Historical onions

The stereotype of a Frenchman when I was young was a man wearing a black beret, hooped shirt and workman’s trousers, riding an old black bicycle, and carrying strings of onions around his neck.

It seemed a strange image, but was one reinforced by my paternal grandmother. Born in 1910 and from Chiswick in West London, she used to talk of French onion sellers travelling around London by bicycle and selling from door to door.  The story always sounded true, but seemed odd.

How could it possibly pay to travel from France with strings of onions and try to make a profit by going from door to door?  Being realistic, it could not have been a common activity, the cost of travel and accommodation would have made the enterprise hardly worth the effort.

My grandmother’s memories were ones that I had for years discounted as being her recall of an isolated incident, or my mistaken recall of what she had told me. Had the option of going online been available then, the story would have been immediately verified. My grandmother’s telling of the story was correct, right down to the striped shirts.

According to Wikipedia, the onion sellers were Breton and in 1929, the peak year of their activity, some 1,400 of them imported some 9,000 tonnes of onions into the United Kingdom.  The economics of their business seems even stranger than first imagined – the Onion Johnnies, as they were known, brought their onions to England in July and stored them in barns, waiting until the autumn and winter months brought higher prices before embarking upon their selling.

Presumably, they returned to Brittany in the interim; they could not have simply sat and waited, could they? In which case, why did they not make the business simpler by storing the onions in France and wait until the autumn before heading out on their English tours?

The Wikipedia article points out that the trade was hit badly by the devaluation of Sterling and by the trade restrictions after the Second World War, but gives no clue about how much it cost to produce and distribute the onions and how much the “Johnnies” might have earned for their efforts.

The whole thing is a matter of no more than esoteric interest, except that people doing odd things in unexpected ways might be a path to economic recovery after the present crisis. There was a Conservative government minister who forty years ago told people to “get on their bike.” Perhaps we shall have to do so,

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