An ‘Onion Johnny’ wheeling his bicycle through crowded city streets.
By Lost Glasgow
Prompted by a question in the Lost Glasgow Group, I went off in search of this classic pic – of an old ‘Onion Johnny’, pushing his bike, and his wares, through a very crowded Townhead, in 1970. I love his wibbly-wobbly reflection in that well-polished bus!
The French farmers, nearly all drawn from Brittany, were at one time a familiar sight about the city, wobbling about on their overloaded bikes. For many Scots, they were the first and only ‘Frenchies’ we’d ever met, and they are the reason why we always think of a typical Frenchman as wearing a beret and a stripey Breton jersey, with an exotic smelling Gauloises Jaune or Gitannes cigarette stuck to their lower lip (a bit like some foreigners assuming that all Scotsman have red hair and wear the kilt).
The sandy soil and mild climate of Brittany was ideal for growing onions, garlic, cauliflowers and artichokes.I know of at least two French ‘inging’ teams in Glasgow. One used to rent a shopspace near the Socosy Pub, in Ferguson Street, Cowcaddens, while another team operated out of shop units in Kingston Street, and Centre Street, on the Southside.
As well as living and sleeping in the buildings, they would also use them to store their onions, and spend the evenings together stringing the onions together, to take out to sell.
Claude Quimerch, who first came to Glasgow in the early 1950s, remembered being in awe of the big city (he was a farm ‘garcon’ from Santec, near Roscoff). On his first day in the job, he had to knock on 74 doors before he sold his first string of onions – to a lady in Fotheringay Road, in Pollokshields.
He also remembered than many of the housewives, even if they didn’t want his onions, would offer him a cup of tea (which he usually had to refuse, or he would have been running to the toilet all day!).
Some days, they would load up their van, with the onions and their bikes, before heading as far afield as Ayrshire, the Clyde Coast, and even down to Campbeltown to knock on doors.
Claude also remembered doing good business with Glasgow’s many big hotels, where the French chefs would welcome him into the kitchens, and crack open a bottle of wine, for a blether in their native tongue.
You can read more about Claude’s Scottish adventures in a wonderful book; Onion Johnnies, by Ian MacDougall (Tuckwell Press, 2002)
And these guys really knew their onions. The Breton farmers, who can been coming to the UK to sell their produce since the late 1800s, were so successful in their enterprise that, over the years, they had to charter bigger and bigger ships to bring over their onions.
With the ships often sailing back empty, in the late 1960s they decided to start selling tickets to adventurous British holidaymakers, with the company eventually mutating into Britanny Ferries.
With the advent of air-freight, and the march of the big supermarkets, the Onion Johnnys cycled into the pages of history, with the last of them vanishing from our city in the early 1970s.
Today, if you visit Roscoff, you can pop into the Onion Johnny Museum.
Au revoir mes amis…
Picture: Newsquest Herald and Times. Story courtesy Lost Glasgow
Find out more on our site: https://www.lostglasgow.scot/posts/read-it-and-weep-409/