He was born in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England.
In 1729, Jonas was apprenticed to a merchant in Lisbon. In 1743, after he had been in business for himself for some time in London, he became a partner with Mr Dingley, a merchant in St Petersburg, and in this way was led to travel in Russia and Persia. Leaving St Petersburg on 10 September 1743, and passing south by Moscow, Tsaritsyn and Astrakhan, he embarked on the Caspian Sea on 22 November and arrived at Astrabad on 18 December. Here his goods were seized by Mohammed Hassan Beg, and it was only after great privations that he reached the camp of Nadir Shah, under whose protection he recovered most (85%) of his property.
His return journey was embarrassed by sickness (at Resht), attacks from pirates, and six weeks' quarantine; he only arrived at St Petersburg on 1 January 1745. He again left the Russian capital on 9 July 1750 and travelled through Germany and the Netherlands to England (28 October). The rest of his life was mostly spent in London, where the narrative of his travels (published in 1753) soon made him a man of note, and where he devoted himself to philanthropy and good citizenship.
In 1756, Hanway founded The Marine Society, to keep up the supply of British seamen; in 1758, he became a governor of the Foundling Hospital, a position which was upgraded to vice president in 1772; he was instrumental in the establishment the Magdalen Hospital; in 1761 he procured a better system of parochial birth registration in London; and in 1762 he was appointed a commissioner for victualling the navy (10 July); this office he held till October 1783.
He died, unmarried, on 5 September 1786 and was buried in the crypt at St. Mary's Church, Hanwell. A monument to his memory, sculpted by John Francis Moore was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1786.
Hanway was the first male Londoner, it is said, to carry an umbrella, (following women who had been using umbrellas since 1705)  and he lived to triumph over all the hackney coachmen who tried to hoot and hustle him down. He attacked vail-giving, or tipping, with some temporary success; by his onslaught upon tea-drinking he became involved in controversy with Johnson and Goldsmith. His last efforts were on behalf of little chimney-sweeps. He also advocated solitary confinement for prisoners and opposed naturalization of non-British Jews.
Hanway created seventy-four printed works, mostly pamphlets. Of literary importance is the Historical Account of British Trade over the Caspian Sea, with a Journal of Travels, etc. (London, 1753). He's also cited frequently for his work with the Foundling Hospital, particularly his pamphlets detailing the earliest comparative "histories" of the foundation versus similar institutions abroad.
On his life, see also John Pugh, Remarkable Occurrences in the Life of Jonas Hanway (London, 1787); Gentleman's Magazine, vol. xxxii. p. 342; vol. lvi. pt. ii. pp. 812814, 1090, 1143-1144; vol. lxv. pt. ii. pp. 72 1722, 834-835; Notes and Queries, 1st series, i. 436, ii. 25; 3rd series, vii. 311; 4th series, viii. 416.
- Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660-1851
- Easton, M (2013). Britain Etc.: The way we live and how we got there. London: Simon and Schuster UK Ltd. p. 224. ISBN 978-1-47112-918-6.
- William John Thoms, John Doran, Henry Frederick Turle, Joseph Knight, Vernon Horace Rendall, Florence Hayllar (1850) Notes and Queries: Umbrellas. Oxford University Press, pp.25. Retrieved 2006-10-30.
- Hanway, Jonas (1776) Solitude in Imprisonment: With Proper Profitable Labour and a Spare Diet, the Most Humane and... J. Bew. Retrieved 2006-10-30.
- Hanway, Jonas (1759). A Candid Historical Account of the Hospital For the Reception of Exposed and Deserted Young Children; representing The present Plan of it as productive of many Evils, and not adapted to the Genius and Happiness of this Nation. London.
- Roland Everett Jayne, Jonas Hanway: Philanthropist, Politician, and Author (1712–1786), London: Epworth Press, J. Alfred Sharp, 1929.