Cross-Channel Trade

Privateers, Onion Johnnies and eco-trading

Look, what day that endelong Bretagne                                                                                        Ye remove all the rockes, stone by stone,                                                                                   That they not lette ship nor boat to gon . . .

[Chaucer, Canterbury Tales]

 

Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.
A number of 17th century carvings of sailing ships survive on the exterior walls of a number of religious and secular buildings in Roscoff, reflecting the basis of the town’s prosperity.

Modern black & white photo of a stone ledge on a wall with a carved relief of a sailing ship.

As is traditional for Wreck of the Week at this time of year, I’m taking a diversion into our maritime records to illuminate an international aspect of England’s maritime heritage, inspired by my holidays.

This year I take a look at Morlaix and Roscoff in Brittany. Chaucer’s use of a Breton lai or lay in the late 14th century Canterbury Tales points to a strong, well-established and enduring cross-Channel cultural interchange. The appearance of the Canterbury Tales is bookended by the earliest known vessels lost in English waters while bound to or from Brittany: Le Seynt Marie stranded at Dungeness on her passage from Sluis for Brittany in 1364, while in 1421 a French ship laden with wine from Brittany ‘for the king’s use’ foundered in the Thames Estuary. (1)

Thereafter the extant wreck record is silent on trade between England and Brittany until the mid to late 17th century, but this does not mean that there was no trade or that there were no ships lost en route: simply that the documentation is yet to be discovered, has been lost, was never recorded in the first place, or the sources omit to tell us the origin or destination of a voyage (all too common until the 18th century).

Nevertheless, after this period, wreck records provide evidence for both established industries and trade routes, as demonstrated by the 1669 loss of the John, laden with linen from Morlaix, on Chesil Beach. Morlaix prospered in the linen trade and the town’s unique 16th century maisons à pondalez retain shutters which folded out as shopfront counters for the display of linen, decorated internally and externally with symbolic linenfold panelling.

Modern colour photo of 3 glass windows set in a timber building, with horizontal shutters open above and below the windows, the lower shutters acting as counters (used to display literature on the building, formerly as a shop).
Shopfront, Maison a pondalez, 9, Grande rue, Morlaix, with linenfold panelling symbolising the goods once sold on the shutter counters above.

By the late 18th century Roscoff, along with other Breton seafaring towns, was well known as a privateering centre, with 14 prizes sent into the town in 1778. (2) Breton lugger privateers continued to operate in the Channel during the Napoleonic wars. For example, the Incomparable lugger privateer of 14 guns, le Duc, (3) belonging to St. Malo, took the Mary brig of Sunderland in 1812. The Mary would be her last prize, for she was intercepted and engaged by the Hind revenue cutter, with three broadsides enough to sink her off the Dodman on 18 June 1812. The English noted that she was operating out of ‘Roscoe’, which may even suggest that her crew were Breton speakers (Rosko in modern Breton).

The wreck record around the mid to late 19th century suggests the dominance of Channel Island ships in trading between Brittany and England, exchanging English coal for Breton agricultural produce. Two of these Channel Island wrecks from 1898-1899 are especially interesting because they preserve a record of a formerly widespread trade that began after the Napoleonic wars and persisted well into the 20th century.

In particular, Paquebot No.5, sunk in a collision with a steamer off the Goodwin Sands on 13 August 1899, perfectly illustrates this popular trade route: laden with onions from Roscoff, together with ‘lads brought over to England by a merchant, named Henry Tongay, for the purpose of hawking the onions.’ (4)

These young men were the famed ‘Onion Johnnies’ of Roscoff who voyaged to Britain every summer to sell their produce. The 24 men on board, mostly the onion ‘hawkers’ and the date of their voyage, after the Pardon de Ste Barbe in Roscoff in mid-July, tallies well with an account of the ‘Johnny Onions‘ in Wales in the mid 20th century, suggesting that the trade changed little in half a century. (In Roscoff their memory is preserved in the street name rue des Johnnies, in sculptural form as a door corbel on a house in the town, and in a dedicated museum, and as a cultural exchange on both sides of the Channel through the biennial Brittany-Dorset Onion Jack tour.)

Another example of living heritage was the visit of the centenarian schooner De Gallant to Roscoff during my stay. She was bound for Penzance, last from Noirmoutier with salt, following in the wake of her predecessors on the route, with the sailing vessel now seen as an eco-friendly way of trading internationally. Our maritime records also reflect the heritage of this trading route, with two French ships lost on the Cornish coast during the 19th century, while bound from Noirmoutier to Penzance with salt (1839 and 1899).

A common trading and cultural heritage, changing as patterns of trade changed, is illustrated by documented wreck events on this side of the Channel and expressed in architecture on the other.

Colour photo of a schooner's sail being lowered between two masts as she ties up at a quayside.
De Gallant in Roscoff, 25th June 2019.

 

(1) Calendar of Patent Rolls (CPR), Edward III, Vol.XII, 1361-4, p536, membrane 29d (HMSO, 1912); CPR, Henry V, Vol.II, 1416-22, p384, membrane 27d (HMSO, 1911)

(2) NIÈRES, Claude. Les villes de Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2004)

(3) Named as Jean le Duc, Newcastle Courant, 27 June 1812, No.7,081, p4; possibly Anastase Joseph le Duc, recorded as capitaine de corsaire (privateer captain) of St. Malo, commanding the Incomparable in 1812, thereafter recorded as captain of the Embuscade.

(4) Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 August 1899, No.2,981, p10

 

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