The perfect bag for bone saws and beers

Columnist Peter Leith is 91-and-a-half and determined to record iconic items that are disappearing from our lives.

Not many politicians earn a place in history by giving their name to a piece of luggage but William Ewart Gladstone not only lived for almost 90 years (1809-1898) but served four terms as British prime minister – a record in itself!

The Gladstone bag was believed to be originally designed by J.G. Beard at his leather shop in the City of Westminster. Mr Beard was an avid admirer of Mr Gladstone and named this famous hinged bag after him. But the bag was patented and registered by Edward Cole, leather case maker of 9 Hemmings Row, City of Westminster, in 1854. The patent was for “an improvement in the metal frames of travelling bags”.

The unique shape of the Gladstone bag allowed it to safely store and carry oddly shaped contents and was instantly popular with tradespeople of all kinds. Not least among those ‘tradespeople’ were doctors and surgeons, who in those days still made house calls.

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The depth of the Gladstone bag enabled it to store the tall blue, black or brown bottles and jars. which in those days, before the plastic pandemic, held all the pills, powders and potions the physicians needed. Its flat base made it hard to tip over.

Surgeons – yes, they also made house calls in those days – were reputed to find the shape of the Gladstone bag ideal for storing the delivery forceps and bone saws without which ‘kitchen table surgery’ and delivering babies would have been even more difficult – and even more dangerous.

My first encounter with the Gladstone bag was as an 18-year-old in Adelaide in early 1948.

My ‘Glad bag’ fitted neatly into the spring-loaded carrier over the back mudguard of my second-hand bicycle, which had cost me 10 shillings – one third of a week’s pay.

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Some men and youths (very few women rode bikes) carried their Gladstone bags between the up-turned handlebars of their bikes, but I thought that a bit dangerous.

Normally my ‘Gladdy’ held little but my lunch, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays it comfortably accommodated my cricket boots and, after the game, I would get an over 21-yea-old teammate to buy me a bottle each of beer and stout. They fitted neatly into the Gladstone bag and provided me with a few glasses of ‘black and tan’ for the weekend. Bliss!

If you wanted to buy a Gladstone bag today, the cost could easily top $1000.

Do you remember when Gladstone bags were commonly used? Did you have one? Do you still have it? Have your say in the comments section below. Do you have a story or an observation for Peter? Send it to [email protected].

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Written by Peter Leith