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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >>  │

Marcia - Onion Johnnies and El Zamba

I guess I should start at the beginning. I was born at Exe View, Friars Hill which was demolished in the early 1960's. There is now a block of flats there which stand right above the Prospect Inn.

Early memories include seeing a Frenchman who had a room in a house next door to where we lived where the floor was covered in onions. This my mother told me was "Onion Johnnie". I didn't realise that they all had the same name! Seems a lot of these Frenchmen came over with their push bikes on boats which landed at Exeter Quay and they then went around the streets of Exeter on their bikes loaded up with onions to sell to the public.

When I was 7 we moved houses as the place we were living in was going to be pulled down. We moved to St Thomas and on moving schools I made new friends. The early 60's brought about floods for St Thomas and many of the low lying areas around the River Exe were completely under water.

No doubt many will remember the fair that used to arrive a couple times a year by the river at Haven Banks, where there is now a childrens' park and public cycle path. Many an hour was spent there with limited pocket money to spend on the Noahs Ark and and Waltzers with the smell of hot dogs and candy floss wafting in the air.

There was also the Saturday morning pictures which was on at the ABC, Gaumont and at a later date the Odeon. My friend and I spent more time at the ABC than the others and there was a dancing competition each Saturday morning at the ABC. I think we got an ABC Miners badge too which glowed in the dark ! I felt the bees knees twisting to the Beatles Twist and Shout wearing my newly bought medallion. Now and again there would be a family group called the Winter Mixtures consisting of a girl who used to sing and a couple of guys who played guitar and I believe a keyboard, but unfortunately they got a lot of "boos" by the kids. After that we had the films which you couldn't always hear due to the racket the other kids would make, as most seemed to prefer to play around than watch anything on the screen!

El Zamba

My first introduction to a coffee bar was when I was around 13 and I was taken to the El Zamba in the Fore Street arcade by a friend who was a couple of years older than me. My mother would have killed me if she had known no doubt! I think we may have arrived after the rockers had left, as I don't recall seeing many of them there. Not long after we started going to the Clock Tower cafe in New North Road. This must have been around 1965. This was the "in" place for all the mods in Exeter. All the scooters used to be parked out the front around the clock. The petrol garages used to give away free tigers tails and many of these would be on the back of the scooters on long aerials I guess the aerials were just for show as there was nothing else they could have been used for ! The place was run by Eric and his helpers.. Mike and Jack, and this was the place where all the mods used to hang out. I don't think Eric could have made a lot of money out of some of us as we used to stay all night with a hot chocolate or hot blackcurrant. Sometimes we even managed to have beans on toast on a Sunday between 4 of us! The back of the Clock Tower was where all the "top" mods sat. These were usually the older crowd who were probably out to work and had money. A lot of the others (including me) used to sit out the front of the cafe where we had our own group of people. It was a great place to be and I have many happy memories of that place as it was warm on a cold winters night and a place with good music and good company. The Beach Boys and Spencer Davis Group are just a few of the many songs that were around at the time and were played over and over again on the small juke box on the wall. It was then a race to the bus stop at The Chevalier or Marks & Spencers to catch the 9.55 pm bus home. My father threatened to come up one night to see what was going on as I was spending so much time up there (I would have died if he had). I used to leave home at 5.55 pm and meet my friends at the Falmouth Inn at the top of Cowick Street at 6.00 pm. There was a Newsagents shop in Queen Street who used to sell packs of 5 cigarettes and money being short we would buy a pack between us and would be lucky if we each got half a dozen puffs out of one cigarette.

The rockers were by this time at Trinity Hall, off Holloway Street, which is now the Cygnet Theatre, and years ago in the 50's was my old Sunday school. I did go there once with a school friend who was a rocker. Fortunately it was fairly empty as I was nervous about going there (me being a mod). This was my first introduction to a cigarette and I didn't realise that you had to inhale them and on my first inhalation felt that my lungs were about to burst!, but this didn't stop me smoking for a few years. When the rockers left Trinity it was then used to hold dances now and again, and local groups used to play there. The Empty Vessels seems to be the only group I can remember, although there were others... maybe the Empty Vessels were the only good group around! There was one night when there was a Bonnie and Clyde dance and I found a great pair of shoes in an Oxfam Shop to wear even though they gave me blisters!


Make up was now starting to be experimented with such as false eyelashes. I think I must have walked around with what looked like a couple of dead spiders on my eyes! Lipsticks were a very pale pink... almost white in fact, which made us look so anaemic. All the girls were trying to look like Twiggy or Jean Shrimpton. I had this shiny op-art Mary Quant type mac which was black and white and worn with black knee length boots. The only thing was, every time I moved it made a noise, and it also had a habit of sticking to leather seats ! (Just a reminder of what crap clothes were really around then ha ha!). There was also a craze of wearing nylon macs (mine was a dark green and I think bought in the old Woolworths store in High Street). 

I wonder how many visited the empty shop in Queen Street which at some time or another was an Oxfam shop. There were a couple of guys who used to sit around playing guitars (this was when Donovan and Bob Dylan were in the charts and it seems anyone with a guitar thought they were one of these). The place was a bit hippyish but seemed to have a few of us visit although I can't really say what went on there... obviously nothing much!

Are you going to San Francisco?

1966 was the time of flower power and the great Scott McKenzie song San Francisco. That song still takes me back to that time whenever I hear it... great days with good memories! One Sunday afternoon a few of us went in the back of a pick up truck up to Hay Tor for the "Love In" which was supposed to be happening. It was a fairly uncomfortable ride and in the days before seat belts. Everything back then seemed so carefree. We arrived at Hay Tor around mid afternoon and I think I expected to see some kind of orgy (not that I was going there for that.. but more for curiosity!) There were groups of people sat around playing guitars so we stayed a while then had a return journey back to Exeter. Another uneventful occasion it seems!

The "Look In" in Paul Street was another craze that was around for a while. It was the cafeteria for the old bus station and it was open on Sundays and a few times during the week. Not sure who ran it, but there was no alcohol and I think just light beverages and snacks. They did have a juke box and I think the most played record was Sweet Soul Music by Arthur Connelly A few dances were held there but after a while the place closed (as they do).

Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band was one of the few groups I saw at St Georges Hall (by now I am aged about 14 I think). Some good dances were held there and we were glad of this as there was nothing else much to do on a Saturday night in Exeter. Many a desperate night was spent walking the High Street in the freezing cold trying to find some entertainment. A lot of the older mods would go to the 400 Club at Torquay and us poor youngen's got left behind. I think the Quay Club had opened around now, but we were too young to get in.

I too remember the French Club at the top end of Sidwell Street past the roundabout somewhere. I think I only went there a couple of times, but did meet a French boy who had arms like an octopus! It was held in some house in the basement with no windows and if my memory serves me well, was hot and stuffy and I couldn't wait to get out... not only to escape the French boy but for some fresh air!

A couple of years later I managed to get into the Quay Club with some older friends (I was still underage), and was trying to look 18 to get in. I never got refused admission so my Miners make up must have looked good, although I still never looked quite like Cathy McGowan!. I still recall the song Paul mentioned by Chubby Checker.. At the Discotay... hey hey hey! They used to have a few live acts at the Quay Club for a while. PP Arnold was there one night and she was great ! Tony Mayne was the resident DJ for quite a few years and always played good dance stuff. I used to love that place and never wanted the night to end!

© 2006 Marcia/David Cornforth

Onion Johnnie A young French Onion Johnnie near the quay Onion men A gathering of French onion men, in possibly Quay Lane. The centre figure appears to be a priest with a bible. Photos courtesy of Alan H Mazonowicz.

Onion Johnnie's
Many older Exonians have memories of the Onion Johnnie's in Exeter, as late as the 1960's.
One warehouse on the quay was used to store French onions, along with a gaggle of onion sellers and their bicycles. 'Onion Johnnies' would arrive by boat from Roscoff, carrying their loads of onions. When a group arrived, one half would be given the role of making up the 'troches' or strings of onions, being careful to display well the Pen Capitaine, or the best quality onions to greatest effect. A 'troche' of onions would weigh 100 kilos.
They were then taken onto the streets and byways of England on a bicycle, to be sold, door to door. The first pre-bicycle Onion Johnny is said to be Henry Olivier who first arrived in England in 1828. They would enter England through various ports and travel the length and breadth of the country, including Scotland.

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