With Christmas approaching, you may be thinking of presents for your nearest and dearest. Five gold rings would be nice, or even a partridge in a pear tree. How about a string of onions?
Before World War II, 90% of onions, a staple of British cooking, were imported into Britain, although they could so easily have been grown in British soil. After the outbreak of war, merchant vessels carrying provisions into Britain became targets of the German navy and food imports, including fruit and vegetables, were under threat. In addition, the winter of 1939-40 was the coldest for 45 years and vegetables could not be dug from the frozen earth. There was an acute shortage of onions and gardeners then found that crop after crop was destroyed by a particularly virulent variety of blight.
Onions were a stock item for those who grew their own food and the shortage continued right up to the last year of the war. Indeed, onions became so scarce that they were considered a luxurious gift. A report in the 18 January 1941 edition of Garden Work magazine tells of a parcel which ended up in a ‘dead letter’ office because its labels had been lost. It contained 14 lb. of onions and at least seventy people applied for it before it was delivered to its rightful owner!
They were also so highly prized that in February 1941 a raffle of a pound and a half of onions raised £4.3s.3d, nearly a week’s wages. They were popular prizes at Warship Week raffles, dances and social events and no one would have been surprised if they had been given as a present for a housewarming or even a wedding. Alternatives such as spring onions, shallots and leeks were also planted and sought after.
A Cheshire doctor remembers ‘taking home in triumph’ the best gift he ever received from a grateful patient: a large Spanish onion. One ‘aunt’ on Children’s Hour (a popular radio programme), ‘wishing lots of presents’ to one small listener, added, “I did hear of a lucky girl the other day who was given some onions, but we can’t all expect a lovely present like that.”
As a child, my Christmas stocking included an apple, orange and a bag of nuts. Only now do I think that my parents probably hoped that I would include a bag of onions on my wish list to Santa.