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Johnny Onions

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:58 UK time, Monday, 26 March 2012

The name Johnny Onions - Sioni Wynwns in Welsh - was a term of endearment, a nickname, given to any and all of the onion sellers from the Roscoff area of Brittany who came to Wales and most parts of Britain in great numbers during the 20th century.

In particular, Johnny Onions was a familiar sight in most Welsh towns during the 1920s and 30s, a small man in a dark blue beret, pushing along a bicycle heavily laden with strings of onions. The bicycle was rarely ridden, but acted simply as a carrier for the onions, the long strings being laid easily across the handlebars.

With Breton as his first language, the onion seller invariably managed to pick up at least a modicum of Welsh and this usually made his trip to Wales quite successful - particularly in the valleys and in north Wales.

Although the 1920s and 30s marked the high point of the Roscoff onion trade with Britain, some Johnny Onions do still make the trip across the channel each autumn. These days they no longer walk the streets and knock on people's doors; they tend to stand at one spot or pitch and allow the purchasers to come to them.

The first Johnny Onions arrived in Britain in the 1820s. He was Henri Olivier, a peasant farmer and sailor who had travelled the length and breadth of Brittany selling his vegetables. Always having an eye for adventure - and seeing the distinct possibility of a good business deal - in 1828 he and four friends hired a boat, loaded it with onions and set sail for Plymouth.

Within a week Olivier and his comrades were back in France, their ship empty and their pockets stuffed full with English gold! It was a new market, one that was a godsend for a region that had suffered more than its fair share of poverty and social distress over the years. Although Olivier did not return to Britain - he married a wealthy heiress and simply did not need to continue in business - hundreds of onion sellers were soon making the annual journey.

The procedure rarely altered. Investors would come together in a bar or tavern, pool their resources to buy the onions and put together companies of men, usually between 15 and 30 in number. Johnny Onions would be hired for the season, a wage being agreed and a place to sleep - even if it was only the warehouse or room where the onions were stored - decided upon. Food was to be included in the wage.

The onion sellers tended to leave Roscoff on the day after the Fete of Sainte Barbe, towards the end of July. They sailed in a variety of boats, travelling with their precious cargoes. In the days of sailing boats it sometimes took a week to journey from Roscoff to a place like Swansea.

Each company would be headed by a master - 'the boss' as he was usually known - and it was his duty to find a place to store the onions and for the sellers to sleep. Very often this was a rundown or derelict shop or warehouse that was considered unfit for normal use, the owners quickly deciding that Johnny Onions was a sure way of making a few extra pennies before their buildings were pulled down.

The boss was also responsible for ordering fresh supplies of onions to be sent from Brittany and for fixing the product price. The onions themselves were brought from France in sacks and were then strung at the base in whichever town the Johnny Onions men were using. Making the onions appear attractive was an essential part of the selling process.

In the early days onions were carried on sticks, deep notches being cut into the wood so that the strings would not slide off. The more familiar bicycle appeared after World War One. Occasionally a van was used to transport the Johnnies around but the actual selling was always done on foot, on a personal contact basis.

Being a Johnny Onions was never an easy life. The rewards were relatively small and it meant several months away from home and family each year. But it was work and, over the years, the onion sellers became an accepted part of the Welsh social scene.

The trade was not without its disasters, however. In 1905 the steam ship Hilda ploughed up onto the rocks outside St Malo on the French coast. There were only six survivors and five of these were Johnnies. Seventy-four onion sellers lost their lives in the shipwreck, and 125 people in all drowned.

The outbreak of World War Two put a stop to the onion trade, at least for a short while. But even when peace returned things remained difficult for Johnny Onions. The British government, in the post-war days of austerity, was keen to promote homegrown produce and to keep imports to a minimum. Legislation imposed higher prices on imported goods like onions from Brittany while British farmers were encouraged (and paid) to put all of their land under cultivation.

It meant, of course, a drastic reduction in the number of Johnny Onions operating in Britain. There were good years and there were bad years but by the end of the 1960s the writing was clearly on the wall.

"By 1970 their numbers had dwindled to 144 working out of 80 different centres... the work was hard and the hours were long. There was little comfort living in old condemned shops and crumbling warehouses in a climate that was colder and wetter than Roscoff."

The Last of the Onion Men by Gwyn Griffiths, 2002

British farmers increasingly grew their own onions. And with the greater availability of imported goods there was no longer the demand for Roscoff onions - despite the fact that they lasted far longer than most other varieties. The advent of the supermarkets effectively killed off the trade and the role of Johnny Onions.

It is not all gloom for the onion men, however. Johnny Onions does still exist, even if it is, in many cases, more as a novelty than as an essential provider of food. You can see him on street corners in places as diverse as Llantwit Major and Cardiff every autumn, a living reminder - even if a much reduced one - of a way of life and a culture that were once vibrant and alive in Wales.

People's Collection Wales has a great photograph by Geoff Charles of a Johnny Onions tying strings of onions at Porthmadog in 1958..

Phil Carradice will be joining Roy Noble after 2pm on Tuesday 27 March on BBC Radio Wales to chat about Johnny Onions.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Dylan Thomas's famous story 'The Outing', written in the post-war years but probably set around 1920, describes the young Dylan, on a charabanc trip and waiting for his uncle and others outside a pub called the Mountain Sheep. A Shoni-Onions man cycles up and the young Dylan says to him, "Quelle un grand matin, monsieur", getting the reply "There's French, boy bach!"

  • Comment number 2.

    It's a great story, shapeless and formless but fascinating. You do wonder about how many of the onion sellers were actually French - I suppose they've become a cliche for our perception of France and Frenchmen. I like the story (is it from Max Boyce?) where someone confronts a French rugby player who has just punched a Welsh forward - "You wait till you come to our valley next October. You won't sell a single onion!"

 

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