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Friday, 29 July 2011

The Onion Shed

"You're telling me that these onion-toting Frenchmen actually existed? Nooooo!"*

  This gangly, slightly crumbling outbuilding, located at 13 Lothian Street, South London, is similar in design to many identical structures lining the Victorian streets that crisscross the Camberwell area in Lambeth. 
  Yet, it strikingly stands out from its fellow dark-bricked constructions in that the middle space between the large arched window on the first floor, which provides the only source of light in the edifice, and the large red door below, is painted white and boldly emblazoned with a chocolate brown hand-painted sign bearing the cryptic words "The ONION SHED."

  On the homepage of the Lambeth Council, a paragraph describing the neighbourhood offers an indication of one of the building's most recent employments : "In between Oval, Camberwell and Brixton, this mostly residential area is in the middle of a massive restructuring and regeneration programme. It is home to the Minet Library, the much loved Onion Shed Theatre and Myatt's Field Park." 
  According to the records published on the UK Theatre Web, the theatre was active between 1997 and
2001, during which interval it hosted 19 different shows. It was founded as an educational charity by playwright/director Monica Lissak in the aim of  "advanc[ing the] education of the public in the arts," as the Charity Commission officially puts it, until it "ceased to exist" in 2004.
  During its short-lived but apparently fruitful existence, it served as a venue for theatrical productions spanning virtually every dramatic genre, from Ms Lissak's reflective tragedy Joan of Arc (1998), to Peter Shaw's romantic comedy Love at First (later featured in the 2003 session of the Edinburgh Fringe festival) or yet again the amateur show The Insect Play by the drama training association Wrong Exit. It also hosted musical events like gigs by the self-described "socialist and feminist a capella singers" group Velvet Fist.  
  So far, I haven't been able to ascertain by what circuitous route such an unconvential, out of the way, and probably rather cramped though certainly atmospheric scene came to be converted into a playhouse-cum-concert hall.

  A mystery which might be easier to solve is the origin of its seemingly puzzling name.
  Before the ongoing rehabilitation programme, the Lambeth district indeed used to be home to a large number of the French onion sellers working in the London area. 
  Frozen in time as it seems to be, its rough-edged working-class character not having yet been renovated away, 13 Lothian street is actually archetypical of the buildings onion men would have rented during their 6-months' stay in Britain. 
  Usually located in the poorer outskirts of towns, these houses served the threefold function of warehouses to store their merchandise, workhouses where the onions were stringed into braided bundles, and precarious lodgings where the workers took their evening meals and got their short night's rest.

* Source: August 28, 2007 thread "The Onion Shed" from the Urban75 forum.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Exeter's onion trail

"Ic eom wunderlicu wiht wifum on hyhte neahbuendum nyt; nægum sceþþe burgsittendra nymthe bonan anum. Staþol min is steapheah stonde ic on bedde neoðan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor modwlonc meowle þæt heo on mec gripe ræseð mec on reodne reafath min heafod fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona mines gemotes seo þe mec nearwað wif wundenlocc. Wæt bið þæt eage."

"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbours. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant's daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman 
with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
Answer: the onion.

Riddle 25. The Exeter Book of Riddles (Codes Exoniensis).  
Exeter, Cathedral Chapter Library, MS 3501. Circa 990.  

Jean-Jacques MONCUS. Le Courrier du Léon et du Trégor. June 29th 1974.
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser. November 12, 1892.
"One of the most remembered imports to come to Exeter was French onions: they were apparently stored in the warehouses and sold around Exeter by bicycle."
Peter THOMAS. Events, People and Places over the 20th Century. 
Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2007. p.42.

"Originally a three masted double topsail schooner, `Result' has gone through many changes in its seafaring life. Built in 1892 at Carrickfergus as a cargo vessel, it was fitted with guns and used as a Q-ship during the First World War. After the war, an old-fashioned hot bulb engine was installed, and in 1925, T. C. Welch took over command. 
  As a boy on his father's ship, Tom Welch remembers vividly, various incidents and unusual cargoes.
"The most lively cargo was a group of 20 French onion sellers, shipped from St. Malo in Northern France to Exeter. 
  When they docked in Exeter the Frenchmen set off to sell their onions, but a while later, one of them reappeared with only one string of onions left to sell. My brother Peter bought that last string and invited him to stay the weekend in the furtherance of L'entente cordiale. Indeed, he managed to drink all the alcohol in the house". "
"When Life about the Schooner was a Real Family Affair." Darryl COLLINS. April 6th, 1979. 
"Early memories include seeing a Frenchman who had a room in a house next door to where we lived where the floor was covered in onions. This my mother told me was "Onion Johnnie". I didn't realise that they all had the same name! Seems a lot of these Frenchmen came over with their push bikes on boats which landed at Exeter Quay and they then went around the streets of Exeter on their bikes loaded up with onions to sell to the public."
Unidentified young French onion seller at the start of his day's round, captured in front of the row of warehouses that lined the River Exe along the quay. Photo courtesy of Exeter Memories.

Vibrant purple-coated ENGLISH organic onions. Exeter's farmers' market.
Stripey-shirted, baguette-holding French onion sellers packed 
among other plastic iconic figures inside a toy shop on Exeter's high street.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


A new companion of mine, pedalling away on the wall in my study...

Monday, 4 July 2011

Fresh from the market

  This morning, I spotted the first pink onions of the season on the market stalls of my village, simply tied into small bundles of 4 or 5 bulbs. 
  At this early stage in summer, they look & taste very much like oversized, rose-tinged spring onions. They haven't been allowed time to dry in the open & grow their protective layer of dry golden skin yet.