This week, we’re in Bucknall to recall a quirky aspect of community life, back in the day.
It illustrates that there is the history we research in archives and libraries and then there is oral testimony – the precious information we harvest from people, some of whom share their recollections with readers of The Way We Were.
So, who remembers the so-called Pickled Onion Wakes in Bucknall?
The first reference I can find to it comes from a newspaper report of September, 1951 when it was reported that ‘an echo of the old Pickled Onion Wakes’ had been manifested at a community group’s carnival night at Finney Gardens.
We love nostalgia – it’s a key part of what we do here at StokeonTrentLive.
So much so that we’ve got a dedicated Facebook group – that’s all about nostalgia!
It’s called Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire Nostalgia.
It’s a look at the history and heritage of Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, including local places and faces, lost buildings and industries, military history and a nod to our proud past.
You can read more nostalgia stories as well as join in with the conversation – sharing your own recollections and photographs.
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Dancers, it was stated, were able to help themselves freely to a large jar of pickles grown by a Mr and Mrs Eaton, with bread and cheese also being served – just the sort of snappin’ you’d want before a tango, I’m sure.
Another reference to the old custom appeared in a 1959 press report when Jimmy Williams, the generous landlord of the Red Lion, placed a dish groaning with cheese biscuits and pickled onions on his bar counter.
“It was Bucknall Pickled Onion Wakes,” scribed the journalist, “and ‘drunkards fare’ or not, it was on the house and so one enjoyed it all the more.”
Talking to locals, the reporter offered a possible explanation for the name of this enduring Bucknall custom. He postulated that in the days when clay was brought from Cornwall by boat – around the coast to Liverpool and from there by narrow boat to the Potteries – some foreign onion-sellers began to appear in the district.
Some of these people settled in Bucknall and began onion-growing.
Subsequently, a notice was often pinned up on the door of Bucknall church telling of the date of the Pickled Onion Wakes – around September 19. “Putting all these facts together, it seems that we have arrived at the origin of the custom: that it was a Thanksgiving Festival at the end of the onion harvest,” concluded our man.
However, this is not the only explanation that has been offered over the years. Another has it that on a snowy night on March 14, 1795, a hapless traveller walking from Hanley to his home in Bucknall was crossing some fields when he got struck in a snowdrift.
He was discovered the next morning standing upright in the drift with only a hand showing above the surface, showing no sign of life.
There is a claim that the wakes was held in memory of the unfortunate man, though the connection with pickled onions is not explained.
At any rate, the long-lived Red Lion pub appears to have been pivotal in keeping up this tradition, for in September, 1960, the landlord placed a notice in the local press, promising an evening of music and pub fodder:
“This old Bucknall custom is kept alive by ‘Jimmy’ Williams, ‘Mine Host’ of the Red Lion, Ruxley Road, who will serve pickles to customers during the evening.”
The whole Pickled Onion Wakes business seems a bit of a wind-up at this chronological distance, but two Sentinel readers offered their own remarks in letters to the newspaper in 2006.
“I was about seven-years-old when my father talked about Bucknall and pickled onions,” stated Stan Austin of Werrington.
“We lived in Hanley and went to visit my grandfather, who lived next door to the workingmen’s club on Werrington Road.
“At that time it was a big wooden shed with a bowling green at the side. I stopped in the house while my father and grandfather went next door to celebrate Bucknall Wakes with a pint of beer, and of course, pickled onions on the house!”
Another contribution came from N. Butcher, from Hanley:
”I can confirm that Pickled Onion Wakes was held in Bucknall many years ago on the nearest Sunday to September 19. I remember going to the old Finney Gardens pub with my parents. The pickled onions were in bowls on the tables.”
The other pub we have mentioned today, the Red Lion, no longer offers pickles with your pint. It was closed from January, 2017 and was sadly demolished in October, 2018.