A great British eccentric and his umbrella

Jonas Hanway with umbrella10 February is Umbrella Day, so it is a good day to remember a true British eccentric, explorer and philanthropist, Jonas Hanway, who was instrumental in introducing that great British accessory – the umbrella – to the men of the UK.

Hanway was sent to London as a young boy, where he lived with his uncle, Major John Hanway, in Oxford Street; the nearby Hanway Street is named after that uncle. The teenaged Jonas was sent to Portugal as a merchant apprentice and spent many years there. According to one source, “Some of his later eccentricities in dress, as well as his philanthropy, can be traced to these formative years.”

His eccentricities of dress included carrying a sword and umbrella; swords by then were unfashionable and umbrellas were considered effeminate and unseemly for British men. In those days umbrellas were used primarily by women and were viewed as protection from the sun rather than from the rain.

It was not until Hanway, incurring the wrath of cab drivers and the amusement of small boys and passersby, persevered in his use of the umbrella that they became associated with rain. For years after his death, however, it was still considered unmanly to use them – as late as 1818 the Duke of Wellington banned his troops from using them.

According to John Pugh, Hanway’s contemporary biographer, Hanway “loved the society of women”; he was a supporter of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes in Whitechapel and he would entertain reformed prostitutes in his home, providing them with small gifts.

Back to the umbrella: Hanway also raised funds to relieve victims of foreign fires, one of which was in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1766. Barbados is the birthplace of singer Rihanna who had a hit song called ‘Umbrella’.

Among the streets associated with Hanway are Red Lion Square, once rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of Oliver Cromwell and Strand, where he lodged and could be seen walking to the Coffee House near the Royal Exchange, where he conducted business.

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