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The Onion Skinners

Barking women were employed to pick and peel small yet strong-smelling silver onions ready for the local pickling factory. They got quite a reputation amongst locals for the oniony odour that they followed them wherever they went!

“They were, so to speak, impregnated by the odour of Onions”

Memories of the ‘ingon skinner’ women, 1886

Fred J Brand recounts in his memoirs how onion skinners aka ‘ingon skinners’ as they were known locally found work in the skinning of locally grown small silver onions - and became ‘impregnated with the odour’ of the unmistakable odour of onions:

“A firm of Jam and Pickle makers established themselves either on the borders of the Parish of just over it at East Ham. Market gardeners round Barking found it profitable to grow a small silvery onion, much in demand by this firm, and brought their products to a large drying shed where the vegetable was duly prepared by skinning for bottling and packing. There still remains at East Ham a thoroughfare known as 'Onion Skinners' Lane'.

This preparatory process became quite an industry at Barking, many women being employed in skinning onions. The word onion had several variants; at one time the vegetable had rather a plebian reputation. Bread and cheese and onions was considered outside 'respectable' society; the smell of the pungent bulb was a sign of poverty. There was no doubt about it, for should their title escape you, there was no mistaking the odour. They were, so to speak, impregnated by the odour, not perhaps of sanctity but of Onions, which might have been rather more healthy, according to some records of the way holy men lived and had their being.”

It was poor people who were employed in onion skinning. Struggling to pronounce the word ‘onion’, they converted the ‘oni’ into ‘ing’, self-proclaiming themselves as the ‘Ingon skinners’.

Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary
Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary
Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary
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Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary
Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary
Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
Children's painting from Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary
School children painting at Monteagle Primary

Manure

“I have seen people made sick in the street from the horrible stench, and others unable to eat their food.”

A local councillor on Barking in 1889

Barking’s market gardens needed soil enriching fertilizers and there was a ready supply close by - London was “drowning in horse manure”. In 1900, there were over 50,000 horses on London’s streets transporting people and goods around the city in horse. These horses produced over 600 tons of manure every single day, much of which made its way by barge to Barking.

The Town Quay was crowded with manure barges. Dumped on the quayside, the pungent fertilizer was loaded onto open carts and transported through the main streets of the town to reach the farms and market gardens on the other side.

“Numerous complaints have been made to the Board on the subject of the inhabitants of the lower part

of the Town and as the unloading of the Barges and carrying away of the manure by carts through the Town are continued from 2 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock in the evening the houses in the locality during the greater part of the day are rendered almost uninhabitable.”

Barking Local Board of Health Minutes, 1854

The smell from the manure was so strong that a song was written about it:

“The barges by the river

Bring the savoury London muck

Which at pleasant Barking station

Is shifted to the truck

And so pungent is its odour

By that station as you go

That Barking causes biting

To eyes and nose also”

Punch magazine, 1869

Sloshing off the sides of the carts, splattering people’s homes and even flying through open windows, the manure got everywhere. To make matters worse, it wasn’t always just made up of horse poo. ‘Night soil’ from people’s cesspools, along with waste from slaughterhouses in the city, were mixed in, making for a smelly mass that disgusted the people of Barking. The stench was reported as being offensive and unbearable.

Inspectors of Nuisance

A public health report from 1848:

“Large quantities of manure were unloaded at it [the wharf] during the night. Barges of all sizes, from 40 to 80 tons, brought it down from London. The bargemen themselves said the manure had quantities of night soil mixed with it, besides which it contained the refuse from the slaughter-houses, as well as dead calves, pigs, cats and dogs, all in a more or less putrid state. The place was in such a state that he could shovel up the maggots upon it. The smell was sometimes so bad that he could not open his doors and windows. About a week before the inquiry the smell was most offensive, and this was found to proceed from a large dead hog, which was thrown into the creek. One of his daughters had been ill, and her medical attendant gave it as his opinion that her indisposition was caused by the smell proceeding from the manure on the wharf”

The Public Health Act of 1848 established local health boards, including at Barking. Valence House holds original Minutes of these parish meetings, documenting the appointment of an Inspector of Nuisance, districts for inspections, and many ‘nuisance reports’ (including many complaints of manure through the town and at the Quay), plus the boards’ actions on trying to regulate and reduce the impact.

A magistrates’ order was obtained to strengthen Public Health Board regulations and people were given jobs to inspect the manure cargoes that arrived at the Quay and wharves.

Large quantities of manure were unloaded at it [the wharf] during the night. Barges of all sizes, from 40 to 80 tons, brought it down from London. The bargemen themselves said the manure had quantities of night soil mixed with it, besides which it contained the refuse from the slaughter-houses, as well as dead calves, pigs, cats and dogs, all in a more or less putrid state. The place was in such a state that he could shovel up the maggots upon it. The smell was sometimes so bad that he could not open his doors and windows. About a week before the inquiry the smell was most offensive, and this was found to proceed from a large dead hog, which was thrown into the creek. One of his daughters had been ill, and her medical attendant gave it as his opinion that her indisposition was caused by the smell proceeding from the manure on the wharf”

It was recognised by some the value and necessity of manure for the market gardening industries:

“It must not be overlooked that the quay was a great convenience to the farmers and market gardeners, who occupied about 10,000 acres, and that they would be seriously injured if the landing of manure was prohibited.”

Regulations stated that fishermen (many of whom had signed the petition) were banned from caulking, careening or breaming of vessels within 20 yards of the quay.

Night Soil

“Large quantities of manure were unloaded at it [the wharf] during the night. Barges of all sizes, from 40 to 80 tons, brought it down from London. The bargemen themselves said the manure had quantities of night soil mixed with it, besides which it contained the refuse from the slaughter-houses, as well as dead calves, pigs, cats and dogs, all in a more or less putrid state. The place was in such a state that he could shovel up the maggots upon it. The smell was sometimes so bad that he could not open his doors and windows. About a week before the inquiry the smell was most offensive, and this was found to proceed from a large dead hog, which was thrown into the creek. One of his daughters had been ill, and her medical attendant gave it as his opinion that her indisposition was caused by the smell proceeding from the manure on the wharf”

Public Health Report, 1848

In 1851, there was an outcry. Local residents begged the town authorities and petitioned Barking’s ‘Inspector of Nuisance’ to stop the manure from ruining their community. Eventually new rules were put in place meaning that ‘night soil’ was banned from being used and the hours that manure was transported were restricted.

The Decline of Market Gardening

By the middle of the 19th century, the steady growth of London was gradually driving the Barking market-gardeners once more further afield. Not only was there not the land space for the gardens and farms, the air quality was so affected by the new factories and industries that vegetables could not be produced successfully for market any longer. Barking became largely built over and factories caused air pollution that affected the quality of farmers’ produce.

“the growth of the gas-works, chemical works, and factories had so vitiated the atmosphere of the whole district as to prevent the satisfactory growth of vegetables even on such land as still remained available. The members of the Brassica family, which includes cabbages, are generally more susceptible to such atmospheric surroundings.”

Victoria History

The extension of railways and the use of traction-engines had enabled London markets to be supplied from a much greater distance afield than Barking so suppliers moved further afield to areas of Essex, Kent and beyond.

The smells of manure, cabbages and potatoes were overtaken by the smells of industry’s gases, smoke and noxious emissions in the air.

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