Never Despair – the life of Jonas Hanway

I referred to Jonas Hanway in an earlier post as being the first recorded man in England to use the umbrella, but having looked into a little of his life, it’s clear he was in fact an important philanthropist. The following is a brief biography.

Hanway was born in Portsmouth in 1712, the second of four children to Thomas Hanway, victualler to the Navy, and his wife Mary Hoghen. Two years after Jonas’ birth, his father died as a result of a fall from a horse, and in 1728, at the age of 16, Jonas was sent to live with his uncle in Oxford St, London. Wealthy and connected, the following year Major John Hanway sent his nephew to the Iberian peninsula as an apprentice merchant to an English factory in Lisbon.

Jonas spent the next twelve years in Portugal, developing eccentricities in dress and views, tipping pretty servant girls, and enjoying the company of reformed prostitutes. He experienced an unhappy love affair in Portugal, the only romantic interest he was ever thought to have enjoyed.

In 1741, Jonas returned to London, joining the Russia Company as a junior partner. In April of the same year he sailed to Riga, from where he travelled overland to St Petersburg, to make preparations for an expedition to Persia. His plan was to exchange English broadcloth for Persian silks, and to assess potential trading opportunities between England and Persia.He set forth with only a small handful of assistants, travelling to Moscow where he boarded a British ship to cross the Caspian to Langarud.  Disembarking, Hanway’s party was ambushed. All his goods were stolen and he was forced to escape in disguise. He was eventually rescued, but as a result of this experience he coined his personal motto, ‘Never despair’, and spent the next five years in St Petersburg trying to recover his trade.

Hanway returned to London in 1750, and took lodgings in the Strand with his half-sister and her husband, a prosperous wool merchant. He took active interest in the Russia Company, conducting business from John’s Coffee House east of the Royal Exchange. Always a handsome and well-dressed man, he developed a habit at this time of carrying both a sword and an umbrella, attracting much attention, since swords had long fallen out of fashion and umbrellas were the strict domain of women. In addition he wore flannel underwear and several pairs of socks to ward of ill health.

In 1753, Jonas published An Historical Account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea (in four volumes). This was the first of many publications which eventually led to him being regarded in some circles as ‘one of the most indefatigable and splendid bores of English history’. In the same year he wrote arguments in favour of paving lighting and cleaning the streets of Westminster, and against a bill proposing the naturalisation of Jews.

The death of his mother in 1755 afforded Hanway another opportunity for publication. Travelling to Portsmouth for her funeral, he was inspired to write A Journal of Eight Days Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston upon Thames, to which he attached his curious An Essay on Tea: ‘I have long considered tea, not only as a prejudicial article of commerce; but also of a most pernicious tendency with regard to domestic industry and labour; and very injurious to health’. This publication led to Dr Johnson commenting drily that Hanway may have ‘acquired some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it all by travelling at home.’

In 1756, Jonas donated £50 to the Foundling Hospital in London and was subsequently elected its governor. He supported the Stepney Society, which apprenticed poor boys to marine trades, and the Troop Society, which provided shoes and clothing to British soldiers in Germany and North America. He also generously supported the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes which opened in 1758.

He pursued his charity work vigorously, writing pamphlets, and publishing letters on the health and welfare of London’s poor children. In 1762, an act was passed requiring all London parishes to keep records of children in their care, and this subsequently became known as Hanway’s Act. In 1767, he wrote a persuasive pamphlet, leading to a further act requiring homeless London infants to be cared for in the country. This, according to some modern historians, was ‘the only piece of eighteenth-century legislation dealing with the poor which was an unqualified success.’

Hanway spent the remainder of his life working for good causes. He continued to write, publishing eighty five works, six of them in several volumes, during his lifetime. Hanway died in September 1786, at his home on Red Lion Square. In 1788 a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, commemorating his life as a philanthropist, the first memorial for charitable deeds in England.

Source: DNB

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