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The Furiners: A Forgotten Story
The first documented use of hops for beer brewing dates back to the 9th century in Europe. Monks of the Corvey Monastery, located in the Principality of Fürststift Corvey, Germany, had already begun to use the flower to brew their favourite drink. However, there was no systematic cultivation at that time. Hops were collected directly from nature as they grew abundantly on the banks of the Weser River.
It was only around 1524, in the small town of Little Chart, in Kent County, England, that the first records of commercial hop-growing appeared.
Hop-growing became so important to Kent's economy that as early as 1870, about 46,600 acres were dedicated to the activity.
The reason of such a success is due to two main factors. First, hop-growing was extremely labor-intensive resulting in a high demand for workers (more than the Kent region could offer at that time). This ended up in attracting whole families from all over England to work as seasonal collectors. In addition, hop-growing became an extremely lucrative business. Demand for the product had never been higher and cheap workforce further increased producer's profits.
An English family collecting hops in Kent, UK
The workers, or "furiners", as they were called at the time, arrived daily in the farms by trains specially chartered to meet Kent’s demand.
Furiners accustomed to living in a dirty and polluted environment of the big cities were seduced by the promise of "a holiday with pay". The offer was seen as an opportunity to leave the city behind and spend family holidays in the countryside while making some money at the same time.
Whole families of furiners were sheltered in the so-called "Hopper Huts", small huts that were initially made of corrugated metal around a basic wooden structure that later evolved into small brick houses, some even having a small fireplace and a chimney.
Hygiene conditions were not the most adequate in the hop farms. The lack of basic sanitation, running water and the presence of insects were the main factors that led to the outbreak and spreading of many diseases. In 1849, 43 workers lost their lives to cholera on a single farm in East Farleigh.
The following excerpt from the book "The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell" gives an idea of the sanitary conditions at the time:
“One soon gets the knack of the work, and the only hardships are the standing (we were generally on our feet ten hours a day), the plagues of plant lice, and the damage to one’s hands. One's hands get stained black with the hop juice, which only mud will remove, and after a day or two they crack and are cut to bits by the stems of the vines, which are spiny. In the mornings, before the cuts had reopened, my hands used to give me perfect agony, and even at the time of typing this, they show the marks.
The water tap was 200 yards (180 meters) away, and the latrine (toilet) the same distance, but it was so filthy that one would have walked a mile sooner than use it. There was a stream where one could do some laundering, but getting a bath in the village would have been as easy as buying a tame whale.”
The situation was so chaotic that
Another important element in hop farms was the so-called "Tally man". He was responsible for measuring the amount of hops harvested by each worker. His nickname was due to the instrument used at the time to perform the count, the “tally-stick”.
The tally-stick was a piece of wood measuring approximately 16 inches long by 2 inch wide, cut in half and of different sizes. It usually had one end wider than the other with a hole in the middle, allowing the tally-man to carry it by using a rope hanging over his shoulder.
The tally-stick was made of two parts, one big piece known as “stock” and a smaller one called “foil”. The tally-man retained the larger piece and the worker the smaller one. Both pieces were identified by a number stamped with ink.
E. J. Lance, in his book "The Hop Farmer", released in 1838, describes the tally-sticks as:
“[The tally-sticks] are about 16” long, 2” wide, ¼” thick but one half thick at the end where it is fitted by various bevelled cuttings to the piece kept by the pickers. These two pieces numbered and fitted in such a way that no other one will correspond; being put together a notch is filed across the edge of both for every bushel and when twenty is counted on one edge it is cut off and a single notch is cut on the other edge.”
Hop counting occurred as follows: the harvested hops were stored in baskets. Each basket carried up to five bushels. For each basket, the tally-man would make a notch on both sides of the tally-stick. At the end of the day, the two parts were placed side by side so the notches were counted and compared. Thus, both parties could have a better control of the amount harvested and the amount to be paid to the worker.
Another interesting fact about tally-sticks is that they have been used for many centuries by the British government as a tax payment control tool. Even after falling into disuse in 1826, thousands of tally-sticks were still kept in the archives of Westminster Palace (the original British Parliament building). Eventually in 1834 it was decided that all remaining tally-sticks should be discarded and incinerated. During the burning of the objects, the flames came out of control, causing a huge fire that almost destroyed the building.
The "Hop Money"
Initially, pickers were paid in the official currency of the UK, the Pound Sterling. Over the years however, payment was made through an unofficial currency created by farm owners themselves, which was exchanged at each end of the harvest season for its cash equivalent. This currency was known as Hop-Tokens.
The Hop-Tokens were created with the initial purpose of facilitating the farmer's cash flow, as well as preventing the pickers from migrating from their property to another, as a Hop-Token issued by a farmer could only be exchanged on his own property.
Hop-Tokens were so popular that they were even accepted in local pubs and shops, and were often used as currency among the workers themselves.
The first tokens had a monetary value, representing "pennies, sixpences, shillings, half-crowns and crowns". From 1820 on, they started to represent bushel values. On one side there was a number representing the amount of bushels harvested, while on the other side were the initials of the farmer’s name.
Some tokens were extremely simple and rudimentary, while others featured images of hop branches or other figures.
Image property of The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK
The oldest known Hop-Token is the Godinton Hop-Token, made of brass and issued in 1767.
The Godinton Hop Token, 1767
The first tokens were basically made of lead. Later, zinc, copper, iron and even paper were also used.Most Hop-Tokens adorned with drawings were from Sussex, where there was even a competition among farmers to decide who had the most beautiful piece.
In some cases, tokens with a value of six bushels were produced in different formats, either triangular or octagonal, so that there was no confusion with those with a value of nine bushels.
In addition to the initials of the farmer's name, the letters could also indicate the location of the farm as well as the measure used. For example, if the letter "B" (figure B) was engraved along with the value, this would indicate that the value was in "bushels". If there were the letter "D", the value would be in "dozens of bushels" (figure D). If a smaller letter was found below the initials of the farmer's name, it could indicate the location of the property.
Values ranged from 1 to 200. Tokens with a value of 1 were the most common, and easily found even today on online auction sites. Those over 100 are the rarest and therefore the most valuable.
Hop-Tokens were widely used between 1767 and 1940. With the evolution of the agricultural technology and the disappearing of hop pickers, the emblematic medals stopped being produced and lost their value, being commonly melted and sold as raw metal.Today, Hop-Tokens are highly collectible items and are part of an important British historical period.