Jonas Hanway’s life was full of adventures and good deeds, but he is most remembered as being the first man to carry an umbrella on the streets of London.
Born in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, Jonas’ travels began at age 17 when he was apprenticed to a merchant in Portugal. Later he returned to London and set up his own business. Things began to get interesting, though, in 1743 when, at age 31, he partnered with a textile trader in St. Petersburg, Russia. He set out from Russia to Persia (now Iran) on a mission to form new trade alliances. He did succeed, but only after a year and a half filled with many harrowing experiences.
When he returned to England in 1750 at age 38, he became very civic minded and got involved in all sorts of social issues: He founded the Marine Society to recruit and train seamen, was vice president of a children’s home, established a home for “fallen women,” worked toward getting streets paved, and campaigned against using little boys as chimney sweeps. For some reason, he was also against tea drinking, and naturalizing Jews. He wrote profusely and published many pamphlets. But what is Jonas Hanley most remembered for…? He carried an umbrella.
He Carried an Umbrella
Yes, Jonas Hanway was the first man in England to carry a brolly. Umbrellas were nothing new, they had been used in various forms since ancient times – mostly parasols in hot countries to keep off the sun. But in the seventeenth century, the French coated the parasol with wax to repel the rain. They also developed the folding umbrella as we know it today. Even though in France brollies were used by both sexes, in England, they were considered a strictly feminine article. Real men either got wet or took a taxi.
So when Jonas was seen on London streets with his brolly, some laughed at him, some called him effeminate, or worse – a Frenchie. And the cabbies were really upset. Seeing a man on the street with an umbrella meant that he wouldn’t be hailing a cab and they didn’t want that to catch on. They threw taunts, jeers and even rotten fruit at him.
But did that bother Jonas? Not a bit. You see, when he was in Persia on his first overseas trading trip, he had experienced much worse…
Wars Can’t Stop Him
He arrived in Persia with a load of English cloth that he planned to trade for silk. But almost as soon he arrived, he was caught up in a regional uprising and was captured in Astrabad. All his British cloth was stolen, and he was almost taken as a slave before he managed to escape. He travelled for nearly a month (250 miles) on foot, horseback, camel, and leaky boat, all the while dodging the roaming rebel forces. He was going to find the Shah and ask to be reimbursed for his loses.
Jonas finally found the Shah, who was preparing for a battle against the rebels. After he had been made to wait for a few days, Jonas was allowed to present his request. The Shah said, “Of course, no problem. I’ll reimburse you for what the rebels stole. Just take this note back to my general in Astrabad and he’ll sort it out for you.”
Do It All Again
Astrabad! Jonas gritted his teeth and began the perilous 250-mile journey back to where he had just come from. The Shah dispatched a few guards to accompany him, but they soon disappeared, and he was left on his own. On the way back, poor Jonas faced all the same perils as before with the addition of being stalked by hungry wolves.
After a month and a half, he arrived back in Astrabad and showed the letter to the general who said, “Of course, no problem. We’ll sort it out, but it’ll take a few days.” After a few weeks had passed, Jonas went back to the general to ask about his money. The general admitted that the Shah had taken some of it, so he could only give Jonas about 85%. But he offered to give him some slave girls that he could sell to make up the difference. Jonas politely declined the slaves and left with his 85%.
I Want My Silk
But Jonas wasn’t about to give up and go home yet. No, he was going to get his silk. After all, that’s why he had come. So he set off on a 180-mile journey to Reshd. He arrived in September 1744 – one year after he had arrived in Persia. He was finally within reach of the silk he had come for. Unfortunately, due to the rough year he had had, he became very ill and took two months to recover. But as soon as he was well, he bought his silk and jumped on a ship back to Russia.
After a little run in with pirates, the ship reached the shores of Russia. But the authorities said that plague had been reported in Persia, and he would have to be quarantined for six weeks. Finally, nearly a year and a half after he had set out on his journey, he returned to St. Petersburg with silk in hand. He had gone for silk and, by golly, he had returned with silk.
London Cabbies Can’t Scare Him
So when the London cabbies called Jonas names and threw things at him, he hardly even noticed. If the Persian warriors couldn’t scare him off, the cabbies didn’t stand a chance. He completely ignored them and just went about his business – in the rain with his perfectly practical umbrella keeping him dry. And as it turned out, his brolly also made a good shield when rotten fruit was thrown at him.
Eventually, other soaking wet English men saw him walking along nice and dry under his umbrella, and they decided it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Today nearly every self-respecting Londoner carries a brolly. And it’s all thanks to our brave and determined Jonas Hanway.
Read more stories like this in my book – Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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Image sources: Image 1-3: public domain — Image 4-5: CuriousRambler.com
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