Let’s start with a startling fact. What’s the world’s most global food crop? Is it Wheat? Rice? Potatoes? or even the tomato that I wrote about recently? It’s nothing so obvious, rather it is the humble brown, red or yellowish bulb that you’ve probably got piled up in your kitchen right now: the onion. According to the UN onions are grown in virtually every country on earth. They tolerate almost every climatic zone, and are widely used in all major cuisines, making them arguably the only truly global ingredient.
You might also think that an onion is an onion is an onion, although you’d probably recognise there are ones with brown papery skins, others with red and some with yellow or white. And when you start to start to think about you’ll probably recall that the insides also vary in colour, and shape and that maybe the taste and strength can vary too.
But have you heard of Birmingham’s Onion Fair ? Do you know where the phrase in the title comes from? Who or what is an Onion Johnny? Do you know your Ailsa Craig from your James Keeping or Bedfordshire Champion? Like most of us I’d guess probably not, So read on to find out more about them and their history…
Onions are in the allium genus along with between 500 and 700 other species of plant, though only a few – including garlic, leeks, shallots and spring onions – are important as foods worldwide. The domesticated food onion, allium cepa was first officially described by Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 work Species Plantarum. Formerly considered by botanists to be in the wider lily family, alliums were moved to the amaryllis family in 1975.
It’s easy to trace the wild ancestors of most domesticated plants but that’s not the case with onions. Several wild species, with small bulbs, hollow stems and that unforgettable smell still grow in central Asia, but onions and most other edible alliums have been domesticated for so long that its impossible to know which, if any of these wild sorts they derive from, if indeed those species have even survived. It isn’t hard to see why they’ve been domesticated. Alliums are very easy to grow, propagating reliably and quickly and troubled by with few pests or diseases. Those that keep over winter were highly valued because vegetables that can be stored through the fallow months were rare. And most importantly, they taste good.
Traces of alliums have been found in Bronze Age settlements and they appear in the world’s oldest cookbook: a set of clay tablets from Babylon now some 4000 years old. Known as the Yale Tablets these record about 40 recipes most of which include some form of onion, garlic or leeks. There are also lists of plants found in royal gardens which again include the same 3 forms. “We think that, based on genetic analysis, onions came from central Asia, so they are already far afield by the time the Mesopotamians are using them. There’s also very early evidence of their use in Europe back to the Bronze Age,” says food historian Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet. They also went east and are recorded very early on Korea as well as China some 7000 yrs ago.
Onions were also known to the ancient Egyptians, and can be seen depicted on tomb walls, and placed on and around and even occasionally in mummies. For example Pharaoh Rameses IV had onions placed in his eye sockets and ears, while pieces of onion skin covered with resin were found in his nostrils. This may because its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolise eternity. One place they are surprisingly virtually missing is the Bible, where they get just one mention. This is in connection with the exodus as one of the foods that the Israelites missed, along with fish, melons, cucumbers, leeks and garlic.
Obviously they were known to the western classical world too with Hippocrates mentioning red yellow and white, mild or bitter, round or flat onions while later Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (77-79AD), provided an exhaustive list of the varieties known to the Romans, and it may well have been the Romans who bought onions to Britain where they clearly caught on and entered the diet. So much so that they are the subject of a rude riddle in the 10thc Exeter Book which I won’t include because I don’t want to shock the more sensitive amongst you but check it out here. By the Middle Ages they were one of the 3 staple food crops for peasants, along with beans and wild cabbage and are mentioned in the late 14thc by both Chaucer in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales – Wel loued he garlek, oynons and eek lekes, and the author of Piers Plowman among the meagre foods with which “the poor people” attempted to “please Hunger”. while that same century they also appeared on page after page of the royal cookery book the Forme of Cury:
Onions were also thought to have medical uses with John Gerard, the 16th century herbalist claiming they were “good for such as are replete with rawe and flegmatike humours”. On the other hand they “causeth headach; hurteth the eies, and maketh a man dim sighted, dulleth the sences, engendreth windines, and provoketh overmuch sleepe”, but equally its “vertues” were considerable bring “good against the biting of a mad dogge” and even perhaps as a cure for baldness withe the juice “annointed upon a … balde head in the sunne, bringeth againe the haire very speedily”. Luckily I haven’t yet had to test whether that works!
By the 17thc several kinds of onions were known and their seeds traded all over Europe. There were two simple but distinct categories – those which keep well and those that don’t. This wasn’t an issue in souther Europe because fresh onions could be available all year round but in northern Europe storage quality was increasingly important.
While we all know that plant hybridising began in earnest around the turn of the 18th and 19thc we normally think of it applying to flowering plants and shrubs but it was happening with vegetables too including the simple onion.
In 1843 Carters were selling 15 sorts of onion seeds, but by 1850 they had 20 in their catalogue and by 1907 as many as 42. Meanwhile over in France by the 1880s Vilmorin’s Les Plantes Potageres listed 60 varieties of onion in seven distinct shapes – flat, flattened, disk-form, spherical, spherical flatted, pear-shaped and long. These days they have been replaced by “globe, flattened globe, high globe, spindle, Spanish, flat, thick-flat, granex and top-shaped.” Even today Thompson and Morgan list 14 sorts, mostly new introductions but amazingly also still including late 19thc varieties Bedfordshire Champion and Ailsa Craig.
Onions were Such an important part of the diet of ordinary people that the late 18th and early 19th centuries also saw the development of Onion Fairs. The earliest I can see took place annually at Michaelmas in Birmingham and was reported in the local paper to have started up again in 1806. It generally lasted 3 days and was held in the city’s famous Bull Ring. Quite why it was named that is hard to know since early reports suggest it It seems to have been a general agricultural show like Nottingham’s goose fair and Leicester’s cheese fair but by 1849 its clear that the Birmingham version was largely about onions, although there was also a huge fairground attached. You might also wonder why in Birmingham of all places? That was the question asked by James Greenwood’s In Strange Company of 1883 about it. Greenwood tried to work out why the city “exhibits such affection for the onion as to find it necessary to hold an annual sale of the coveted vegetable ? What is there peculiar in the nature of the inhabitants of the town of locks and guns, that the pungent esculent should be so highly prized by them ? Is it eaten raw, or is it cooked ? Are steaks and onions a favourite dish in Birmingham ?”
He went on to describe the scene: “You may smell them long before you reach the Bull Ring …..Onions in enormous crates, such as crockery arrives in from the Potteries, onions in hogsheads, onions in sacks, in bags like hop-pockets, in ropes or ” reeves,” loose in waggons that three horses draw ; onions of all sizes and all qualities—” brown shells,” ” crimsons,” ” whites,” ” big ‘uns,” and ” picklers.” Onions block the roadway and brim over the pavement.”
“It is not, however, to onions alone that the fair … owes its high popularity. It is not altogether the craving to secure the pungent vegetable in ropes and bushels that tempts people” Instead its “a real old fashioned pleasure fair.” which included Daniel in the lions den with real lions with “a merry crowd elbowing its way through long avenues of gingerbread booths, or responding loyally to the bewildering invitation to “Walk up, walk up,” accompanied by the clash of cymbals and the bang of gongs.” Special “cheap and gigantic excursion trains” were laid on to bring visitors from London and other major cities, with in 1865 an estimated 40,000 people arriving on the opening day.
There are regular reports of the scale of the event which seems to have varied considerably from year to year, together with prices and innovations. In October 1844 for example the local paper, the Birmingham Journal “ observed a very superior quality, called White Port, brought from Bedfordshire, Mr. Cocking, seedsman, and to which was awarded the credit of being the best exhibited at the fair. The growth of onions we understand has been very good in. Bedfordshire this year” In 1856 however the fair was ‘exceedingly small” with “little business transacted but Mr Cocking stills has “some fine samples” and “maintains his celebrity as an onion grower on a. large scale.” The fair for 1858 the same paper said was a failure., while that for 1860 was “thronged to excess”.
I have not been able to ascertain when the fair stopped so if anyone knows please let me know.
Birmingham was far from unique and by the 1820s and 1830s there were other onion fairs in a whole range of market towns from Kendal to Cheltenham , Horncastle to Hertford and Windsor to Walsall .
But from these early days although everyone who had a veg patch grew onions, the centre of more commercial production, especially to serve the growing urban market, was, from the mid-17thc onwards, the area around Sandy and Biggleswade in Bedfordshire where the soil is light but fertile. George Cooke in his Topographical and Statistical Description of the County of Bedford published in 1810 described the vast quantities of onions grown there on many smallholdings which “yielded an average crop of about 200 bushels…”.
When the railways were built through the county in mid-century they passed through the onion growing areas which enable the market gardeners to get their produce to London and the cities of the midlands and north more easily..
While you might think growing onions is a simple affair it was ,in the past, labour and resource intensive. Mostly grown from seed – sets are a comparatively recent invention – it needed carefully prepared and heavily manured seed-beds, which had to be planted, hoed and later harvested by hand.
If you’ve ever grown onions yourself you’ll know that after harvest they need to be “cured” by drying them so they keep longer. Although this can be done by leaving them on the surface, from the 1870s onwards, specially built onion barns were used. These were usually timber buildings with storage for carts downstairs and the drying space reached by a ladder on the upper level.
Despite their apparently basic construction they had quite complex ways of controlling ventilation – often with rows of hinged flaps that could be opened up. There are still some 50 or so extant today although these days most are in poor repair. These have now attracted the attention of local historians and archaeologists.
Later on after horses had given way to petrol-driven vehicles and there was no need for cart storage the style changed to even simpler constructions more like garden sheds.
For more on this see F. Beavington’s article “The Development of Market Gardening in Bedfordshire 1799-1939.”
Onions were a profitable crop, and allowing for the costs of labour, rent, transport and fertiliser left a net return of about £100 an acre in the late 19thc As a result business boomed and Britain became virtually self-sufficient in onions. It’s also encouraged careful selection of new onion strains of all kinds both – for eating and for exhibition. Every seed catalogues was full of them.
Our oldest surviving named variety is, I think , [sometimes James’ Longkeeping – which originates from a selection made by a Mr James, a market gardener of Lambeth Marsh, just south of the Thames in the 1790s. Sadly its no longer commercially grown and since 1993 has only been obtainable from heritage seed banks.
But then almost as quickly as the trade grew so it went into decline. The improvements in International shipping meant that imports from Europe and Egypt became cheaper and cheaper. Imports rose from around 300,000 tons in the late 1880s to 7 million tons by 1900. Even so Bedfordshire still provided around 30% of Britain’s needs in 1914. But the continuing price differential meant that decline in home production continued and by 1939 virtually every onion consumed in the UK was being shipped in from abroad and British farmers had turned instead to more perishable, higher margin vegetables.
Onions were imported cheaply from from the Channel Islands, the Netherlands and even as far away as Bermuda and most famously from Brittany with the famous French onion johnnies with their bicycles and strings of onions. In 1929 nearly 1,400 Johnnies imported over 9,000 tonnes of onions to the UK. So important was the trade to Britain locally that The Onion Johnny museum opened in Roscoff in 2004. For more on Onion Johnnies see The Last of the Onion Men by Gwyn Griffiths, 2002 and Onion Johnnies: Personal Recollections by Nine French Onion Johnnies of their Working Lives in Scotland by the Scottish Working People’s History Trust
The consequence of this was that when war broke out in 1939 onions disappeared from the shelves of greengrocers . They became so rare that they were offered as prizes in raffles In February 1941, the staff at The Times held a raffle for a 1.5 pound onion, which raised £4 3s 4d which was more than the average weekly wage—and in 1943, an American visitor described this unlikely scene: “Served as a side dish at our luncheon of the regular three-course meal, which Englishmen religiously impose upon themselves in conformity with ration regulations, was a medium-size boiled Spanish onion. ‘You’ve been robbing a bank or playing with the black market,’ exclaimed the astonished husband.”
Today onions are, after tomatoes, the world’s most important horticultural crop but we in Britain still import most of our onions. So check the origins of your next purchase : Egypt? New Zealand? India? or even China which now produces about c 30% world crop,. Its about time we did something about it! So start planting sets and seeds now.
Beautiful post, both the written content, and the illustrations. Thank you!