On this day - 10th Apr 1633: The banana arrives in Britain

Another fun little On This Day blog today - this time the 382nd anniversary of the arrival to Britain of the banana! 

Similar to my recent blog on shoelaces, this date is now slightly disputed by archeologists who have found apparent evidence of a banana in the Thames in the Tudor era (1500’s). This discovery would make it much much earlier than the banana I want to talk about today but, as with shoelaces, I didn’t want to miss the chance of a truly bananas anniversary (see what I did there…?) So, here goes...

Banana picture

By Mgmoscatello (Own work)
 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We commonly think of the arrival of the banana as a fairly recent thing, an example of 20th century commercialisation, but it actually made its way onto our shelves as long ago as 1633. Well to be precise, onto one shelf. A shelf that was the property of a Mr Thomas Johnson. Mr Johnson ran an apothecary in London in the seventeenth century and had an apparent fondness for the soft yellow fruit which we consume in such vast quantities today. He was so fond of it in fact that he went to great trouble to stock it for his customers, adding bananas (from Bermuda!) to his shelves on 10th April 1633. I say trouble because this was, of course, well before the arrival of refrigerated ships, which could ease the 3447 mile journey and ensure the soft, delicate fruit arrived in a presentable state.  Mr Johnson was certainly an enterprising and daring sort of man. I rather like to imagine that Mr Thomas Johnson looks like Mr Johnson of Johnson’s Universal Stores from the BBC’s Cranford (for those of you who have seen it). Their famous boast that “Johnson’s Universal Stores can get you anything” certainly seems a mantra extolled by their predecessor. How Mr Thomas Johnson’s bananas arrived in one piece and still edible we shall never know but arrive they did. They even made their way into a book. 

Gerard's Herball, 1633, title page

Thomas Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For alongside running his shop and advice centre Mr Johnson was a published herbalist and he added a beautiful woodcut of his prize yellow bunch into his 1633 edition of John Gerard’s “The herball or generall historie of plantes.” Mr Johnson was well known and admired for his skills as a herbalist and so I have no doubt that this woodcut of the banana would have interested many, even if they did not recognise it. As an interesting aside, Mr Johnson referred to them as being a “hand” of bananas, a phrase that has sadly been replaced by a “bunch” of bananas in common with other fruits such as grapes. This, I feel, is rather a shame as a ‘hand of bananas’ seems rather a fun term. Much more so than bunch which is more appropriate for flowers than bananas. You can imagine the delight in a green grocers heart when they are asked for bananas and may reply: “would you like a finger or a full hand?” It is an opportunity shamefully wasted. Perhaps, I shall try and bring the term back in. Anyone for a hand of bananas? 


Thomas Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, Mr Johnson failed to bring a hand of bananas into general circulation in more ways than just in terminology and it wasn’t until the 19th century that bananas really began being imported to Britain. In fact it wasn’t really until the 20th century that they arrived in more like the quantities we are familiar with today. A long time but we make up for the loss of our ancestors consuming on average 12kg of the fruit a year each. And that’s a lot of banana! 

Agriculture, Indonesia (10665696996)

Bananas being sold at a market in Lombok, Indonesia. Photo by Josh Estey.
Josh Estey/AusAID [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, our lovely Mr Johnson did not start a revolution but he was certainly a pioneer. A man who peeled when no others had dared to peel. A man who proudly and definitely placed a yellow hand in his show window and asked his customers to eat it. He was a man who achieved wide respect for his skills. He was a man who wrote a beautiful book but most importantly, he was the man who brought Britain the banana.

© Isla Robertson 2017