Let it rain!
It’s uncertain when man first started using anything that could properly be described as an umbrella but there’s archaeological evidence from murals and decorated pottery that portable sun shelters were commonplace in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece long before the birth of Christ. The word “umbrella” means “little shade”, and it’s likely that the first umbrellas were designed to provide protection from the sun rather than to ward off rain.
Surely too, Stone Age man must have sought to fashion some sort of canopy from leaves or hide, that he could carry with him for protection against the elements as he went about his business. The trouble is, though, it’s difficult to do much that’s useful on the move if you’re using both hands to grapple with any cover that’s big enough to keep you either cool or dry. This is probably why in the Ancient World an umbrella became a status symbol. Royalty would travel protected by an umbrella carried by a slave whose comfort was considered of little importance, and in many cultures umbrellas also acquired religious significance.
The British weather is such that the word umbrella has come to mean a device you carry against the almost inevitability of a sudden shower. The French are a bit more precise: a parapluie keeps off rain and a parasol shelters from the sun. Generally the only time we use a parasol in Britain is on the patio over the picnic table on the few hot days in the year..
Rain umbrellas of the traditional familiar canopy shape first made an appearance in England during the Restoration in the late 1600s. They were strictly an accessory for society ladies. Made from silk and probably trimmed with fringing, frills or feathers they would only withstand the lightest of showers before becoming soggy and useless. By about 1700 this problem had been partly overcome by waxing the fabric canopy to make it water resistant, and the umbrella gradually became an everyday item – amongst women.
For several more decades men continued to regard umbrellas as effeminate. The eventual change in attitude is attributed to one, Jonas Hanway, who carried an umbrella with him everywhere he went in London, despite the jeers and ridicule. He stayed relatively dry whilst those who taunted him often got soaked. Unsurprisingly, in the light of this, men started to carry brollies, and for a time rain umbrellas were referred to as “Hanways”. In 1786 another umbrella man called John Beale took out a patent for a model that had a circular domed canopy, a central shaft and whalebone ribs.
By the late 1700s and early 1800s there were so many umbrellas being carried by the jostling crowds on the streets of London that they became something of a hazard, both to other pedestrians and sometimes to property, and tempers were often frayed. Umbrella rage was probably common. Carriage drivers didn’t like them because the number of people dashing for a cab in a downpour diminished and trade dropped, and it wasn’t unknown for cabbies to deliberately splatter mud on pedestrians. The social elite, whose preserve the umbrella had once been, were derogatory about umbrella-carriers who were clearly people too common to travel by coach.
These early umbrellas were awkward and cumbersome. To be useful a brolly needs to be able to be folded when not in use and this was a problem. Around 1800 a rain umbrella would be made from wood, whalebone and waxed cloth or leather and would weigh about 10lb (4.5kg) – like lugging four or five bags of sugar around with you. Fortunately an increase in popularity of an item usually leads to improvements in its design, and so it was with the brolly in the 19th century. Enter Samuel Fox – who has a Four Shires connection!
Samuel Fox was born in Bradwell, Derbyshire on the 17th June 1815 and as a young lad was apprenticed to a wire drawer in nearby Hathersage. He took to the work and in 1842 set up his own business. He married in the same year and in 1843 their son William Henry Fox was born. The business prospered, and in 1851 Fox Umbrella Frames Ltd invented and developed the “Paragon” umbrella frame, and it is this innovation for which he is renowned. He designed spring steel ribs that were U-shaped in cross-section and were far better than anything his competitors had come up with. This innovation revolutionised the manufacture of umbrellas because they could be made much lighter and more manageable and were easier to fold when wet. What a difference that made!
What’s less frequently reported is that from around 1855 the same technology was used to make crinolines, the hooped underskirts that supported the fashionably wide skirts that women wore in the 19th century. Both branches of the business were very successful.
Then, as now, wealthy businessmen invested their profits in property and Samuel Fox bought estates in both Yorkshire and Oxfordshire. In 1871 he purchased the Bradwell Grove Estate at Holwell near Burford. Anyone who has visited the Cotswold Wildlife Park will know what the Bradwell Grove mansion looks like – it’s the impressive building that’s at the centre of the Park, in front of which the white rhino roam. If you’ve been on a group visit there you may even have listened to a talk in what was Samuel Fox’s drawing room, and taken lunch in the orangery.
Samuel Fox died in 1887 at his Yorkshire estate near Market Weighton and was buried there. His son William Henry who was briefly involved with the company appears to have preferred to live primarily in Oxfordshire and after his father’s death, he and his mother lived in Holwell. He was a local magistrate and in 1883 was both Deputy Lieutenant and Sheriff of the county. Referred to locally as “Squire Fox” he was a generous benefactor to the community.
In the 1870s he had the church of St Mary the Virgin at Holwell rebuilt at his expense and provided a new village school. William Henry Fox was much respected in Holwell, and the stained glass east window in St Mary’s is a memorial to him. Both he and his mother are buried in the churchyard.
Confusingly whilst the inventor Samuel Fox’s company that patented and sold steel umbrella frames was called Fox Umbrella Frames Ltd, another, unrelated Fox, Thomas, owned a London-based business selling umbrellas – T. Fox and co. For various reasons neither of these original companies still exist but today a prestige umbrella-making company trading as Fox Umbrellas Ltd has elements of both these predecessors – but no Foxes!
Many improvements in umbrella manufacture have been made since Samuel Fox’s day. Modern manmade fabrics that are lightweight and water repellant have replaced waxed or oiled silk or canvas and folding mechanisms are better, such that you can have a telescopic folding brolly that’ll fit in your pocket or handbag if you wish, but in essence the design of the 19th century umbrella has found its way into the 21st century. It seems likely to stay for the foreseeable future despite experiments with aerodynamic shapes and space age technology.
Most of us have a brolly – or two. It could be one that doubles as a walking stick, or a fashion accessory that’s also useful if it rains; a cheapie that you hide in your tote for emergencies, or a colour-coordinated design to flaunt that matches your outfit. You may use an enormous multicoloured golf umbrella that guarantees you space on the pavement or have no shame about advertising the services of whoever gave you that promotional freebie, whose lurid colours have faded but that doesn’t wear out. Most of us lose a brolly – or two, but never that one.
Umbrellas have famously been used as weapons of attack. In 1978 the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed on a London street by a ricin pellet injected via a modified umbrella. In fiction, John Steed in the television series The Avengers had one that doubled as a swordstick and the umbrella sported by The Penguin in the film Batman Returns could fire bullets and gas.
They can also be used as a means of defence. The 2014 Hong Kong Protests were also often referred to as the Umbrella Revolution because the thousands of students taking part attempted to protect themselves with umbrellas against the onslaught of tear gas and pepper sprays used by the riot police. The umbrella that must take the prize as a means of protection, though, is surely the £10,000 Kevlar-coated armour-plated umbrella said to have been carried by a body guard of Nicolas Sarkozy when he was president of France. He won’t be needing it now!
Today most of the umbrellas used worldwide are made in China, but you can still buy British made versions in a variety of colours, designs and finishes. Bespoke is also available (including probably a swordstick model if that’s your wish.). What better way to celebrate National Umbrella Day than to treat yourself to a personalised umbrella? In case you’d forgotten it falls on February 10th – not long to go!
With grateful thanks to Diane Blackett, curator of the Filkins Museum and to Charles Cottrell-Dormer of Rousham for allowing photography of Fox memorabilia.