Puppydog tails — 30 March 2012

First invented in China over 4,000 years ago when some enterprising chap took the parasol that had been used to provide shelter from the sun and waterproofed its paper cone with wax and lacquer rendering it both ugly and waterproof. Before we had a drought the umbrella’s spiritual home was London. Originally designed as an accessory for women, it took a brave soul to promote its masculine use.

Enter writer and philanthropist Jonas Hanway who in the mid-18th century carried an umbrella for 30 years. His eccentric manner gave his name to the contraption – which previously had taken the Latin word ‘umbra’ meaning shade – and for a time it was referred to a ‘Hanway’.

His persistence came at a price for he incurred a good deal of ridicule, Hackney carriage drivers would try to splash Hanway and hustle him to the kerb because they feared the umbrella’s detri­mental effect on their foul-weather trade. The cabbies needn’t have worried you can never find a taxi in the rain to this day.

Due to our past inclement weather the umbrella has become a ubiquitous feature of London life and one shop has done more to promote its use than any other.

In 1830 James Smith opened London’s first dedicated umbrella shop in Soho’s Foubert’s Place. When the brolly business outgrew its cramped premises, Smith’s son, also called James, opened two new shops and the one in New Oxford Street remains to this day, a perfect example of a Victorian shop with its original brass and mahogany shop front and interior fittings.

With the continuous procession of buses parked in the road with their engine’s running inside it’s an oasis of calm. The service from the helpful staff are redolent of an earlier, less hurried age. Choose the wood you like, select the size of cover, be measured for the correct length and then wait for five minutes while the ferrule is fitted.

You might have to save for a rainy day for a bespoke brolly they cost £250 – £280 per umbrella. So for security the handle should on no account be adorned with a maker’s name so that upon it can be engraved your initials – especially useful to the waiters in those restaurants in which the differentiation of customers’ belongings carries a low priority, or when you inadvertently leave behind your precious brolly in my cab.

Now you are equipped – not simply with a well-made, properly functioning umbrella, but with a statement to the world in this the Jubilee Year that you are English and proud of it.

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Gibson

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