Striped Shirts, Berets and Bicycles Strung with Onions
Onion Johnny is the nickname given to the French farmers and agricultural labourers that sell distinctive pink onions door-to-door in England, Wales and Scotland.
Although having declined in number since the 1950s to the point where only a few remained, the Onion Johnny was once very common, and with the renewed interest since the late 1990s by the farmers and the public in small-scale agriculture, numbers have recently made a small recovery. Dressed in striped shirt and beret, riding a bicycle hung with onions, the Onion Johnny became the stereotypical image of the Frenchman, who was in the past probably the only contact that the British had with France.
Originating from the area around the town of Roscoff in Brittany, Onion Johnnies are farmers who found a more profitable market in England than at home, and typically bring their harvest across the English Channel in July to store in rented barns, returning home in December or January. The trade apparently began in 1828 when the first successful trip was made by one Henri Ollivier. Although journeys are now made by ferry, small sail ships and steamers were previously used, and the crossing could be hazardous. Seventy Johnnies died when the steamer Hilda sank in 1905.
The golden age was during the 1920s; in 1929 nearly 1,400 Johnnies imported over 9,000 tonnes of onions to the UK. The Great Depression, followed by the devaluation of the Pound in the early 1930s, ended the era as trade suddenly fell, reaching a low in 1934, when fewer than 400 people imported under 3,000 tonnes.
In the aftermath of World War II, onions, in common with other goods, were subject to import restrictions, and were obliged to trade through a single company. By 1973 the number of Johnnies had dropped to 160 people and 1,100 tonnes, and had fallen again to around 20 Johnnies by the end of the 20th century.
An Onion Johnny museum opened in the town of Roscoff in 2004. An application has recently been made to give the Roscoff onion protection under the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation.