Guest Post by Adrian Teal – Philanthropy, Umbrellas and Tea: The Life of Jonas Hanway

It gives me great pleasure to welcome gentleman and artist Ade Teal to the blog.  He can write and draw, which puts him at least one and a half skills ahead of me. Enjoy.

Jonas Hanway (1712–1786) is an unsung hero whose kindness and eccentricities deserve a more prominent place in history than they have enjoyed until now…

To many, Hanway will always be remembered as the first man in London to carry an umbrella. This attracted much ridicule in the 1750s, especially from the city’s coach-drivers, who were worried they would lose trade on rainy days if the idea caught on. The umbrella, or ‘portable roof’, was a common sight in Paris, and Londoners regularly bombarded Hanway with cries of ‘Frenchman! Frenchman! Why don’t you call a coach?’ Umbrellas were a curiosity in England, and because Daniel Defoe’s popular character, Robinson Crusoe, fashioned one for himself from skins, they were often referred to as ‘Robinsons’ in both England and France. Hanway got the idea in Persia while travelling on business. The Persians had been using parasols for some time, since they were imported by Chinese merchants on the Silk Road. In addition to protecting himself from the inclement British weather with an umbrella, Hanway sported several layers of stockings, and wore flannel underwear to ward off ill-health, which he worried about a great deal throughout his seventy-four years.In 1756, Hanway wrote a book entitled A Journal of Eight Days’ Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston upon Thames. Like most of his writings, it was a turgid tome, and was inspired by a gloomy trip he took to the place where his mother was buried. However, the book had an appendix, called An Essay on Tea, which became hugely controversial. Hanway was vehemently anti-tea, and believed that its high cost and the time taken to brew it were having an adverse effect on the poor and the country’s productivity. After travelling around the country and making his own observations, he wrote, ‘this flatulent liquor shortens the lives of great numbers of people’. He claimed it caused ‘paralitic [sic] and nervous disorders’, and that it was responsible for making women ugly, and for ‘weak digestion, low spirits, lassitudes’ and ‘melancholy’. The poor, he thought, were spending all their wages on tea and not feeding their children, leading to a decline in the workforce and leaving the army short of recruits at a time when national defence was uppermost in people’s minds due to the Seven Years War. He urged the rich to give up tea, in the hope that the lower orders would follow the example of their ‘betters’.

On the health front, he had a point. The quality of the tea the poor were consuming was highly questionable, and some unscrupulous vendors were selling ‘tea’ made from dried blackthorn leaves, and adding poisonous substances to simulate green tea, which had the effect of making black tea more popular with the discerning enthusiast. Two of Hanway’s notable opponents were tea-enthusiasts Oliver Goldsmith and Dr Samuel Johnson. Johnson entered into a slanging match with Hanway in the press. He claimed that for twenty years he had been a tea-drinker, ‘who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning’, and rejected Hanway’s claims that tea caused nervous disorders in the idle. Johnson mocked Hanway mercilessly, and stated that he ‘had acquired some reputation by traveling [sic] abroad, but lost it all by traveling at home’.

Hanway was very involved with the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes, and used to invite reformed prostitutes to his house, sometimes giving them small gifts. There was never any suggestion of hanky-panky, however. Hanway had boxes dotted around the Hospital premises so that the women could make discreet complaints about any ill-treatment or unkindness they had been subjected to.Another passion was the Foundling Hospital, and he gave £50 to the charity – the largest donation Hanway ever made. He became the Hospital’s Governor in 1756, and set about recruiting new foster parents across the country, and appointing local inspectors to monitor them. The artist William Hogarth was also very committed to the Foundling Hospital, and it became a showcase for up-and-coming artists eager to be associated with a worthy cause. One such young artist was Thomas Gainsborough, who donated a picture to the institution in 1748. Gainsborough also met Hanway’s antagonist, Dr Johnson. Johnson was notorious for his nervous tics, twitches and gesticulations, and the impressionable Gainsborough acquired some of these habits himself for a month or two. He couldn’t keep still when asleep or awake, and later said, ‘I fancied that I was changed into a Chinese automaton, and condemned incessantly to shake my head’. Exhibitions at the Hospital were organized by the Dilettante Society, the organization for gentlemen art enthusiasts who had spent a lot of time getting drunk on the Grand Tour. The artistic leanings of the Foundling Hospital eventually led to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts, founded by Joshua Reynolds (another Hospital exhibitor) with the help of other prominent figures, including Gainsborough.

Hanway founded the Marine Society in 1756, which was established to man the navy by means other than the feared press gang. The Society began by offering clothes and bedding to tempt recruits into the service, but they often absconded with their new kit. So the society recruited poor boys as officers’ servants, grooming them to become seamen later on. The first two lads the Marine Society recruited were four-foot nine-inch seventeen-year-old, Robert Rogers, and four-foot six-inch thirteen-year-old, Joseph Buckley. Their diminutive stature speaks volumes about how malnourished and neglected they must have been before Hanway took an interest in them. By the end of the Seven Years War, the society had recruited 5,552 men, and 4,787 boys. To modern eyes, it might seem that they were being lifted out of poverty only to risk life and limb for their war-mongering rulers, but the navy offered a real chance to learn a trade and better themselves, at a time when social mobility was relatively restricted.In 1762 Hanway was appointed Navy Victualling Commissioner, and took on the task of improving the terrible food that seamen were supplied with. His writings led to the first dietary experiment in the Navy, whereby sailors involved in the American War of Independence were given sauerkraut to see if it prevented the horrors of scurvy.

In later years, Hanway took an interest in countless causes, including the plight of chimney sweeps, and helped to form a friendly society to assist them and provide them with guardians. He also campaigned against the practice of tipping servants, which he felt was an excuse for their masters to keep them on low wages. Two Acts of Parliament he lobbied tirelessly for became known as ‘Hanway’s Acts’. The first, in 1762, required parishes to keep records of children in their care to provide the basis for reform. The second, and arguably his most successful endeavour, was pushed through in 1767, and required parishes to remove poor and abused infants from the dangers of London to the care of rural nurses. It saved hundreds of lives.After his death in 1786, a memorial was set up to him in Westminster Abbey, and was the first ever to commemorate a philanthropist. The saddest aspect of his story is that his character and writings were mocked during his lifetime for being dull, but if Hanway proves anything it’s that even someone once described as ‘one of the most indefatigable and splendid bores of English history’ can do worthy, wonderful and interesting things.

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7 thoughts on “Guest Post by Adrian Teal – Philanthropy, Umbrellas and Tea: The Life of Jonas Hanway

  1. Lilla Bruna Elk

    Fascinating post – his hatred of tea and his miserablist writings are far out weighed by his deeds. I’m sure though that a good cup of tea would have cheered him up no end.

  2. Marilyn Watson

    This is a fascinating article about the one individual who campaigned against so many things ranging from tea to penitent prostitutes. He certainly isn’t dull on paper!

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