From a Time When
Elegance Came as
The Gladstone Bag - Yesterday and Today
The Gladstone bag was originally made for wealthy professionals - mainly doctors, but including lawyers and politicians - usually men - to carry the tools of their trade and to look elegant and protect their valuable possessions.
Today the Gladstone bag is valued by men and women alike, both as an attractive fashion accessory and one of the roomiest containers for business tools, students’ books and lessons plans, and also for its original purpose of carrying doctors’ medical preparations and patient case notes, as well as lawyers’ court notes and law books.
The original Gladstone bag was a massive affair built on a rigid frame with a large and heavy base, and having two compartments designed to keep certain items separate, with a huge base to keep the bag steady in use and prevent the contents falling out and being scattered or damaged.
The genuine Gladstone bag, retaining its original shape and features, has remained popular with doctors and surgeons since its conception, hence the reason it is sometimes referred to as a ‘doctor’s’ or ‘surgeon’s’ bag.
But from Victorian times a wide variety of bags and cases have been designed and called ‘Gladstone Bag’ even though some bear little or no resemblance to the original design.
The Gladstone Bag for Travelling and Business
It wasn’t just doctors and lawyers who have made the Gladstone bag so popular since it first appeared in the nineteenth century. In fact many workmen also found the roomy Gladstone bag just perfect for carrying tools and work manuals. Electricians and plumbers, for example, also apprentices in various trades viewed the Gladstone bag as the perfect way to transport tools, sometimes very big and dirty tools, alongside extremely heavy items between jobs and for travelling to and from work each day.
For long distance travelling, on trains and ships, for example, the Gladstone bag presented a much more elegant impression than flat and boring suitcases, as well as being wider than most suitcases and so much easier for travellers to store larger items. The flat base of the Gladstone bag was and still is perfect for transporting delicate items in an upright position and keep them steady in transit.
Another benefit of the iconic bag over conventional suitcases was the opportunity for two people to transport personal items in one bag, each person taking one compartment in the roomy Gladstone bag.
The Gladstone Bag in Historical and Modern Day Times
The Gladstone bag was named after a British Prime Minister of the same name in the 1800s and remains as popular today as it was in Victorian times. The bag was designed by J. G. Beard, the owner of a leather shop in Westminster in London who was a keen supporter of William Gladstone after whom he named his creation. The bag was and still is built on a rigid frame that splits into two separate compartments and although made solely from leather in Victorian times, the Gladstone bag can be found crafted from a wide range of materials today.
The history of the Gladstone bag is as varied as fabrics and features used in designs to make the bag today. The bag has been known by various other names over the decades, including ‘portmanteau’ and ‘doctors’ bag’, alongside other names, all usually incorrect because the Gladstone bag is a very specific design that hasn’t changed since its original appearance.
Here are a few ways in which history has led to the bag becoming an iconic part of the British fashion scene:
* Many great writers have featured the bag in their work, including Joseph Conrad who in ‘The Secret Agent Drama’ writes ‘Giving a slight kick to the Gladstone bag on the floor ….’, and in ‘Victory: An Island Tale’ he writes ‘Ricardo caught hold of the ancient Gladstone bag and swung it on the wharf with a thump.’
* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle talks of Sherlock Holmes himself and various characters in Doyle’s work using the Gladstone bag.
* Though the Gladstone bag is considered purely English in design, it was actually based on an earlier French design for a large travelling bag.
* The bag isn’t always associated solely with high fashion and quality craftsmanship; in fact it was once associated with a murder in Eastbourne in 1924 when it became known as the ‘murder bag’ as a result of having been used to hide a knife used by Patrick Mahon to murder former girlfriend Emily Kaye.
The Gladstone Bag and the ‘Grand Tour’ of Victorian Times
When Victorian men and women went on the grand tour - a long learning journey usually across Europe and lasting months and sometimes years – they would usually be seen carrying a large sturdy holdall, called a ‘carpet bag’, and typically resembling one of the most fashionable and functional forms of luggage, then and now, and referred to as a ‘Gladstone bag’.
Jack the Ripper and the Gladstone Bag
The Gladstone bag has featured in macabre tales of murder and mystery, fictional and factual, and was once widely associated with the real-life Jack the Ripper who roamed the streets of Victorian London in the 1880s.
Many people, then and now, believe the Ripper was a doctor, probably an American who made regular trips to London, using a Gladstone bag to carry the tools of both his ethical and immoral trades.
If he was indeed a doctor, it’s very likely the Ripper did carry a Gladstone bag, as did many other professional people, not only medical types.
And that is why Victorian newspapers of the day commonly described Jack the Ripper as roaming through foggy London streets, and showing the silhouette of a tall man wearing a top hat and carrying a Gladstone bag.
But even with his giveaway Gladstone bag trademark, the man stalking and killing London prostitutes and destitute females was never officially identified.
Gladstone Bags and the Titanic Tragedy
Gladstone bags represent just a few of numerous large items of luggage found amongst possessions taken recently from the wreck of the Titanic which went down with a massive loss of life in 1912.
It is believed that as the tragedy unfolded, the ship’s staff stuffed large cases and bags, like Gladstone bags, with money and jewellery and other valuables from safe deposit boxes used by wealthy passengers. The intention was to keep valuables in a few spacious places, to make them easy to find later. The large bags would also avoid valuables being spread far and wide as the ship was floundering and subsequently sank.
An expert Titanic historian tells how Gladstone bags, being made from leather, used a turn-of-the-century tanning process that would prevent microorganisms found on the ocean floor from eating the fabric used to make the bags. In so doing, Gladstone bags and their contents, found with the ship’s wreckage, have survived the decades since the sinking in remarkably good condition.
The Gladstone Bag as a Fashion Accessory for Women
Once very definitely an accessory for men, the Gladstone bag has become increasingly popular with women, especially those who like to take everything but the kitchen sink with them on journeys away from home.
That is sarcasm, of course, but some women do carry much more baggage than others, and usually more than almost all men, and the Gladstone bag is admirably equipped to benefit the obsession many women have with large bags.
The Gladstone bag in its original format was a very room affair indeed, designed mainly for working men to carry the tools of their trade and until the last few decades it was very unusual to see a woman with a Gladstone Bag on her arm.
And that is why many of today’s big name bag designers are focussing their efforts on creating bigger bags for women. Gladstone bags, in fact.
The Gladstone Bag and William Ewart Gladstone
The Gladstone Bag was named after William Ewart Gladstone who was Conservative Member of Parliament for Newark-on-Trent and served more than ten years after first being elected in 1832. His constituency office, the Clinton Arms Hotel in the market place at Newark, still houses a plaque marking his Parliamentary acceptance speech from the balcony of the hotel. Gladstone served four terms as Prime Minister, ending in 1894.
His political career was immensely interesting with plenty of funny and very serious anecdotes having been recorded for posterity. But it's for giving his name to an iconic bag that remains as popular today as in Victorian times.
Gladstone Bags Selling on eBay
Since its introduction in the mid-19th century, the Gladstone bag has developed into more than just a simple container for carrying working papers and other professional paraphernalia.
Today’s Gladstone bag is a high profile fashion accessory, used by men and women, and not only attractive but also having a much bigger interior than most modern day handbags.
To prove how popular the Gladstone bag has become, on eBay UK today more than 200 listings are in place for Gladstone bags from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, alongside numerous modern day designs, not all of which truly resemble the traditional design of a genuine Gladstone bag.
Of older Gladstone bags listed on eBay today, the majority are made from fine leather, usually colored black and brown, and frequently fetching hundreds of pounds or dollars or other country currency for bags in good condition and, most importantly, with their original keys accompanying them.
Not intended to carry more than a few matchsticks or tiny amounts of perfume, on eBay you’ll also find vesta cases and perfume bottles shaped as Gladstone Bags and fetching sometimes unexpectedly high prices.
A Gladstone Bag Made from 200-Year Old Reindeer Hide
A Gladstone Bag offered by shoe and bag maker G. J. Cleverley of London was made from Russian Reindeer hide taken from the wreck of the 'Metta Catharine von Flensburg’, a Danish ship that went down in a gale in Plymouth Sound in 1786.
The ship was discovered in 1973 when Plymouth Sound British Sub-Aqua Club member found a bell under mud on the sea bed. The wreck was found to contain hundreds of reindeer hides, in excellent condition. The skins were later made into shoes and Gladstone bags, ranging in price from a few hundred pounds to £4,500 for a Gladstone bag with goatskin lining.
Comedy and the Gladstone Bag
A comedy duo called ‘Mr. Gladstone’s Bag’ once thrilled music hall audiences in the late 1900s with their sketches accompanied by loud banging drums and poking fun at the life and times of the people of Victorian England.
During their act they would pass bunting flags through the audience in the pubs and clubs where they worked. ‘Mr. Gladstone’s Bag’ comprised Mike Clifton and John Watcham whose names are still referred to and their act reminisced about today in Internet forums and entertainment blogs.
The ‘Gladstone Bag Murder'
The so-called ‘murder bag’ was based on a killing where a Gladstone bag featured prominently and involves one of the most important breakthroughs in crime detection. The story begins with a particularly macabre murder in Eastbourne in 1924, focusing on Patrick Mahon, a salesman whose wife believed he was having an affair and decided to investigate.
Mrs. Mahon found a left luggage ticket in her husband’s pocket for an item held at Waterloo station which she expected to contain love letters or other proof of her husband’s infidelity. She employed a private investigator to access the Gladstone bag.
At Scotland Yard the bag was opened and Mahon asked to explain the contents which included female underwear, a scarf and a knife, all coated in blood.
Eventually Mahon led the police to a bungalow in Eastbourne where the eminent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury discovered two saucepans filled with boiled flesh and dishes and boxes containing flesh and fat, alongside a large quantity of burnt bones in the fireplace and in a coal box outside the premises.
Spilsbury found in the region of one thousand bone fragments which were later identified as belonging to Emily Kaye who had died at the bungalow. Mahon claimed he was defending himself when she attacked him and that she hit her head against a hard surface and died as a result. But the head, the piece of evidence that may have proved or disproved his story was missing from the rest of the body.
The story goes that Mahon had placed the missing head in a Gladstone bag which he took by train to Waterloo station and disposed of through a window on the train while placing the bag itself in Waterloo’s left luggage office.
However, despite long and complicated arguments by defence lawyers, no reason was found to support Mahon’s claim of self-defence to the charge of murder and he was hanged on September 3rd, 1924.
Spilsbury claimed Mahon’s case was the most challenging of his entire career and had equipped him with new skills and insights, the body of which became essential training for police involved in murder cases.
The Gladstone Bag and the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s
One of the world’s most popular luggage suppliers, Brenner Luggage, situated in South Illinois Street in Indiana, owes a good deal to the austerity of the Great Depression of the early 1900s, during which time travellers with taste but reduced spending ability, began looking for stylish but inexpensive luggage with style to match the iconic but very expensive Gladstone bag.
An article in ‘Indianapolis Monthly’ in September 1997 tells how Charles Brenner met this need ‘with overnight cases made by covering wood-framed boxes with leather-grained coated paper. Rubber-coated canvas zipper bags were also made at this time on machinery previously used to manufacture the Gladstone bag.’
The Gladstone Bag and Why It Inspired So Many Great Writers
So popular and iconic did the bag become in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that many of the most famous writers of the day found time to mention the Gladstone bag.
Writer Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski; 3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924), Polish-born novelist and arguably one of the most talented story tellers of all time, was a great devotee of Gladstone bags and featured them in many of his tales.
In ‘A Personal Record’, Conrad says: ‘On an early, sleeping morning, changing trains in a hurry, I left my Gladstone bag in a refreshment room.’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s featured the Gladstone bag in many of his Sherlock Holmes stories, including ‘Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ where the detective talks of someone ‘needing a wash’, and a subsequent solution to the problem. (“I had an idea that he might (need a wash), and I took the liberty of bringing the tools with me.” He opened the Gladstone bag as he spoke, and took out, to my astonishment, a very large bath-sponge.”)
Cruel Joke about the Gladstone Bag
Mrs. Gladstone, wife of the great English statesman, was often very cruelly referred to as ‘the first Gladstone bag’.
She, Bryant and May Matches, and the Gladstone Bag
In ‘She’, author H. Rider Haggard refers several times to the Gladstone bag, alongside several other brand name products and commercial organisations, such as Bryant and May matches, Colt revolvers, Army and Navy Stores, and Martini.
In her research paper, Dr. Julia Reid talks of the serial version of ‘She’ being ‘.. frankly connected with the world of imperial commerce. It is peppered with references to commodities, brand names, and commercial outfits, some of which also appear in the advertisements. ….. Their (subjects in the novel) hardships are tempered by trappings of civilisation such as ‘Bryant and May’s wax matches and Gladstone bags.’
‘It strikes a hopelessly jarring note to be dragged down suddenly from the heights of the supernatural, the immortal and the divinely fair, by the sudden and superfluous mention of Gladstone bags, shooting boots, and Bryant & May's matches .... The equipment of the African expedition at the Army and Navy Store may be a very good advertisement, but it does not work as literary art.’ (Source: ‘Studies in the Novel, University of North Texas’
The Gladstone Bag and Gertrude Jekyll
Many very well-known Victorian artists and writers are renowned as much for their choice of luggage as for the remarkable, enduring works of art passed down for us to enjoy today.
Such as Gertrude Jekyll, for example, a well-known garden designer from the Arts and Crafts Movement, who lived at Munstead in Surrey in the late 19th century, and was one of many eternally popular celebrities renowned for favoring the Gladstone bag over smaller, less durable bags and cases.
Having been educated at the South Kensington School of Art, beginning in 1861, and apart from being a garden designer, she was a talented artist and writer also, as well as a dab hand with a camera and embroidery needle.
Imagine the massive range of working implements Ms. Jekyll might carry in the course of a normal working day or on extensive trips abroad to paint flowers and study garden designs so different from those close to home. Hence the reason she chose a Gladstone bag to carry the tools of her trade as one of the most respected gardens designers and multi-talented artists of the middle to later 1800s.
Gertrude died at her home at Munstead Wood in 1932 and visitors to Godalming Museum can see the Gladstone bag Gertrude used in her long and successful career.
Carrying Race Books to Warrnambool in a Gladstone Bag
Australian newspaper, ‘The Standard’, recently reported on Gordon Ballis who has sold race books at Warrnambool for more than 70 years. Mr. Ballis is the current holder of a family tradition stretching back more than a century and which began with Mr. Ballis’s grandfather and later his father also selling race books, all carried to the track in a Gladstone bag.
In 2012, Mr. Ballis was commemorated by track officials for turning up with his Gladstone bag, complete with race books, for seventy years since he first visited the track as a twelve-year-old to accompany his father Gordon senior.
Mr. Ballis says of his race books, naturally also his Gladstone bag: “I can still remember heading down to the Warrnambool railway station years ago where they would bring the horses down to the May carnival by train. The train was called the ghost train.”
It’s a fascinating story, and a great recommendation for the enduring service one can expect from a quality Gladstone bag.
The Gladstone Bag Has Style and Charm - And Lots of Space
On 18th July, 2012, the Guardian’s online newspaper - - asked ‘Do French Women Grow Old in Style?’ and, among other things, concluded that La Femme Invisible ‘approaches the beach with everything planned as though for a military operation, particularly if there are grandchildren in tow.’
The writer talks about mainly older fashionistas who on their way to the beach carry ‘The equivalent of a small Mary Poppins’ Gladstone bag containing everything from a fishing net to sun cream and a kite.’
There’s no doubting the fact that the roomy Gladstone bag can hold a good deal of essential and not so essential items, and the fact the Gladstone bag has two separate compartments makes the bag even more attractive as a beach holdall. So bathers can, for example, keep their dry clothing in one compartment of the Gladstone bag and contain all of the wet stuff in a separate area.
The Gladstone Bag, Sherlock Holmes, and a Well-Known Doctor
William Ewart Gladstone was well known as a regular traveler, keen on visiting faraway places, and usually seen with a large bulky suitcase for travelling and visiting Parliament each day. But although the Gladstone bag was named after Gladstone, based on his love of travel and affinity for baggy luggage, it’s uncertain whether Gladstone actually used the style of bag named after him.
One thing that is quite certain, however, is that fictitious characters Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson both used Gladstone bags, an association that may have derived from author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s relationship with a police doctor in Edinburgh. That man was Henry Duncan Littlejohn and he was a regular police surgeon in major Scottish murder cases in the Victorian era. Littlejohn was well-known for his superior detective and forensic skills and would regularly find clues the police had overlooked. More than this, he carried a Gladstone bag to court and to his medical practice each day.
Henry Littlejohn became known as the man who inspired both Sherlock Holmes and his companion, Doctor Watson, even though another man has been similarly credited with inspiring Conan Doyle’s great detective stories.
That other man was Doctor Joseph Bell, a close friend of Littlejohn, and one time employer of Arthur Conan Doyle. Also being well-known for collecting evidence and solving cases causing difficulty for the police, Bell has similarly been likened to Conan Doyle’s characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
In reality, it’s more likely both doctors were the real life ancestors of Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional characters.
The Gladstone Bag and a Letter Looking for Its Owner
A newspaper published just over one hundred years ago tells how the police of Southern Australia and Victoria were looking for the owner of a Gladstone bag in which was found a letter from the manager of a bank in Victoria telling the addressee he was entitled to a fortune in debenture bonds.
The tale of the Gladstone bag became even more interesting when a man was charged with unlawful possession of the bag by the Adelaide Police. A police officer testifying to the event said the accused was seen carrying the Gladstone bag in the afternoon when he was accompanied by an elderly gentleman. When the accused was seen later that day, he was alone and still carrying the Gladstone bag.
‘The Barrier’ newspaper, published in February 1913, more than one hundred years ago, can be viewed online, but sadly you may never learn how the tale ended and whether the accused was found guilty of unlawful possession, or what had happened to his elderly companion, or even if the person named on the letter found in the Gladstone bag ever got to learn about his good fortune.
Barry Humphries and the Gladstone Bag
Australian actor and comedian, Barry Humphries, also known as ‘Dame Edna Everidge’, tells how his love of music led to him purchasing a massive stock of sheet music from a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne, Australia, and carrying it all home in his ‘weighty’ Gladstone Bag.
That is more proof the Gladstone bag is not just for doctors and lawyers, and other professional and business men and women, but is just as useful and attractive for conveying hobby and special interest items.
The Gladstone Bag and One of the World’s Greatest Philanthropists
Daryl ‘Doc’ Seaman earned his nickname from having carried his baseball gear in a Gladstone bag, frequently referred to as ‘Doctors’ Bags’, hence the nickname ‘Doc’.
That was in the 1940s when Seaman, like many people, probably realised the Gladstone bag is not just created for doctors or lawyers, but suited other working professional also based on the immense capacity of most types of Gladstone bag.
Mr. Seaman was a well-known citizen of Calgary where he settled in 1949 and founded a major oil and gas company. He gave time and money to the people of Calgary and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. When he died in 2009, Doc Seaman gave most of his wealth to the Calgary Foundation.
But what became of his Gladstone bag, I wonder?