This Christmas Eve my cynicism is less than usual because of a man who died a century ago. My biggest writing project of 2016 was a biography of William Onion (also known as Spring Onions), the East End poet and possibly the most convicted person in history. He was born in poverty on Christmas Eve in 1834. There were no Christmas trees or supermarkets. Charles Dickens, who once wrote an article on the curate who baptized Onion, had not yet invented Ebenezer Scrooge. It was a world without a welfare state, where the poor starved or surrendered themselves to the workhouse courtesy of the New Poor Law Amendment Act passed two months before Onion’s birth.
On his fourth birthday, with his father dead and mother permanently paralyzed Onion was admitted to the workhouse. He spent at least two more Christmas Days in that institution, plus two in lunatic asylums and eleven in jail. On 16 December 1898, he was released from prison for the last time, after allegedly amassing 1000 convictions all caused by excessive drinking. Once considered the most violent man in the East End, and accused of being Jack the Ripper, he had broken numerous promises to reform despite considerable support. Understandably few believed his latest promise but he proved them wrong.
In the last eighteen years of his life, Onion swapped alcohol for tea and became a temperance advocate and minor celebrity. Still living in poverty, he was one of the first recipients of a pension, corresponded with royalty and wowed crowds with his witty, patriotic poetry. Every Christmas he returned to the Thames Police Court to report his progress and read poems to the magistrates who had repeatedly sent him to jail in defiance of his abuse. They now held him in such regard that London’s Chief Magistrate, Sir John Dickinson, personally attended his funeral.
This change of character mirrors the fictional Scrooge. Christmas is about new beginnings and hope for the future of humanity. The story of William Onion demonstrates that anyone can change and become a positive influence. I leave you with a fragment from one of his Christmas poems, written after his last release and published for the first time since 1898.
“God bless you all, as well as the police.
This is Bill’s justice and Xmas peace.”