In January 1888 two men were exercising in a prison yard. One had hidden a loaf of bread in his trousers and produced it for the other to eat. That was the start of a most unlikely friendship between John Burns and William Onion, who went on to become famous in their time for entirely different reasons. A decade later Onion overcame his status as Britain’s most convicted man to become the prison bard. In 1892 Burns was elected as MP for Battersea.
Burns was a socialist and Onion a royalist. Burns opposed alcohol, Onion drank twenty pints a day until he reformed. Burns helped lead the dock strike in 1889, Onion opposed it. Burns despised the British army, Onion supported it. Theirs was an unlikely friendship, shaped by a shared desire for prison reform and a working-class background.
Onion used his poetry to highlight the poverty he had experienced. Burns, the second working-class man appointed as a government minister never forgot his roots. As president of the Local Government Board he was responsible for the administration of the Old Age Pension, introduced in 1909. William Onion was one of the first claimants.