Nelson (a large hop growing area) for £25 (2019: $4,745) that could be operated by one man in the Oast house. The previous hop press took three men to operate.
Due to the extensive crop, the Riverslea hop gardens were a major employer of 250 men woman and children in 1886, and that year was producing a ton (907kg) of hops to the acre (0.4ha). One year school start was delayed so older children could help pick the crop.
Whole families camped in tents on the plantation, with the older children picking with their parents and getting paid on a bushel basis.
Initially, Thomas Tanner paid workers six pence a bushel, but the prices for hops didn't fetch what was expected, so this would drop to three pence per bushel – which a good worker could apparently still make a fair wage.
Women and children, it was reported, could undertake this work "with little or no disturbance of the domestic duties".
Some bales of hops were sent to the Indian and Colonial exhibition in 1887 and were said to be favourable with "our best Kents" (Kent in England was where hops were grown).
Prices were low for the hops during 1888, as economic conditions were not still favourable for selling due to an economic depression, but this would turn out to be the least of Thomas Tanner's financial worries.
A glimmer of hope for the export of hops occurred during 1888 when the Kent hop fields in England were infested with vermin (which ate the hops), but this did not eventuate to be the disaster predicted.
Thomas Tanner would be forced (unwillingly) to sell what was left of his once extensive Riverslea Estate in 1889, which he struggled to meet his interest payment on the 2389 acres (966ha) – including the hop gardens.
The new owners of Riverslea leased in 1889 the hop gardens to Alfred Masters, the hop garden manager.
In 1891 the hop gardens were broken up for sale into 13 allotments of three to five acres, of which Alfred managed to buy part of, including the Oast house.
Alfred Masters continued to grow hops on the land until around 1914, when the hops were replaced by fruit trees.
The 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake brought down the brick kilns on either side of the Oast house.
There was one another Hastings hop garden venture started in the 1880s by J D Ormond at the same time as Thomas Tanner, but that didn't last long.
The former Oast house was used as a school, church, Sunday school hall and as pictured ‒ by the Hastings Plunket as a rest station around the 1940s.
Fire destroyed the building in the 1950s.
Michael Fowler has two of his books for sale at the Christmas Bazaar at Arts Heretaunga in Heretaunga St – Historic Hawke's Bay ($65) and From Disaster to Recovery: The Hastings CBD 1931-53 ($15)
Michael Fowler (email@example.com) is contract history researcher and writer.