Long before the age of supermarkets and the mass commercialization of food, our groceries and suppliers were dominated by smaller and independent traders. Everything you bought of course was a lot more local too as the long-haul mass supply and distribution means weren’t what they are today. This meant that smaller traders found it easier to gain a large market share on certain produce.
In the late 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, improved transport infrastructure combined with a lack of corporate food monopolies gave birth to a series of traders known as the “Onion Johnnies” men from a region of France known known as Brittany who farmed onions and then proceeded to come to the UK with their harvest seasonally to sell them, staying for a few months.
These men of course were instrumental in how the stereotype of French people being associated with selling onions crystalized in the UK. They would ride around with their onions on a bicycle selling them on the streets or going door to door. Onion Johnnies would frequent the town of Sunderland and became a notable city scene, and many people still have memories of them.
One of the most famous Onion Johnnies in Sunderland was known as Paul Grall, who every year would take his harvest from France and set up shop in the city’s East End, bringing local salesman with him from home. This would be his life and routine for over 15 years.
However, the world would soon change. World War II ultimately killed off the practice of Onion Johnnies and it did not recover after owing to restrictions on food imports and rationing, more expensive transport as well of course as the transformation of how we bought food from something local and informal, to the rise of supermarkets and big retailers which consolidated monopolies on the procurement and selling of food supplies, sending smaller traders in decline.
It simply became unprofitable for the onion selling business to continue in this manner, not least because through globalization, the selling of onions also stopped being an exclusively “french” thing and started being grown in other places too. Thus by and large the Onion Johnnies were relegated to history, yet have secured their place in Sunderland’s own heritage and memories.