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Mike Truscott remembers Penryn's 'Johnny Onions' and street hawkers
3:00pm Saturday 7th September 2013 in News
Mike Truscott writes
I had a lovely catch-up coffee session recently with a dear friend, Joan Coote, whose late husband Roy was loved by so many as a boxer, sailor and, for much of his working life, Falmouth tug skipper, writes Mike Truscott.
Roy, who died in 1999, was actually a Penryner - as recalled in a book that profiles his life and remains one of Joan's treasured possessions.
Published by the Packet in the early 1990s and written by our then editor John Marquis, it provides an early 20th Century snapshot of Penryn that is scarcely recognisable today.
For instance: “Penryn alone had six or seven full-time professional fighters, all of them kept busy by the insatiable public demand for sporting excitement.
“Sky Sport and Match Of The Day might be major attractions now, but in those days the 'couch potato' culture had not taken hold. People liked to get away from their own firesides to watch sport live.”
And on Penryn life in general: “It would have seemed busier. People were out and about more then, either on foot, bicycle or horse and cart.
“Milk, bread and fish were all delivered on carts, the milkman scooping milk into housewives' jugs from a giant churn.
There were also hawkers and travellers to be seen buying and bartering, knife-grinders among them offering to sharpen cutlery.
“In the summer, Breton farmers would appear in the streets selling their delicious onions, which they carried like bandoliers around their necks.
“These strange foreign figures were known locally as ‘Johnny Onions’ and would bring their crop over from France aboard their boats, which they moored in Penryn.
“They used premises in Commercial Road for sorting their onions before setting off on bicycles to sell them.”
Dressed in striped shirt and beret, riding a bicycle hung with onions, the Onion Johnny became the stereotypical image of the Frenchman and may have been the only contact that the ordinary British had with France.
From the area around Roscoff in Brittany known as Bro Rosko, Johnnies found a more profitable market in England than at home, and typically brought their harvest across the English Channel in July to store in rented barns, returning home in December or January.
They could have sold their produce in Paris, but the roads and the railways were bad in the 19th century and going there was a long and difficult trip - crossing the channel was shorter and easier.
The golden age was during the 1920s and 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.
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