After the fire of London, in 1666, the streets were impassable, and so people of quality went on their business or pleasure in sedan chairs.They became in time such a nuisance as to obstruct the highways. – The History of Dress, The New York Times, 1884,
Sedan chairs were a major mode of transportation through London’s narrow streets and along Bath’s steep lanes throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and early part of the 19th century. Strong chair carriers could transport passengers down winding passageways much faster than a carriage, which had to make frequent stops in congested traffic. The chair was named after the town of Sedan in France where it was first used. By 1634, they had been introduced to London as vehicles for hire, and their popularity quickly spread to France and Scotland, as well as the rest of Europe.
These portable covered chairs, used in one form or another in other cultures since ancient times, sported side windows and a hinged door at the front. Sedan carriers inserted long wood poles into metal brackets on either side of the chair. The poles were long and springy and provided a slightly bouncy ride. They were arranged in such a manner that the chair would remain in a horizontal position as the carriers climbed up steps or steep slopes. Passenger entered and exited between the poles if they remained in place.
Chairs for the wealthy were richly carved and decorated, and stood inside the entrance hall to be used at the owner’s convenience. Footmen would summon hired carriers, who would take patrons to their destination. For the more ornate Sedan chairs, painters would create beautiful scenes on panels mounted on the sides, and many were extravagantly upholstered in silk on the inside. The less affluent hired plainer, leather covered chairs. (See 1700 image.)
Sedan chair houses were available throughout the city of Bath, as shown in the image lower down in this post, although they were also kept in hallways by those who owned them. A rather plain Sedan chair was on display underneath the stairs in the hall of No. 1 Royal Crescent when I visited Bath. One feature that made the chair so popular in Bath – a city in which invalids were transported for healing sessions to the hot mineral baths – is that the vehicle was narrow enough to be carried up the stairs and taken into the bedchamber. Once an invalid entered the chair, he or she would stay inside, unexposed to outside air. The chairs could be carried inside to the baths or to the Pump Room, as you can see in this illustration by Rowlandson, who shows a man on crutches emerging from a Sedan chair.
Because these portable chairs could be carried inside buildings, people could be transported around the city without being identified. This made it easier for people who were evading the law to go about their business, or for public personages to carry on trysts. Links-boys would light the road at night, and they waited until they were needed again to light the way back. As the painting below shows, accidents did happen!
“At Bath, Tunbridge Wells, and other fashionable places, chairmen plied in the streets as cabs and hansoms now do. Occasionally they were used by spendthrifts, who were anxious to avoid the tipstaves, as they could enter them in their own houses and be deposited in that of a friend. However, it does not appear that the Sedan chair was always a safe refuge against arrest for debt, as in one of Hogarth’s prints the tipstaves are seen to be laying hold of one they were in search of, just as he was about to descend from his supposed place of security. One of the best caricatures of the day represented an Irishman being carried through the streets in a Sedan chair by two burly men, with his feet touching the ground, some wag having taken out the bottom of the Sedan, and the chairmen, aware of the practical joke, selecting the dirtiest part of the road.” NY Times, 1875, Old Coaches and Sedan Chairs
As previously stated, Sedan chairs for hire were common in London. Chairmen wore a uniform, were licensed to carry passengers, and had to display a number, like today’s taxi drivers. Three hundred chair permits were issued in London and Westminster in the early 1700′s. A similar system was later used in Scotland, where a fare system was established in 1738. A trip within a city cost six pence and a day’s rental was four shillings. It cost £1 1 shilling to hire a sedan chair for a week. The chairs were available around the clock, but after midnight the chairmen would be paid double the fare.
Sedan chair houses, or stations, were common in cities were they were used. Only two examples of these houses remain today in Bath:
“Continue along Gay Street and turn first left into Queen’s Parade Place. On either side of an opening are the only examples of sedan chair houses in Britain. Here chairmen would rest before carrying passengers to their destinations. They were notoriously rude and unscrupulous often locking their passengers in the chair until they had paid the exorbitant fare! Beau Nash licensed them and set reasonable fares. Their demise came when a local man invented the “Bath chair,” a 3 wheeled vehicle.” From eu-journal, 011
The Sedan chair fell gradually into disuse. Horace Walpole bemoaned their waning popularity as early as 1774, and by the mid-19th century three-wheeled Bath chairs had taken their place.
“The chairmen were fine, robust men; they had little regard for foot passengers, and considered the pavement their own exclusive property. It was rather an amusing sight to witness how the men trotted off, when a chair was required, racing to be first for hire. After a time Sedan chairs got out of fashion, except at Bath, Cheltenham, and Leamington, where they wer in favor for many years after they ceased to exist in the metropolis. – Old Coaches and Sedan Chairs, NY Times, october 17, 1875”
While the Sedan chair had gone out of fashion by the mid-19th Century, it played a crucial part in the recent mini-series, Cranford. One of the funniest and most memorable scenes in the movie showed two chairmen trying to keep apace with Miss Pole, a spinster, and Mrs. Forrester, whose cat had ingested lace, as they ran into the village seeking help. The men huffed and puffed as they carried their heavy load with Mrs. Jamieson inside, and staggered into Cranford.
More information on Sedan chairs:
UPDATE: Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide has published a sedan chair post that links to mine!
- Sedan Chair, Jane Austen Centre Magazine – very colorful description, full of anecdotes.