The origins of a French caricature

"The French man in a beret, riding a bicycle and carrying onions was actually a fairly common sight all across Great Britain"
Margo Lestz

Most of us at some time have met images of a French man wearing a beret and striped shirt. They may be carrying strings of onions either draped around their necks or over a heavily-laden bicycle. Of course this is a mere stereotype of our Continental neighbours, but where there's smoke there's fire, and this image does have an origin in reality. In the 19th to mid-20th century, this was a thing. Men on bicycles dressed thus did ply their onion-selling trade around Great Britain.

But first of all, let's dismiss one aspect. They were not French. The first to make the journey to the UK were actually from Brittany, spoke a language closely related to Welsh, and probably considered themselves more as Breton than French. The British (bless 'em) faced with these odd-looking characters from The Continent with their strange language and peculiar attire, promptly labelled them as French, and the stereotype was born.

So why were they here?

It possibly began with one man, Henri Ollivier from Roscoff in Brittany. A farmer, he was growing a local variety of pink onion which would normally be sold at markets in Paris. The road and rail connections to Paris from Britanny were not that good, and realising that the English town of Plymouth was closer, he set out to sell to les goddams. The journey by sea was only 120 miles (200km), far nearer and easier to get to than Paris. It must have been a success, because dozens, then hundreds of his countrymen made the trip. To begin with, they may have chosen areas where their language was better understood; this meant that many of them went to Wales to ply their trade.

Soon they were a familiar sight in English towns and countries, selling door to door and setting up routes with restaurants and hotels across the country. Their name probably came from the popularity of the French name Jean, and it was by this moniker that they became a feature of the British cultural and linguistic landscape.

My grandfather told a story of meeting an Onion Johnny, conversing with him in French and becoming enamored of his beret. To his dying day, whenever Grandpa went out, he would don a beret. It's uncanny to me that he would also cycle to his allotment, where he grew (you guessed it!) onions.

Of course, times change. Since the 1920s, onion sellers found that transport within France made it increasingly easier and cheaper to supply more local markets. Following the Second World War there were even fewer, and the last I read there remained only fifteen who regularly came to Britain to trade, down from 160 in 1973. What a shame. It gave the Brits something to chuckle at, Gauloise-smoking Frogs, laden with onions and possibly reeking of garlic.

Iron node 17

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