Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Short History of the Sedan Chair

by Grace Elliot


The name ‘sedan’ chair came from town of Sedan in France where they were first used. They consisted of a cabin containing a seat mounted on horizontal poles and carried by two burly men, one at the front, the other at the rear. It was an open secret that chairmen preferred female passengers as they were generally lighter to carry. Indeed the use of sedan chairs in the early 1600's by the Duke  of Buckingham lead to public disapproval, and he was villified for using people to do the work of animals.

Sedan chairs were re-introduced to England in 1634 by Sir Saunders Duncombe, who took out a 14 year license to provide chairs to the public as vehicles for hire. They quickly became popular in London because they were cheaper than a hackney cab and provided cover to the extravagant wigs and gowns that were currently in fashion. The use of sedan chairs spread to spa towns such as Bath since the spas attracted many people of limited mobility who particularly welcomed sedan travel as being a practical way of being transported from chamber to spa and back again.

A fine example of a private sedan chair,
decorated to match internal decor.

The very wealthy kept their own chair (minus poles) in the hall of their town house and had it painted and decorated to match the interior d├ęcor. Others had their footman summon a chair by standing in the street and shouting ‘Chair! Chair!’ – whereupon a race of competing chairmen hastened forth.

Sedan chairs were popular  in London for a number of reasons. London streets were notoriously dirty and smelly, and so traveling in your own capsule was very appealing to the wealthy.

'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.'
                                                                                                       New York Times, 1884

You could make good time in a sedan chair since they were legally allowed to use the pavement – and therefore bypass traffic jams on the road. Since the chair could enter a house, the privacy of the traveller was assured – be it a journey made for a secret tryst or for some illegal reason!

'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 on they were in search of, just
as he was about to descend from his supposed place of security.'

 
A scene from Hogarth's 'The Rakes Progress.'

Much like modern taxi drivers, chairmen were licensed and had to display a number to prove it. In the 1700’s there were 300 sedan chairs licensed. A trip within the city cost sixpence, and hire for a whole day, four shillings. Trips taken after midnight cost twice as much.

Sedan chair stations were established, where a passenger could go to be sure of finding a lift. One such was in St James’ Park and much disapproved of by aristocrats who thought it lowered the tone of the park. They were probably right, as the chairmen were notoriously foul mouthed and the bearers were regularly fined for cursing loudly in public. Not only that but chair rank was open to the air and when it rained the vehicles became unpleasantly soggy inside.


The chairmen had to be strong, since carrying a man in even a light sedan chair meant bearing a load of about 100 lbs per man. The trade quickly became dominated by Irishmen who had travelled to England in search of labouring jobs. It seems they had quite a reputation for speed and agility.

‘the bearers [go] so fast that you have some difficulty
in keeping up with them on foot. I do not believe that in all Europe
better or more dexterous bearers are to be found.’
                                       Cesar de Saussure writing in 1725.


This is generous of Cesar since he was knocked over not once but four times by sedan chairman whilst visiting London. Pedestrians were supposed to give way to sedan chairs but didn't always  get out of the way in time even when the chairmen shouted a warning of 'Have a care!' or 'By your leave, sir!'

 However, with the capital’s rapid expansion the days of the sedan bearer were numbered because the size of the city made a journey by sedan unsustainable, as elucidated by Horace Walpole in 1791.

‘The breed of chairs is almost lost, for Hercules and Atlas could
not carry anybody from one end of this enormous capital to the other.’


If you have enjoyed this post, why not visit Grace's blog? 

Grace leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night.  


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