After umbrellas become common place, people found unintentional accidents were all too common and the umbrella quickly gained a reputation as an “odious instrument” but also “the handiest and prettiest weapons yet invented by man.” Not everyone blamed the umbrella for the contempt heaped upon it. For instance, J. F. Sullivan claimed the umbrella earned its poor reputation “simply by the ignorance and want of skill of its wearer.”
That may have been also why Sullivan was prompted to write a tongue-in-cheek article detailing how umbrellas made useful weapons, particularly when confronted or attacked by a burglar, ruffian, or highwayman. The umbrella as a weapon was apparently the thought of one mother who came to the defense of her child after he shot paper at a stranger. The stranger raised his umbrella to chastise the child, “but the child’s mother … rushed in and received the blow full on her bonnet. Then the child’s aunt … likewise drew her umbrella and went for the man. He sustained the combat with courage, though against fearful odds.” It seems prudent to assume the man learned a lesson about raising his umbrella against a child.
William Livingston Alden also thought the umbrella serving as a weapon sounded hilarious. He noted that an umbrella could not “be effectually used … as a club or a cutting weapon” as it was a type of defense and had to be used a “thrusting weapon.” The only problem was he claimed:
“It is seldom, however, that a man will hold his eye sufficiently still to enable another to hit it with an umbrella, and the inability of the weapon to pierce through several thicknesses of cloth renders the modern stomach comparatively safe from an umbrella-thrust.”
Alden also maintained that the best use of the umbrella was when it was in the hands of a “determined women,” such as the two women shown at the right. There were also supposedly two other times the umbrella was thought to be useful as weapon:
“An open umbrella will sometimes ward off the attack of an infuriated poodle, and it is asserted that it has occasionally sheltered a cautious husband from a sudden shower of crockery, resulting from a depressed state of feminine hopes concerning a new bonnet and the sudden appearance of a domestic storm … in the area of the breakfast-room.”
Although Sullivan and Alden may have been joking, Lt. Col. Charles Random de Berenger (later the Baron of Beaufain), was not. He fully intended people to use their umbrellas as weapons and wrote a book in the 1830s, Helps and Hints How to Protect Life and Property, and, in 1838, Defensive Gymnastics. The Baron, an inventor, marksman, and the original owner of the famous Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, wanted people to understand how to protect themselves using various modes of defense. He thought of the umbrella as one mode of defense.
In his first book, Beaufain claimed that in an emergency the umbrella “may be converted into a weapon, provided the stick is sound … or … [it] may be opened quickly, to serve as a shield … [for] pulling a pistol out of your pocket.” Beaufain also noted that the umbrella was a “valuable weapon” when chased by rabid dogs. Apparently, Beaufain once found himself in that precise situation, “but for the umbrella, the horrors of hydrophobia might have [been his] lot.”
Beaufain was not the only one who believed the umbrella a useful weapon. In January 1901, E.W. Barton-Wright wrote a comprehensive article for Pearson’s Magazine combining the “Bartitsu” self-defense methods with an umbrella (or walking stick). One piece of information Barton-Wright provided was for umbrella users to immediately assume the offensive before the assailant discovered the umbrellist was at a disadvantage. Then the umbrellist was to strike “high at [the] assailant’s head, and … [force] him to guard high.” Simultaneously the umbrellist was to seize the assailant below the elbow, which would disturb his balance and prevent the assailant from hitting the umbrellist, and at the same time “deliver a heavy right-handed blow … upon [the assailant’s] chin, or over his heart, which [would] render him unconscious.”
Barton-Wright detailed other techniques: how to guard at a distance; how to move out of range of an adversary’s stick; ways to disable attackers that rushed you; ways to disable assailants when both you and the assailant were equally armed; defense tactics for a tall man; how to defend against an expert kicker; and the best way to knock a man down when no room existed to freely swing a cane, a stick, or an umbrella.
More self-defense instructions for use with an umbrella were printed after Queen Victoria died. One article was in the San Francisco Call dated 8 November 1903, and another one appeared in the Daily Mirror on 9 January 1904. Both newspapers detailed umbrella techniques perfected by Madame Vigny, sometimes known as “Miss Sanderson,” and her husband Pierre Vigny. Their moves were reported to protect against “lunatic or hooligan” and purportedly allowed a woman to match any ruffian, purse snatcher, or ill-intentioned attacker with quick strokes and blows from her umbrella — similar to ones used in fencing — along with self-defense moves used in “Ju-Jit-Su or Japanese wrestling.”
The techniques of the Vigny’s also furthered the ideas of Beaufain and Barton-Wright and contributed to popularizing the umbrella as a useful weapon, which may be why today there is the Unbreakable® Umbrella, an umbrella so strong, according to the website real-self-defense.com, it supports “the weight of a fully grown man … [and] can be used a self-defense weapon … [because] when wielded with appropriate force it can strike with the power of a steel pipe…[but, also] keep the rain off, too.”
- Alden, William Livingston, Domestic Explosives and Other Sixth Column Fancies, 1877
Barton-Wright, E.W. “Self-defence with a Walking-stick, (Part I), 1901, on Journal of Non-Lethal Combatives
- “Ceremone Gardens,” on The Royal Boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea
- “Ladies of the English Aristocracy Organize Against Hoodlums with the Simple Parasol As Their Weapon,” in San Francisco Call, Vol. 94, 8 November 1903
- “Self-Defence with an Umbrella,” in Daily Mirror, 9 January 1904
- Klapka, Jerome, To-day, Vol. 3, 1894
- Lt. Col. Baron de Berenger, Helps and Hints How to Protect Life and Property, 1835
- Sullivan, J.F., “A Misunderstood Weapon,” in The Ludgate Monthly, Vol. 4, 1897
- The Unbreakable Umbrella, on Real Self-Defense