Tuesday, 29 September 2020

For he's a brolly good fellow

With the arrival of some seriously autumnal weather (finally - this is my favourite time of year, after all!) in the form of lower temperatures, strong winds and much-refreshing rain I thought I would take the opportunity to do an article about that most important wet weather accessory, the umbrella.  Rather than do a long-winded blog about the history of the brolly, though, I intend over a couple of posts to take a somewhat sideways (but still probably long-winded) look at this humble accoutrement and in particular its use by some great British eccentrics as well as a device for protecting you from more than just cloudbursts.

My own preference for the good old bumbershoot is of course the traditional full-size, crook-handled type so often associated with the archetypal English gent.  Telescopic umbrellas are all very well if you're pushed for space (and ladies in particular may be forgiven for having to carry one around in their handbags, although with the wonderful array of different [parasol] designs you're afforded I struggle to see why you would...) but they are rightly considered somewhat infra dig in the face of the time-honoured gent's brolly.  And don't even get me started on the monstrosity that is the golfing umbrella - talk about going from one extreme to the other.  The number of times I've been forced into the road and nearly had my eye poked out by someone wielding one of those tents-on-a-stick - plus how those cylindrical "handles" are supposed to be comfortable I don't know!

source - Farlows
No, give me a crook-handled job any old time and a bamboo or whangee one at that.  My own example is a a splendid bamboo-handled example from Classic Canes, which can be had for a very reasonable price from the likes of Walkingsticks.co.uk.  I'm actually on my third one of these - the first being left on a bus, the second having withstood a day's worth of heavy rain and strong wind in Rochester before being laid low by a freak gust barely 200 yards from home.  I've been very happy with mine - lightweight but sturdy it feels perfect to hold in the hand, with a wonderfully smooth mechanism.  Of course if money is no object then the nonpareil of umbrellas are generally regarded as coming from either Fox or Briggs - awfully good they may be; I'll leave you to judge whether they're worth the price or not (personally as much as I'd love one I'd hesitate to take a £500 umbrella outside never mind put it up in a rainstorm).  At the other end of the spectrum an honourable mention must go to the second of my full-size brollies, a solid wood-handled number I got from budget supermarket Aldi a few years ago for the bargaineous sum of £9.  Even sturdier than the bamboo one (I have no qualms about putting my full weight on it) it is very much a proper walking umbrella in the mould of solid-shaft types many times the price - I can even forgive it its automated mechanism.  Alas it was one of their Special Buys (from 4 years ago to boot) so is no longer available but who knows, it may return again one day so keep your eyes peeled.


Someone else we associate with the bamboo-handled umbrella is of course everyone's favourite fictional (alas!) English gentleman spy - John Steed of The Avengers (no, not the Marvel lot - although he could certainly add to the team!).  Every inch the dapper chap with his glorious [three-piece] suits and bowler hat, his ensemble is always topped off with his trusty whangee umbrella.  Exceptionally tightly furled (to this day I've never managed to get mine to that level of perfection) and often wonderfully matching the colour of his suits (one presumes the same in the early b&w episodes) at least one of them contains a hidden swordstick (viz. the opening credits, above) should some miscreant attempt to perform any physical violence on our hero - or if Steed just wants a carnation for his buttonhole.  While the idea of a swordstick umbrella may be appealing one in this day and age - and examples can be found online, mainly in America - it should be remembered that in the UK at least they are regarded as a [concealed] offensive weapon and so cannot be bought, sold (unless they're antique, i.e. over 100 years old) or carried in public.  Doing so is punishable by a fine of £5,000 and up to four years in quod, so I wouldn't recommend it.

Of course Steed doesn't always need a hidden blade to overcome any ne-er-do-well - in fact his umbrella on its own is usually more than equal to incapacitating violent ruffians as we see on many occasions throughout the series.  (Serious Avengers fans will I hope forgive me for including a clip from that film - it was the only one I could find and is at least one of the few good bits of the whole movie.  Plus if you still like the idea of a besuited and bowler-hatted Ralph Fiennes wielding a handy brolly then hold that thought for part two of this post...)  This use of an umbrella as an impromptu weapon is very much a based in fact and can actually be traced back to the turn of the last century and a fascinating martial art that emerged in London at that time.

Edward Barton-Wright and
the variety of skills that
make up Bartitsu.
source - Wikipædia
Called "Bartitsu" (a portmanteau of its progenitor's name and jujitsu) it was the creation of railway engineer Edward Barton-Wright, who had been working in Japan in the mid-1890s and who became one of the first Westerners to learn the art of jujitsu.  Already a keen student of self defence, upon his return to London in 1898 he set about combining this mysterious Eastern martial art with the better-known fighting styles of boxing, wrestling, and fencing with a view to teaching these skills to the gentlemen of London who might otherwise be helpless in the face of the many thieves and footpads who prowled the streets of the city at that time.

For a short while, between 1898 and 1902, the Bartitsu craze took off in London with a well-equipped club on Shaftesbury Avenue proving popular and several similar techniques - aimed for use by both men and women - appearing around the same time.  Some of these variations made allowance for the use of an umbrella (or, especially for women, a parasol) in place of a cane, as can be seen in the series of images on the right.  In all respects the idea behind Bartitsu and its imitators was to provide the average man (or woman) on the street with the skills and knowledge to use whatever they had at their disposal to keep themselves safe and repel any surprise mugging, as well as being an efficacious form of exercise.  It was advertised as "the gentlemanly art of self-defence", not because it was in and of itself "gentlemanly" but rather that it was designed for the gentleman who might otherwise find himself at a disadvantage when faced with a gang of street-toughs.

However for various [largely unknown] reasons interest in Bartitsu declined rapidly after about 1903 and it would likely have been entirely forgotten had it not been obliquely referenced in the Sherlock Holmes story The Empty House as "baritsu" (whether deliberately or accidentally mis-spelt is still a subject of discussion among Sherlockians and Bartitsu historians) - the "Japanese system of wrestling" that Holmes uses to overpower Professor Moriarty atop the Reichenbach Falls.  This brief immortalisation in one of fiction's greatest stories and the mystery surrounding its inclusion saved Baritsu from oblivion and since the early 2000s it has enjoyed something of a minor renaissance as one of the earliest examples of mixed martial arts (MMA), with clubs popping up all over the world and a society dedicated to propagating its memory and furthering its practise.  Fans of the Great Detective will recognise its inclusion in both Sherlock Holmes (2009) and its 2011 sequel A Game of Shadows (with both director Guy Ritchie and star Robert Downey Jr. being keen MMA practitioners) - prominent appearances that have rightly delighted Bartitsu aficionados.

More on the subject of umbrella self-defence (umbrellajitsu perhaps?) in film (and two real-life arch-chaps who wielded their brollies in remarkable circumstances) will appear in part two of this article but in the meantime I think I've gone on quite long enough.  For now the rainclouds are gathering here at Partington-Plans Towers so I may take the opportunity to use one of my brollies in anger - or at least practise some Steed-like umbrella jousting.


  1. Very well done. I can't imagine paying that much for an umbrella. I do remember Mr. Steed, and I think is cohort was Mrs. Peale? I watched them on TV every week as a boy. How I wanted such an umbrella. I'll just need to stay with my golf size brolly I bought nearly 30 years ago at a discounter.

    The last video reminds me of some of the self defense I used to teach when I was in the Fire Department. Surprising what can be done with common items.

    1. Thanks Bill! Yes, £500 for an umbrella is pushing things a bit, I agree. You're right, Steed's most famous partner was Mrs Emma Peel (as played by the recently-departed Diana Rigg) who appeared in three seasons from 1965-67, which are widely regarded as being the best of the bunch. Before that it was Honor Blackman as Mrs Cathy Gale ('62-'64) and Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel (1961) although I don't believe any of those series originally aired in America. I think you only got the Mrs Peel episodes and the later Tara King seasons (1968-69).

      I must admit I don't know how easy it would be to get hold of a whangee-handled umbrella in the States (I recall, on my only visit in 1997, being struck by how few umbrellas I saw in general when I went out in the rain - everyone drove everywhere, it seemed!) so probably best to stick with what you've got.

      Yes it's fascinating to see how little has changed over the years in how everyday objects can be used in self-defence. Your fire department teaching sounds interesting - what was that for use in?

      P.S. How goes the switch to WordPress? I miss my regular fix of Fountain Pens & Typewriters; hope you're keeping well and busy during these continuously difficult times.

  2. What an enjoyable read, and stroll down two memory lanes.


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