Onion Barns in Bedfordshire

 

Our buildings expert, Mark Phillips, has been undertaking research into the onion barn, buildings in which onions were dried and then stored. These unusual buildings are a feature of the Bedfordshire landscape and reflect the importance of market gardening to the county from the 17th century right through to the modern period, particularly centred around Sandy. By the 1930s, the main market gardening areas were situated on the terraces of the Ivel and Ouse valleys and on the Lower Greensand east and west of Sandy and it is no accident that the main railway links within the county go through the key growing areas enabling the farmers to get their crops to a variety of markets. Writing in 1810, G. A. Cooke in his Topographical and Statistical Description of the County of Bedford described the vast quantities of onions grown around Sandy, commenting “… they always manure them with great care.., the average crop is about 200 bushels…”.

  An example of an onion barn at Cople

An example of an onion barn at Cople

  Onion drying floor within a larger onion barn

Onion drying floor within a larger onion barn

The earliest onion sheds to have been identified date from around 1870. These are characterised by timber construction, often with some quite sophisticated carpentry. There are some very large timber examples from this period - mostly as lofts over cart-sheds. Despite their size, none of them seem to have stairs and the floors are instead accessed via ladders. These earlier examples also have quite involved design to control ventilation – with rows of hinged flaps that could be opened up. Later on, in the 20th century, a class of dedicated onion sheds of very simple, garden shed style construction appears. Examples like this, often located are beyond the historic centre of the onion production in Sandy & Biggleswade, probably reflect expansion of trade made possible by availability of lorry transport.