Ask JewishGen: Onion Boats and Emigration

Posted by Ann Rabinowitz

Shirlee Finn, a reader of the JewishGen Blog, sent in the following inquiry which had been puzzling her since childhood:
My booba told me that she went to England on an "Onion Boat" way back in 1890!! I always wondered why a ship would only be carrying onions throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. Recently, I found out that it was the name given to ships that brought the refugees from the Old Soviet bloc countries that had paid passage to the US. They dropped them off in England and told them it was the US. They didn't know any difference, because they didn't speak the language and certainly had no money to take them further. I wonder if you have any idea why that name please? It certainly is odd. Shalom from Sydney Shirlee Finn
Some of the things which Shirlee mentioned in her inquiry rang a bell with me as I remember my mother telling me that my grandfather had set off from Drohobych, Ukraine, in the late 1890’s, with the intent of reaching New York. Evidently, according to him, when they reached port, some drunken sailors made them get off the boat. It turned out he was in England and stranded. Fortunately, for him, his sister lived in Manchester and took him in and he never got further on his journey than Manchester.

The story always seemed not to hang together too well as I thought that he probably had only paid for the passage to England. His reasoning being that he would probably work until he could save enough to go onward to America.

Anyway, rather than guess any further, I decided to contact an expert in British emigration who could sort out both Shirlee’s and my concerns. The person I contacted was well-known expert and lecturer, Dr. Nicholas J. Evans, RCUK Fellow/Lecturer in Diaspora History, Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation/Department of History, University of Hull, Hull, England.

He very graciously provided the following response to Shirlee’s (and my) inquiry:
During the years I have been researching the subject of transporting Russian emigrants, I must confess, I have never heard the suggestion that Onion Boats were used to convey Jewish emigrants. The story however contains a number of features that are familiar - a vague recollection of cargo vessels being used to transport emigrants and also that a vessel with emigrants for America called into Britain. Both aspects can be explained by the effects of intergenerational recollection of the story - coupled with the time difference between the emigrant leaving Russia and when they re-told the story for the first time. The reality in the story is that a cargo vessel unsuited for the carriage of passengers was used to transport the emigrants from Libau (on the Russian Baltic) to a British port - most probably Hull or London. For people not used to seaborne travel what they found left an indelible mark. However, it is more probable that the vessel, if the story can be believed, was previously used for the carriage of "breakfast goods" (ham, eggs, bacon, butter) being exported from Russia to Britain. The other aspect of the story - that they were conned and thought they were being taken all the way to America - can be explained by either (a) an element of "commercial prowess" by the ticket agent or (b) the fact the emigrant did not comprehend emigration from Russia - at that time - involved a two-stage journey.

The latter comprised either a rail or seaborne journey to a European port of embarkation - and then the ocean crossing - or a seaborne journey to Britain and then the ocean crossing.
Either way, remember that your ancestors probably had little prior experience of moving anywhere and thus the horror of the experience distorted the reality when it was being explained to subsequent generations. It also makes for a good story! For further details of transmigration through Britain see
I hope that Dr. Evans’ response gives a clarifying snapshot of what transpired once our ancestors got their ticket and traveled far from their native habitat. The point he makes that our ancestors probably did have much experience in moving is quite true. Many never strayed far from their tiny shtetl or village. It is truly amazing then that they were able to pull up roots and travel such great distances to make a better life for themselves and their children.

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1 comment:

  1. my father was born in England and from East End Polish roots. If someone was very disheveled he would say "he looks like he just got off the onion boat"I never thought to ask him where it came from. ilana


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