The Onion Johnnies: How Poor Breton Farmers Built the Representation of Frenchmen

Aziliz Peaudecerf and Efflam Sionneau

The Onion Johnnies Origins

A bike, striped shirt, béret and always onions in strings, the stereotypical image of a Frenchman is now a dead profession. The Onion Johnnies were among the only people crossing the Channel from Brittany in the 19th and 20th century, in search of a new market for their onions, but also another life, far from their poverty. The Bretons have a long history of being experienced travelers. Mostly living on the coast, the heritage of the Saint-Malo’s explorers pushed a part of the Bretons to search for another life all around the world, away from their rural existence. “We, the Onion Johnnies, were the poor farmers. We had to go abroad! With the production we had back home, we couldn’t maintain a full family in a decent life. We only had a small farm, so the decision was easy to take” explained François Seité,a retired Johnny. The 84 year old is still living in Roscoff, area of production of the exported onions. In his neo-Breton style house he recalls his years as an Onion Johnny. He went for the first time abroad at 13 with his father, in 1953. And ended his career 47 years later in Bristol, where he lived for 4 months every year. The Onion Johnnies came from a long history starting in 1828. At that time Brittany had an exceptional harvest in the rose onion in the region of Roscoff. To not let this surplus go to waste they had the idea to sell them on the opposite coast. Following the success of this manoeuvre, they decided to pursue this open market. “The Britons were eager for our onions. It was sweeter than the ones they were used to eating, it doesn’t have the same punch. And it’s very versatile as you can use it in any kind of dish, raw or cooked” described the seller. Even if the selling brought some money, the vision the British people had over those Bretons was really bad for a long time. The companies were much bigger until the start of the decrease in trade in the 1960’s. “Between the two world wars, the onion companies could fit 10, 20, even 30 people. The employees were mostly children from 8 to 14” said Estelle Boudillet, who completed a Masters Degree on the origins of the Onion Johnnies. In 1907, François Seité’s grand-father also started traveling to Britain. He and his 3 brothers went first to Wales, a region closer to their culture. After the death of his brothers during the first world war, he decided to move to Bristol, where he would build his family legacy. 1923, time for his father to take the boat at only 13. Back in the days, people started to work on farms very early. “For my first two seasons, I stayed less than two months. I remember well that my first year was just after the coronation of Elizabeth II. Everyone was talking about it” recalls the old man with a spark of nostalgia in his blue eyes. To the retiree, coming from a very rural area of an underdeveloped Brittany, getting to Bristol was “amazing. The language, the money, the roads, the way of life, everything was different. I was seeing modern life just in front of me.” But this life abroad wasn’t easy either. “When we crossed the Channel, we would sleep on the onions in the boats. In Bristol we had to find accommodation quickly. The best rooms were all dedicated to the onions and we would find ourselves a place to sleep. My dad would always say ‘if we have electricity and running water, we’re all good’” remembers François. They had three ways to sell onions: The most famous one was to sell onions door to door. Over the years, they built a strong base of clients and came back every year with a string directly delivered by bike most of the time. The second one was to go and sell directly to greengrocers. Lastly they would go and see the restaurants. “Many restaurants wanted to buy our French products. Especially in London” François assured. In order to sell, speaking English was essential. This job was better than any class. To François, the easiest way to learn words was reading commercials on the streets. “If they sell with those words, I have to say the same thing.” The experience from his dad was also crucial, as he already knew what to say. “When I knocked on my first house, my dad told me to introduce myself and say the price of a string of onions. After two sentences, the lady asked me ‘you look so young, how old are you?’ The only thing I could remember to say was ‘2 Shillings!’” François quickly learned. After a few seasons of 4 months, he spoke fluently.
The Onion Johnnies: How Poor Breton Farmers Built the Representation of Frenchmen
François and his dad selling onions, in 1958.

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The Onion Johnnies: How Poor Breton Farmers Built the Representation of Frenchmen
The letter and a card of Elizabeth II and her son Charles that the Seité family received.

Another Life in England

François Seité would leave in mid-august. “My friends would say poor thing, you're leaving us in the best period, when it’s sunny!”. In Brittany, the Johnnies were seen as poor guys and people didn’t understand their life over there. “My grandfather was Johnny but no one would listen to his story in the fifties and sixties. I remember he tried to explain his life there to us, but it was so far from our reality. We couldn’t understand the city life that he had”, explained Maryse Mear, a retired farmer from the North of Brittany. This testimony describes well the gap between Onion Johnnies and a population that barely moved from their local town. “In Bristol, my clients were curious about my life. Most of them even became friends through the years”, claims François Seité. On Sundays, after mass, he would often drink tea at Bristolians houses, they would chat about daily life. Last Christmas he received more than 30 cards from friends based in the UK. The Breton really felt accepted in that British society, even if they didn’t have an official status. In 2022 François decided to write to the royal family after Queen Elizabeth II's death. The Breton wanted to thank them for how welcoming they’ve been to the Johnnies. He proudly showed us the answer he got from Buckingham Palace. Even though François Seité's history is beautiful, it might have become romanticized over the years. According to Estelle Baudillet “Until the 1960’s the Onion Johnnies were mostly seen by Britons as poor children, coming to the UK in search of money and without paying taxes. Just like immigrants nowadays.” The look on their work changed as Johnnies became rarer.
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The last Onion Johnnies and Their Heritage

When François retired in 2000, there were already very few Johnnies left. With time and the internationalization of commerce Johnnies became obsolete. “Brexit definitely killed the Johnnies’ work.”, assures François with a sad face. The last Johnny quit due to the taxes and the difficulty to travel back and forth with the new borders. Today there’s only two guys that keep on selling onions across the sea, according to François, but “they are wholesalers and not traditional Johnnies”. Although they disappeared, the Onion Johnnies are now more famous than ever. The image of poor workers obligated to go overseas to make some money, slowly transformed during the 1990’s. It became more and more the representation of hard-working Bretons, doing this job so they wouldn’t lose their attachment with their home region. In 2004, a museum dedicated to their history opened in Roscoff. In 2009 and after 10 years of battle, Roscoff onions received an AOP, a protected designation of origin. This recognition came through the work of an organization gathering old Johnnies and actual onion producers from the region, called the Onion Union. After receiving the AOP production multiplied by ten, giving this onion a place on the European market especially in the United Kingdom and in Germany. One thing is certain for François Seité : “Roscoff onions wouldn’t have received the AOP if it wasn’t for the Johnnies!” It’s true that this label is given to products that have a long history, a special flavour, but mostly that are ingrained in a local (or international) tradition.
The Onion Johnnies: How Poor Breton Farmers Built the Representation of Frenchmen
The Johnnie’s and onion house is open every summer for the tourists to learn about their crazy adventures.
The Onion Johnnies: How Poor Breton Farmers Built the Representation of Frenchmen

Aziliz Peaudecerf and Efflam Sionneau

We are two French journalism student, raised in Brittany, France. Writing for an English speaking audience is a really great opportunity and we hope you will learn something new from the other side of the Channel!
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