Without him millions of Brits would end up soaking wet every time it rains.
But surprisingly few people have heard of Jonas Hanway or realise the huge impact of this eccentric 18th century figure.
One of Portsmouth’s unsung heroes, in the 1750s he became the first man in England to regularly use an item we now take for granted – the humble umbrella.
And like many pioneers Hanway suffered scorn for being ahead of his time; in London he was mocked in the streets for carrying around this strange ‘portable roof’. Although common in France the umbrella hadn’t caught on in England and earned him cries of ‘Frenchman! Frenchman!’ from passing coach-drivers, simply for keeping his head dry. He was also a renowned philanthropist, campaigner and contrarian; never afraid to take up fringe positions which put him at odds with polite society.
These included demanding reforms of the UK’s child labour laws and even taking on great man of letters Dr Samuel Johnson in a row over the detrimental effects of drinking tea.
But to celebrate his most enduring contribution to modern life Portsmouth’s Groundlings Theatre has decided to dedicate a day to Jonas Hanway and his umbrella – inviting performances from across the area.
Theatre artistic director Richard Stride said the celebrations have been timed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Hanway’s birth on August 12, 1712.
He said: ‘I was first told about Jonas by a woman who loved this theatre and supported it for money years.
‘Then I realised this year that it was the 300th anniversary of his birth, so I thought “let’s do something to mark it”.
‘We decided to use the umbrella as a theme because under the umbrella of art there are so many different things. So we’ve got everything from Red Hat displays to sport-themed performances. Jonas Hanway is almost a forgotten hero. So few people realise that this important figure even existed, let alone came from Portsmouth.
‘We should be celebrating all the pioneers and great people born in this city.’
In 1712 Hanway was born in Kent Street, Portsea, after his father was sent to Portsmouth by the navy.
The young man’s family connections gained him an apprenticeship as a merchant in Lisbon, where he stayed for 12 years, beginning his long-standing love of travelling. He obtained a post in Russia before returning, via journeys through Germany and the Netherlands, to England in 1750.
And it was while travelling in Persia on business that Hanway first had the idea which would make him famous. The Persians had been using parasols for some time, since they were imported by Chinese merchants on the Silk Road. So the ever-health-conscious Englishman decided to use one to protect himself from the inclement British weather.
Hanway was also said to sport several layers of stockings and wore flannel underwear to ward off ill-health, which he worried about a great deal throughout his 74-year life. An account of his travels turned out to be an unexpected hit and by his death he had published 85 works. But in 1756 he sparked controversy when he wrote An Essay on Tea, in which he declared: ‘This flatulent liquor shortens the lives of great numbers of people.’
Hanway was passionately anti-tea, which he claimed caused nervous disorders, made women ugly, and led to the poor spending all their wages on tea and not feeding their children. This caused ardent tea-enthusiast Dr Johnson to mock him mercilessly, famously stating that Hanway ‘had acquired some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it all by travelling at home’.
But far from merely being an outspoken oddball, at the age of 44 he became a governor of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital and dedicated the rest of his life to philanthropy.
Among his many achievements were setting up the Marine Society to recruit boys into the navy without having to press gang; founding the Magdalen Hospital for penitent prostitutes; successfully campaigning for registers of parish poor children in London and Westminster; and tirelessly working to improve the lives of young chimney sweeps, prisoners and servants.
After his death in 1786, a memorial was set up to him in Westminster Abbey – the first ever to commemorate a philanthropist.
IN HONOUR of Jonas Hanway’s greatest gift to Britain The Groundlings Theatre in Kent Street, Portea, will host Umbrella Festivities on Sunday, August 12.
From 1pm to 7pm it will feature all different kinds of acts, performers and theatre groups including the Kings Theatre Stage school and Groundlings Drama School. There will also be live music, dance, book launches, photography and fine art exhibitions, Red Hat displays, a fashion show, comedy, poetry, creative writing, radio presenting, sword sighting, make-up, costume, drama groups, circus skills, and arts and craft stalls.
Taking part in the event is free and so is entry to the festival for visitors.
If people are interested in either taking part or holding a stall or would like more information contact the Groundlings Theatre on (023) 9273 7370. Or visit groundlings.co.uk