Remembering the French 'Onion Johnnies' who became part of Scottish life

For decades, the 'Onion Johnnies' brought a piece of the north of France to Scotland and sold their distinctive pink onions door-to-door.

Tuesday, 6th August 2019, 3:22 pm
Updated Tuesday, 6th August 2019, 4:22 pm
'Onion Johnnie' Andre Tenguy in Edinburgh in 1948.

The Onion Johnnies became familiar to many, with the groups of workers living in basic conditions for little money as they tried to scrape a living. But some of them stayed - and found a true home in Scotland.

The Onion Johnnies typically came from Britanny to sell their wares, arriving in late July and usually staying until Christmas or New Year.
Onions typically arrived from France by boat and then stored by the docks, with this warehouse at Admiralty St, Leith, photographed in 1962.
The first reference to Onion Johnnies working in Britain was in 1820 and in Scotland it is known they worked door-to-door until at least the 1980s.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The familiar cry of "buy my good onions" could be heard through the streets as the vendors pushed their two-wheeled hand carts from door-to-door.
Onion Johnnie Jean-Marie Peron is pictured selling strings of onions from his bicycle to an Edinburgh housewife in February 1966.
Living conditions were often spartan with groups of Onion Johnnies, and sometimes their families, sleeping on straw beds in old shops.
Each seller had up to 500 customers each, but they were not paid for up to six months, so times were often tough for the Onion Johnnies.
But many made friends and good lives. Yves Rolland came to Edinburgh aged 14 and later opened his own fruit and veg market in Gorgie.
Onion seller Andre Quemener from Roscoff returned to West Linton - his old patch - for a visit in 2002. He sold onions in the area from 1951 to 1972.