Dry March weather

  • Dry March weather
    31.03.2011 15:50


    To the chagrin of umbrella manufacturers up and down the land, spring has so far been unusually dry.

    Scotland has had about its normal amount of precipitation but Northern Ireland is below the long-term average, while England and Wales have just had their driest March since 1990, and the seventh driest in the last 100 years.

    That is peanuts, though, compared with the spring and early-summer drought of 1893, when little rain fell on the southern UK for 15 weeks. Mile End, in east London, was said to have received no rainfall for 73 consecutive days.

    By the late 19th century the umbrella was a common sight – except, presumably, during the first half of 1893 – and the Rolls Royce of brollies was the Paragon, designed by Samuel Fox around the middle of the century. The “Fox Frame” umbrella was sold around the world, continually developing until the 1930s.

    Fox pioneered the use of a metal skeleton comprising U-shaped ribs. This made it easier to collapse than older styles and prevented the damp wrestling matches in which earlier Victorians had engaged with their wooden or baleen constructions.

    The umbrella was not always a popular accoutrement, at least amongst gentlemen. It had arrived on our shores in noticeable numbers in the 17th Century, possibly introduced from Portugal by Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II.

    It was already popular across much of European society but employed more as a parasol than a protection against the rain, a use which remains enshrined in the name itself. Umbrella, perhaps originally in Britain “umbrello”, derives from the Italian “ombrello” and the French “ombrelle”, both forged from the Latin either for shade, umbra, or for a flat-topped flower, umbella..

    Pale skin was fashionable, so umbrellas were carried by women as a sun shade until the development of waterproof materials in the late 17th century.

    At that point their advantage as a “rain shade” was seized upon, and coffee houses kept them to shield their customers in the few steps to their carriages.

    It was not until the middle of the 18th century that a gentleman and philanthropist called Jonas Hanway decided to stride around town with his umbrella, braving ridicule and no doubt the occasional brickbat. In those unenlightened times, to carry an umbrella was still seen as hopelessly effeminate. 

    It is quite likely that certain ne’er-do-wells were encouraged by carriage drivers, fearful of any dent in their incomes; but thanks to this brave pioneer the popularity of the umbrella spread, and it was for a while known as a “Hanway”.

    The umbrella is far older than this, however, with written evidence of similar devices in China in 21 AD and more tenuous clues from as early as the 11th century BC. There are also sculptures and carvings from ancient Nineveh, Persepolis and Egypt.

    The umbrella or parasol was in its early days a sign of rank, and in Assyria it was for a while forbidden for anybody to carry one except for the king – who would have it carried for him, naturally.

    It was such a status symbol in the Far East that canopies were added one on top of the other, clearly of no practical use but as a display of prestige and standing.

    The Emperor of China had at least four canopies on his parasol and the King of Siam seven or nine. If ancient writings are to be believed, the King of Burma had a couple of dozen on his unwieldy umbrella: he was known as “Lord of the Twenty-four Parasols”. Not an accoutrement that anyone could forgetfully leave on a train.

    By: Stephen Davenport