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The Adventure of the Onion Men in Plymouth

30th September 2016

Hidden in the archives of the Plymouth City Library are collections of stories gathered from the newspapers of the city. Some giving poignant refections on innocent times, and others give insight into times that have since shaped the city as we know it. One story came to light recently, one that involves our city as it went to war.

Back in the summer of 1914, nobody had any conception of what was about to ensue; Britain was used to wars, but were they really aware of the great scale and impact of a war that was moments away?

Here in Plymouth, the main newspapers of the day were the Western Evening Herald and the Western Daily Mercury – fore runners of the Herald and Morning News that we know today. Only a few weeks earlier all was relatively ‘normal’, although recalls of men and placing of port restrictions begin to appear on the pages.

The front page was in those days composed of all the small classified ads, but as tensions began to grow and become public, the main headlines steadily pushed across the front page, until on August 5th ‘GREAT BRITAIN AT WAR WITH GERMANY’ blazed across the top line.

The newspapers that are archived in the library show that suddenly Calls to Arms appeared, firms such as the CoOp advertised that deliveries were ‘dislocated’ as many of their horses had been requisitioned; motorcyclists and drivers were asked to volunteer, and there was concern that supplies of foodstuffs might dry up or become more expensive. And of course there are many suspicions – of foreigners and spies!

Life at the quaysides of Sutton Harbour probably went on pretty much as usual, as cargo and fishing vessels came and went – but there must have been an air of increased tension.

Plymouth has always been a great port city and many non-Britons must have found themselves caught here and wanting to go home – none more so than a small group of ‘Onion Men’ from France, who urgently wanted to answer the call to their country’s colours.

The French were of course our Allies – although these men’s fore-fathers may well have been followers of Napoleon! So, what were these ‘Onion Men’?

Certainly since the 1850’s Frenchmen from Brittany, many from Roscoff (to which you can still sail by Brittany Ferry today), came to the South West to sell the high quality onions for which the area was famed. The onions were tied in long strings or plaits, the idea being that by tying off the neck of the onion air was excluded and hence it kept well for a very long time.

They were carried on poles or across the handlebars of bicycles. The sellers would habitually wear French berets, and were known far and wide as ‘Onion Johnnies’. Between WW1 and WW2 there were some 1500 Frenchmen plying this trade! Today there is a wonderful little museum in Roscoff which remembers them.

And so what of this little group? Here is the story, as printed in the Western Evening Herald of August 12th….

ADVENTURE OF ONION MEN AT PLYMOUTH THEIR DESIRE TO GET HOME TO FIGHT

An unsuccessful attempt was made yesterday afternoon by forty six Frenchmen to run the official blockade which holds the Port of Plymouth even more securely than the Proclamation.

On Wednesday last forty six onion sellers of Brittany received the call to arms and forthwith disposed of their stocks at ruinous discounts. They reported themselves to the French Consulate at Plymouth but no boat was available to take them to their native land, and negotiations were opened for a passage by the John T. Graham, a Hartlepool boat, which happened to be in the harbour. Nothing came of these and certain patriotic residents endeavoured to arrange a passage by the Souvenir on Monday.

This also fell through, and then Mr (?) Nicholls, of the 45 ton smack HILDA, promised to do his best. At 4 o’clock yesterday 46 Frenchmen went aboard with all their belongings, and Skipper Nicholls went out on a rising tide. There was, however, very little wind, and the Custom House boat overtook Hilda before it had cleared Sutton Pool, and ordered a return. The Hilda was not license to carry passengers, and her Plimsoll line was not in accordance with Board of Trade Regulations; therefore she must return. Forthwith an indignant crowd surged up to the Consulate and was awarded the sum of 2 s (two shillings) per man pending arrangements for their departure by some more authorised route. It was suggested that they might travel to Falmouth, and there join the Devonia.

The men, several of whom have visited England annually during the past twenty years, are divided into four companies, under Nicolas Rovalton of the Ile de Batz, Jean Oubloch, Francois Morl, and Henri Allain. All are more than keen upon fighting for France and the Entente Cordiale, and their greater anxiety is to reach their centre at Roscoff, in Brittany, where they will be drafted to Brest, their mobilisation centre.

One can only wonder what became of these gallant chaps, and whether they returned to their peaceful trade a few years later; one can only hope that they did