When the weather was still warm and dry, I lifted my onion crop. According to last year’s records, I planted 60 onion sets in 6 rows of 10 on 12th September 2017. I left them outside to dry, but then the weather turned wetter and I had to bring them inside to finish off. I wasn’t in a hurry to lift them, or use them, because we were still eating our way through the previous onion crop (chopped and frozen) that we hadn’t needed earlier in the year because of the plentiful leeks.
Although there are people who say that onions are so easy and cheap to buy that it’s not worth growing them, they have always been one of my most reliable crops – easy to grow, and easy to store and use, so they do all get eaten. Still, I do seem to be growing a few more alliums than we can eat in a timely fashion, so this year I bought a smaller bag of onion sets, and planted 37 in a 6×6 grid, with one in the centre for luck. Some of my onions always grow very large; giving them more space will only encourage that, although it’s not something I aim for. It’s possible, of course, to start using them earlier in the year, and maybe if I grew fewer of them we might get to try that!
I always plant my onions in the autumn, which theoretically means I can harvest them sooner next year, but mostly means there’s something growing in the beds over the winter. I try and go for a mild variety, and very often end up with a red one, but the onions always end up truly evil in terms of eye-watering madness when you chop them. When I get around to chopping them and freezing them that’s an unpleasant hour or two for me.
After the loss of lives in the First World War, and the Spanish flu outbreak of 1919, the UK was short of workers and the price of labour was high. Farmers stuck to the most profitable crops, and onions were one of the casualties. Cross-channel travel had become cheaper, and so imported onions took their place. They came from Spain and the Netherlands, and from Brittany; the stereotype of the French onion seller with the stripy shirt and a string of onions around his neck was true, and they were known as ‘Onion Johnnies’. At the start of the Second World War the Onion Johnnies returned to France to join the armed forces, and then German U-boat patrols made it almost impossible for food imports to cross the Channel. By the spring of 1941, onions had all but disappeared from the UK, and onion salt was the closest some people got to an onion for several years.
Onions, once a humble staple, were worth their wait in gold. They were given as birthday presents, or donated as raffle prizes. In 1941 the government arranged for an extra 14,000 acres of onions to be grown, but it didn’t always go to plan. The price of onions was controlled, and it was more profitable for the farmer to over-fertilise his onions so that their necks went soft, and get permission to lift them and sell them early as green onions, than it was to wait for them to mature.
The Dig for Victory campaign encouraged everyone to grow their own onions, an endeavour slightly hampered by two things. Firstly, onion sets were rare then, and onions had to be grown from seed – which was in short supply. Secondly, onions only really thrive in well-cultivated soil, and so the keen Victory diggers breaking new ground would have had disappointing crops for the first year or two.
In 1943, the Red Cross hit on a clever wheeze. They called for members of the public to form Onion Clubs, to grow extra crops of onions. When mature, they would be sold to the armed forces to feed serving personnel, a need that the Ministry of Food was finding hard to fulfil. The armed forces would pay the fixed price for the onions, which go to the Red Cross to fund their charitable work. It’s hard to gauge the success of the scheme, as some writers record that Onion Clubs barely got off the ground, while others say they were surprisingly successful, leading to the celebration of Onion Days or even Onion Weeks in some areas.
Even if amateur gardeners were successful in growing their own onions, they weren’t always safe. As you can imagine, a commodity in such short supply was often targeted by thieves, whether by seriously criminal folk who made off with sackfuls, or a usually upstanding citizen who couldn’t resist the temptation to pocket an onion. One such gentleman was caught in East London in July 1943 with one purloined onion, and was fined £1 for the theft and and another 10s for trespassing on the allotment to take it*. The onion had a cash value of just 2d, but of course if he’d been able to buy an onion for 2d he would probably never have considered breaking the law.
By 1944, the government’s efforts (and a lot of digging) had born fruit, and British onions were widely available. Estimates suggested that Britain was growing more onions that at any point in history, and the Great Onion Shortage came to an end.
Since then, the onion has returned to its humble staple status, something that we use without thinking almost every day. When we think of the war years we think of rationing and the restrictions on meat and fats and dairy products, but there is more to the story than that. Commodities for which the supply could not be guaranteed were not rationed; fruits and vegetables weren’t either, but that doesn’t mean they were always available or plentiful.
It’s hard to imagine life without onions, and yet many families had to go without for years. There’s still time to plant autumn onion sets if you’ve got a spare patch of land (or you can choose to plant in spring). Garlic was extremely unpopular in Britain in during the war years, but is now almost as indispensable as onions. I’ll be planting my garlic next month. How about you?
*According to the National Archives Currency Converter, £1 10s in 1945 would be the equivalent of about £53 now. The average weekly wage was around £3 9s, and in 1941 a single onion in a charity auction was sold for £3 1s 6d.