Poverty, poetry and Christmas hope.

As each Christmas approaches, I think of William Onion, the East End Poet and possibly Britain’s most convicted man who was born on Christmas Eve in 1834 and ended a fifty-year addiction to alcohol in December 1898. Afterwards he became a minor celebrity, preaching temperance. One thing didn’t change. He remained poor.

The most Onion ever received for a poem was ten shillings. In 1909 he was one of the first recipients of the old-age-pension in 1909, introduced by John Burns MP who he was once imprisoned with. A newspaper report, the following year suggested that he and his wife were destitute. The reference to a spouse is puzzling. Onion married Elizabeth Gawan in 1877 but she left him on the same day, after he threatened her with a knife. There is no record of a second marriage.

So, who was the wife? Did he reconcile with Elizabeth, when she realised that his recovery was permanent? Or did he start a new romantic liaison in his seventies. Christmas is all about families. Onion’s father died when he was three. On the same day his mother was permanently paralyzed by a stroke. He outlived his siblings, having limited contact with them before dying alone. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that, towards the end of his troubled life, he enjoyed a period of happiness?

And, for us, his story shows that it is never too late to change our ways.


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