Countryside Notes – January 2016 Umbrellas

Until I retired I had always worked outdoors which meant whenever it was raining or snowing I got kitted up in waterproofs. In the early years this was inevitably waxed cotton clothing and wellingtons. Thankfully we now have comfortable light-weight breathable fabrics which don’t go stiff or stink like a wet spaniel when they’re wet as waxed cotton used to. For me umbrellas were things that town people poked me in the face with when I went shopping. Umbrella came from the Latin word ‘Umbra’ meaning shade or shadow. Originally made from paper they’ve been about for thousands of years and were used as shade from the sun in Egypt, Assyria, Greece and China. The Chinese were the first to waterproof them using wax and lacquer and from the 16th century they became popular in wetter northern European countries. At first they were an accessory for women but in the 18th century writer and traveller James Hanway carried one publicly. It then became commonplace for men to use them and they were often referred to as a ‘Hanway’. The first umbrella shop, James Smith and Sons, opened in New Oxford Street, London and apparently is still there. With summers like we’ve had recently it’s no surprise they’re still in business! Early umbrellas were made out of whalebone or wood covered with oiled canvas with fancy handles carved from hardwood. Samuel Fox created the first steel ribbed umbrella in 1852 but it was another century before the compact collapsible design appeared. Umbrellas are also put to good use by golfers and dedicated anglers who fish whatever the weather and can be seen huddling under them in the pouring rain. A century ago an umbrella was a very important item of equipment for shepherds on the South Downs. Spending every day out with their flocks they were often at the mercy of howling gales and driving rain on those exposed chalk grasslands along the Sussex coast. On a sunny summer’s day the Downs are a wonderful place but one only has to look at the stunted trees trimmed and angled by exposure to southerly gales to visualise just how grim conditions must have been. The shepherd’s umbrella was made from green material and the ribs from whalebone or cane. It was large (up to four feet across). This might sound cumbersome to carry around all day but with a cord attached between the handle and ferrule end and with one arm put through it was easily carried diagonally across the back. If a storm blew up the shepherd would hold it with one hand and push himself backwards into a thick bush. Sheltering beneath it he was well protected from the heaviest rain. However shepherds’ umbrellas would be banned under today’s health and safety rules. A severe gust would turn it inside out or snatch it out of his hand and wreck it. There are even accounts of shepherds being lifted off the ground if they chose not to let go!

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