Famous Londoners – Jonas Hanway…

March 23, 2020

Jonas Hanway is famous for being the first man in London to dare carry an umbrella publicly, but there was much more to the life of this merchant, traveller and philanthropist.

Hanway was born in mid-1712, in Portsmouth on England’s south coast, and he was still just a child when his father Thomas, whose job involved ensuring the supply of food to the Royal Navy, died in 1714.

Hanway’s family may have subsequently settled in Hampshire but in 1728 Jonas himself was in London. There, it is speculated that he stayed with his uncle Major John Hanway (after whom Hanway Street, which runs off Tottenham Court Road, is named) in Oxford Street briefly before he was packed off as an apprentice to the English ‘factory’ in Lisbon, Portugal.

Hanway is said to have spent more than a decade in Lisbon learning the job of a merchant before returning to London in 1741. He joined the Russia Company as a junior partner in 1743 and subsequently headed off to St Petersburg where he planned and then launched an expedition to Persia via Moscow and Astrakan with hopes of selling English broadcloth in exchange for Russian silk and evaluating the trade potential of the region.

But his caravan robbed by Khyars, allies of the Turkomens, before he even reached Persia and he was forced to flee in disguise along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea until he was rescued by fellow merchants.

Returning to St Petersburg, Hanway spent the next five years working there before returning to England, via Germany and the Netherlands.

Back in London, he continued working with the Russia Company (as well as penning an account of his adventures in Russia and Persia in 1753 – it was the most popular of several books he wrote).

He also started venturing into philanthropy, becoming a governor of the Foundling Hospital and founding The Marine Society – an organisation to ensure the ongoing supply of sailors for the Royal Navy – in 1756. In 1762 he was appointed a commissioner for victualling the Royal Navy, a post he held for a couple of decades.

Hanway was also an instrumental figure in the founding of Whitechapel’s Magdalen Hospital for women who had become pregnant outside of marriage which opened in 1758. Other causes among the wide variety he was vocal on included helping ensure poor children were better looked after through the keeping of better records, advocating for better working conditions for child chimney sweep apprentices, and calling for an end to tea drinking (a cause which saw him cross swords with none other than Samuel Johnson).

Hanway died on 5th September, 1786, and was buried in the crypt of St Mary’s Church in Hanwell. A monument to him, sculpted by John Francis Moore, was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1786 in commemoration of his philanthropy.

As for that umbrella carrying? While women had apparently been carrying them in public since 1705, Hanway become the first man to do so in the early 1750s following a trip to Paris. Despite the public opprobrium he attracted – particularly from the hackney coachmen, whose business his habit threatened if widely adopted – it was Hanway who, evidently, had the last laugh.

PICTURE: A portrait of Jonas Hanway by James Northcote (1785) © National Portrait Gallery (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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