Jonas Hanway’s Rise to Philanthropic Prominence

face of a prisoner

Jonas Hanway’s life is the story of a highly successful public intellectual. Hanway was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1712 to a family that was not socially or economically prominent. He was apprenticed to a merchant. After traveling through Russia to Persia on behalf of British merchants, Hanway achieved notice among the English elite through publication in 1753 of his four-volume travelogue, An historical account of the British trade over the Caspian Sea: with a journal of travels from London through Russia into Persia. By challenging oppressive gender norms that restricted men’s use of umbrellas, Hanway garnered additional public attention. Hanway, however, achieved only modest success as a merchant.

Hanway moved into the field of charitable work in 1756. Hanway achieved great success in this field:

for thirty years thereafter there was scarcely a charitable cause in London in which he was not in some way associated. In addition to founding the Marine Society, the most important new charity of those years, and fathering the 1767 statute {which provided nursing for London’s abandoned infant poor}, he was the principal director of the Magdalen Hospital in its early years, and one of the most active governors of the Foundling Hospital during the experiment with open admissions. He founded Misericordia Hospital to treat veneral disease, and the Maritime School in Chelsea to educate boys for sea service. He was a founder of the Troop Society, which aided British soldiers in Germany and North America, and was an active steward of the Stepney Society, which helped poor boys pursue marine trades. He was the first Londoner to attempt to better the lot of chimney sweeps’ young apprentices, through both charity organization and legislation. ^

A late twentieth-century biographer described Hanway’s motivation as “Evangelical Utilitarianism.”^ He was eulogized as “one of the most distinguished Philanthropists of this or any other age or nation”; “eminently conspicuous, not only in his own country, but throughout Europe.”^ Hanway’s contributions to penal policy were well-known and widely admired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A memorial to Hanway was placed in the north transept of Westminister Abbey, which became a location for commemorating Britain’s leading statespersons.^

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