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’.