One thing that is often said about the Victorian East End of London is that it was full of characters. It should also be mentioned that a large percentage of those “characters” weren’t particularly pleasant!
However, one character who seems to have captured the imagination of newspaper editors all over the country was William “Spring” Onions – the East End Poet.
His story is an interesting one as we are able to follow him in the newspapers for almost 30 years and actually watch his descendent into drunkenness, his discovery of poetry and his ultimate redemption when he renounced drink in order to become an enthusiastic campaigner for temperance.
A POLICE COURT REGULAR
Now, it has to be said that William Onions must have been an absolute pain in the proverbial, especially if you happened to be a magistrate.
You see, “Spring Onions” was a “regular” at various London Police Courts, most notably at the Thames Police court, at which he managed to notch up an impressive tally of more than 200 convictions for his drunk and disorderly behaviour throughout the 1880’s and the 1890’s.
But then, in 1898, Onions renounced the demon drink, and became an avowed teetotaller in which capacity he took to visiting his old foes, the magistrates at the court, to report on his progress and to recite his latest composition.
The press and the magistrates appear to have grown very fond of him, and he was always received with courtesy and sent on his way with encouragement.
Following his story in the 1890’s is both intriguing and heart warming.
So, today, in his honour, permit me to introduce you to the life and times of William “Spring” Onions, the East End Poet.
It would appear that, in the early reports at least, there was uncertainty about his exact age. Therefore, in the quoted press reports I have left his age as it was stated in the report.
SAVAGE ASSAULT ON AN INSPECTOR OF POLICE
One of the earliest records concerning his drunken antics that I have been able to trace appeared in The Nottingham Post on Wednesday 10th August 1881:-
“William Onion, 51, who was said to have been before the magistrates over 200 times, was charged at the Thames-street(London) Police Court yesterday with being drunk, disorderly and assaulting Inspector McCarthy, of the H-Division.
About eight o’clock on MOnday night the prisoner was taken to King David-lane station, Shadwell, charged with being drunk and disorderly, and committing an unprovoked assault on a hairdresser.
At one o’clock Inspector McCarthy visited him in his cell, and noticed that the walls had been scandalously defaced. He spoke to the prisoner about it, on which Onion rushed at him and struck him a violent blow on the lip, cutting it; he then struck him in the face and, catching one of his fingers between his teeth, bit it severely.
It took several men to overcome him and put the handcuffs on.
Mr Saunders sentence him to two months’ hard labour, and said that if he came to the court again he would be sent to the sessions.
A DISGRACE TO HUMANITY
Evidently, by August of the next year, Onions had served his sentence and had resumed his old ways as is evidenced by the following report in The St James Gazette on Tuesday 22nd August 1882, under the headline “A Frequent Offender”:-
“At the Thames Police-court today, William Onion [sic], aged forty, was proved to have committed a violent and unprovoked assault on Police Constable David Griffiths, in Well-street, yesterday. It was stated that the prisoner had been before the magistrates over 200 times for various offences.
Mr Saunders, in committing him to gaol for two months, with hard labour, said he was a disgrace to humanity, and expressed regret that he could not send him to penal servitude.
TWO HUNDRED TIMES CONVICTED
On the 12th November 1887 his latest conviction was reported as follows in The Whistable Times and Herne Bay Herald :-
“William Onion, 61, labourer was indicted at the Middlesex Sessions on Monday for maliciously damaging two plate-glass windows, value £7, the property of Mr. John Cairn, a licensed victualler.
The prisoner, who said he had had nothing to eat for several days, deliberately broke two windows in the prosecutor’s house and then gave himself up to the police.
He now pleaded guilty, and 200 previous convictions were proved against him, some of them being for getting drunk, assaults, assaulting the police in the execution of their duty, robberies from the person, and one for manslaughter.
After commenting on such an extraordinary career, the Assistant-Judge passed upon the prisoner a sentence of 12 calendar months with hard labour.!
ONIONS IN BAD ODOUR
The newspapers were reporting on his behaviour at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. For example, in its edition of the 20th November 1888 The Star carried an article on a court appearance at which he claimed that he was being harassed by the police:-
“William Onion, the old man whom the Thames magistrate yesterday allowed to go free on a charge of drunkenness, went to the Shadwell Police station last night and broke the window.
He told the magistrate this morning that policemen followed him about to lock him up for being drunk, and that he smashed the window to save himself from being locked up. (Laughter.)
Mr. Saunders said: “The Court stinks with your name, and you stand in such bad odor that all policemen look after you, knowing you are a dangerous man.”
He would be sentenced to one month’s hard labor.”
CONSCIENCE STRICKEN ONIONS
On the 25th January 1896 The Illustrated Police News had this to say about his antics:
At this point Onions hadn’t yet discovered his gift for poetry, so the Magistrate was spared the delight of a little rendition from the dock.
The article reported on one of numerous court appearances that Onion’s had made, This time he was appearing before the the magistrate, Mr Mead:-
“William Onions, otherwise known as “Spring Onions” – sixty-two, who has been convicted of drunkenness some hundreds of times, was again charged with a similar offence.
Onions said he had nothing to say to the charge, but wished to make a statement about another matter that had been weighing on his mind.
Last September he went to Selby in Yorkshire, and was an inmate of the infirmary in that town for five weeks. After his recovery he was made wardsman, and had to assist a nurse. The latter said to him one day, “Do you think it wrong to relieve persons who are suffering from incurable pain ?”
At, the time he did not think much of the remark, but during the short time he was there no fewer than seven deaths occurred. There was a man suffering from a terrible cancer in the cheek, and one morning the nurse said to him (Onions), “Put this pill in his mouth”. Without thinking, he did so, and the man died four or five hours after.
The matter had been on his conscience ever since, and on Monday he was going to the police, but got drunk.
Onions appealed for leniency.
Mr. Mead: No one has had more indulgence and consideration, and this is the way you show your gratitude. Like a criminal fool that you are, you go and indulge in drink when you know you should not touch it. You will go to prison for one month with hard labour. When in prison you can write to the Local Government Board with reference to the statement.”
ONIONS DISCOVERS POETRY
The stint in prison did little to stem Onions liking for alcohol, but it did enable him to discover that he had a, to that point, dormant gift for poetry, as we discover on his next court appearance on the 10th of July 1896.
According to Reynold’s Newspaper, in its issue on Sunday 12th July 1896:-
William Onions – ” Spring Onions,” as he is known – stepped into the witness box at Thames Police Court on Friday, and, addressing Mr. Mead, the Magistrate, said, ” Last time before sentencing me you hesitated, and then called me a fool.
The rebuke was not just. Since then I’ve turned a poet. Some call me a petty poet.
I want to ask you if I lay myself open if I get the following printed:-
Don’t call me a fool, Mr Mead. Dash it. Stow it.
You’ve oft hit me a knock-out blow;
You’re not o wise – I’ll prove and show it
or else you would more mercy show.
Here I was ne’er called that name before,
where I’ve caused many a tear and a smile.
So, in case you should not see me more,
I’ll take a light through this cracked tile.
When the laughter in court had subsided, Mr. Mead said: By printing that I should say you would not be transgressing the law, but I should advise you not to spend your money in that way. In kindness to you I pointed out the folly of getting drunk, and it is very likely I said you were a foolish man to get drunk so often. Stand down.”
CONVICTED 160 TIMES AT ONE COURT
Onions was back in court a few weeks later where, according to a report in the Tamworth Herald, dated Saturday 25th July 1896:-
William, or “Spring”, Onions, sixty was charged, on remand, at the Thames Police Court, London, with being drunk and disorderly.
Mr. Mead said he had received a report from the prison surgeon that Onions was weak minded, but the surgeon was unable to say that he could be dealt with as an insane person.
He (the magistrate) had before him prisoner’s record, so far as that court was concerned and found he had been convicted no less than 160 times, and during that year he had been convicted on four different occasions for drunkenness. In addition he had been convicted of manslaughter and wilful damage, and it was extremely difficult to know what to do with him.
Onions (interposing) said that he suffered from sleeplessness, and while under remand had been given chloral. In the hospital the officials had been experimenting on him.
Mr Mead: Why don’t you experiment on yourself?
Prisoner: Give me the chance and I will leave London tomorrow night. There has been a lot of talk about persons curing drunkenness, and I believe the late Canon Farrar expressed an opinion that some children were brought into the world with a bias towards drink. I think I must be one of those.
In my case it is a disease, very like fever.
Mr Mead: I am not going to imprison you, but understand the next time you are brought here and the facts warrant it, I shall require you to be bound over to keep the peace and to find a surety of £20, and in default of so doing, you will have to go to prison for a long time. Try and be manly. You can go now.”
A POET IS BORN
Evidently, over the next year, William Onions, embraced the muse and, whenever his drunken and disorderly behaviour resulted in a court appearance, he would compose a verse with which to regale whatever magistrate he was appearing before.
He was also prone to turning up in court unannounced, even when he wasn’t actually being charged with an offence, and demanding to address the presiding magistrate, as is demonstrated by a report in The Leicester Chronicle, dated the 10th July 1897:
THE EAST END POET
William Onions, better known as “Spring Onions” the East-end poet was among the applicants before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police Court on Wednesday.
Mr Dickinson: Well, Onions, what do you want?
Onions: Well, I want to thank your worship for your leniency the last time I saw you.
Mr Dickinson: I hope you will not be brought here again.
Onions: Well, we won’t say nothing about that now.
Mr Dickinson: What do you want?
Onions: I beg your pardon, but can you let me have a copy of my commitment order when your colleague, Mr, Mead, put me away for six months?
Mr Dickinson: I cannot. It is an official document. It is the charge of officials at Holloway.
Onions: Oh. You don’t know then. It was to Wandsworth I went.
Mr Dickinson: It is not here. You cannot have it. You say that I dealt leniently with you. Will you keep away from drink in future?
Onions: I can’t, your worship, I can’t.
Mr Dickinson: I warn you, it will be six months the next time you are brought here.
Onions: Six months? Yes, I have had six months. Mr Mead and the police got it up nicely for me. He calls himself a justice of the peace! Magistrate indeed —–
Mr Dickinson: (interrupting) Be careful, or you will be brought here again today.
Onions became very excited, demanded in a loud voice a copy of his commitment, and used strong language about the conduct of the police and the magistrates.
He was removed from the court.”
FORCES HIS WAY INTO COURT
On Thursday 14th April 1898, The Daily News, carried the following report about his most recent antics:-
“William Onions – usually called “Spring Onions” and “The East End Poet” – against whom it is said there are upwards of 200 convictions, 34 of which have taken place since 1890, was charged at the Thames Police-court yesterday with drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
The following is a verse from a poem entitled, “The New Crusade,” written by Onions when serving a sentence in prison.
Drink ruins lads, shames the maids
And hurries on the drunkard’s doom;
On home, sweet home, it makes its raids,
and where love dwelt leaves quite a gloom.
Strong drink turns a loving heart to stone,
Severs what once was near and dear.
Separates some true and loving one:
Then – too late – flows the bitter tear
On Tuesday morning Onions, when in a drunken condition, forced his way into the court and, pointing to the magistrate, kept shouting, “I want to speak to that man.” He was got outside, where he continued his abusive and disorderly behaviour, and had to be locked up.
Onions now said his object in coming to the court was to ask the magistrate to help him. He only came out of prison on Monday after “doing six weeks” and was suffering from sciatica. He wanted a ticket for the infirmary, and if the magistrate would give him another chance he would thank him for it. Perhaps Mr Fitzsimmons, the missionary, would find him a job. He was willing to go to any part of Ireland, Scotland or Wales, money was a secondary consideration.
Mr Mead observed that, had the prisoner come there sober, he would have been pleased to help him in the most desirable way, as he had been helped over and over again at that court.
Onions said that he wanted a private interview with his worship, as he did not want his name in the newspapers.
Mr Mead said he should not have accorded Onions such an interview had he been sober. He always came there with plausible stories and promises which he never kept. It would be for the defendant’s advantage to be kept from drink, and he would be sentenced to one month’s hard labour.
Later in the day Onions was again brought into court, and Mr Mead said he had been consulting with the missionary about him; and as work might be found, he would be given another chance. The sentence, therefore, would be altered to one day’s imprisonment.
Onions: Thank you; I hope I won’t abuse your kindness. I do strive.”
ONIONS GIVES UP DRINKING
This magisterial intervention appears to have had an effect on William Onions and, on Wednesday 17th May 1899, he paid a visit to the Thames Police-court to thank Mr Mead the previous kindness he had shown him, and to explain how he had managed to overcome his craving for alcohol.
On Thursday 18th May 1899 The Nottingham Evening Post ran the following headline:-
TEA AS AN ANTIDOTE
“SPRING” ONIONS VALUABLE DISCOVERY
The subsequent article read:-
“William, or “Spring” Onions, usually known as The East End Poet, waited on Mr Mead at the Thames Police-court yesterday, and said, as that morning was the anniversary of his being a sober man for six months, he had come to let his worship know he intended to continue a sober man.
As all knew, he had been a drunkard for many years, but by swilling down plenty of tea he had got rid of all taste or longing for alcohol.
Mr Mead: Then tea is a powerful antidote. Your testimony is extremely valuable, considering your experience, and no doubt the medical profession will take notice of it. I am glad to hear you are reforming.
Onions: Yes; tea is the thing, sir. I take four or five pints of it everyday, instead of four and twenty pints of beer.
Onions then gave his worship accounts of the careers of some of his drunken companions, and took his departure, after observing he had two newly-written poems in his pocket.”
A LATE APPEARANCE OF “SPRING ONIONS”
From that point on, Onions would turn up at Mr Mead’s court to report on his progress and to attempt to recite his latest work to the magistrate.
The Pall Mall Gazette, in its edition dated 14th July 1899, and under the above headline, carried the following article:-
“Mr. Mead yesterday had a visit, at the Thames police-court, from William, or “Spring” Onions, the “East-end poet,” who assured his worship that the longer he kept away from drink the better he could do without it, as the magistrate said he could.
Having a spare day, he took the opportunity of coming there to thank Mr. Mead for all the kindness shown him.
He mentioned to the magistrate that he had composed a sermon on Tom Mann.
At one time Tom Mann was going into the ministry, but afterwards decided on taking a public-house.
That seemed to hint “such an opposite” that he had written a sermon on the subject, and would now read it to his worship.
Mr Mead (quietly interposing) repeated that Onions must not come there to disparage other people, and could not further be heard.
He was glad to see him there to report progress.
Onions then withdrew.
MONTHLY COURT APPEARANCES
By 1902, Onions had taken to making regular visits to the Thames Police-court to rejoice at his continued sobriety. He would, whenever possible, treat the magistrate to a rendition of his latest work.
On the 21st November 1902, The Manchester Courier reported on one such appearance:-
THE EAST END POET’S FIFTH ANNIVERSARY
“At the Thames Police Court “Spring Onions”, the East End Poet, waited on Mr. Mead and assured his Worship that if ever a man was happy and joyful that day he was, for it was five years that morning since he became a total abstainer. What was more, he had not got tired of being a teetotaller, and never should be.
He asked the magistrate’s acceptance of a poem, in which were the lines
I’m five years teetotal; that’s all right, my friend,
Some troubles are blessings robed in disguise,
To make you more careful, prayerful and wise.
Mr Mead said he was very glad to see Onions, and was pleased to hear he was able to persevere in the reform initiated five years ago.”
ONIONS FOR CHRISTMAS
On Thursday 25th December 1902, we get another glimpse of the irrepressible poet when The London Daily News, regaled its readers with a little festive cheer concerning his latest visit to court:-
“Yesterday, being the 68th anniversary of the birth of Mr William or “Spring” Onions, the East End Poet, he waited on Mr Mead at the Thames Police-court to present him with a copy of his latest poem, entitled “Poor Old Newgate.”
He also took the opportunity of thanking his worship, Mr Dickinson, and their ladies for what they had done on his behalf.
Mr Mead said he was very much obliged, and wished Onions the compliments of the season.
One verse of the production was as follows:
I’ve been up and down thy stairs (so have others) in past times.
With our hearts and conscience smitten very sore.
‘Twas here I vowed to fight and conquer frothy grimes.
Which, I thank the Lord, I ne’er shall handle more;
For to-day I’m feeling grand – more like the King of England.
Whose gracious acts (of mercy) sets this Briton’s heart aglow.
AN ODE TO THE QUEEN
By 1904, Onions was a regular fixture around the East End of London and was often to be found speaking, preaching and reciting from the open air pulpits outside the churches of Christchurch, Spitalfields and St Mary’s on Whitechapel Road.
On Thursday 4th July 1904, Queen Alexandra, accompanied by Princess Victoria, paid a visit to the East End of London to attend two flower shows at the rectory of St George’s In The East and at the People’s Palace on Mile End Road.
Onions, was so moved by the visit that he was inspired to compose a special commemorative verse, which he duly forwarded to the Queen.
The Daily News, treated its readers to a verse from the ode on 25th August 1904:-
Close your eyes, my Queen, from the horrid starvation
Surrounding those trees facing Whitechapel Station
‘Tis employment some need, they’ve enough education
Learned frauds, even now still work ruination
EIGHT YEARS SOBER
On the 19th November 1906, The Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury, reported on another visit to the Thames Police Court by Onions:-
The East End Poet, “Spring” Onions, waited on Mr. Dickinson at the Thames Court to receive congratulations on his eighth year of teetotalism.
He had composed a poem beginning:-
Eight years now gone; thank ye, my friends;
‘Tis time some t’others did make amends.”
Mr. Dickinson did not say what he thought of the composition, but hoped to receive Onions on a similar occasion for many years to come.”
THE DEATH OF ONIONS
William Onions kept up his regular visits to the Thames Police-court for another ten years – right up until his death on Monday 20th November 1916.
That he became a much loved local character is evidenced by the number of newspapers that carried his obituary, amongst them The Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, which, on Friday November 24th 1916, had this to say about him:-
“SPRING” ONIONS DEAD
“Mr William (“Spring”) Onions, one of the best known characters in East London, died at Ratcliffe on Monday.
A few years ago Mr Onions, after making police court history with a record 500 appearances, decided to live a better life.
He came under the influence of the Church Army; and took a pride in making his reformation as widely known to the public as had been his previous activities.
Having a taste for verse, he chose a quaint procedure of appearing before a magistrate, “reporting progress” in the arts and principles of sobriety, and reciting a few verses of his own composition to the Court. The little comedy was repeated at monthly intervals.”