Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Bath Chair

by Lauren Gilbert

For personal reasons, my attention was suddenly focused on the difficulties of getting around. As I was doing some research on Leamington Priors Spa, I ran across a reference to the last Bath-chair man (a bit more later on him). This, in turn, led me into information about the Bath chair. In a nutshell, a Bath-chair was a chair with wheels used to transport visitors (invalid or otherwise) from lodging to the spa and back again. However, there is so much more to it than that.

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Wheeled chairs have been in use for centuries, possibly as far back at 4000 BCE. The Greeks were known to have put a bed on wheels. The first documented image of such a chair is a Chinese engraving from 525 AD.

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King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) also had a wheeled chair. It had small wheels at the end of the legs, a platform for his legs and an adjustable backrest and armrests. There is a sketch of him supposedly done about 1595 in his chair.


It’s important to realize that, at this time, wheeled chairs were not available for the disabled in general. These would have been costly items, for the use of the privileged. A luxury item of this nature would have been a sign of wealth or rank. (However, it must be said that Philip II at age approximately 68 years may have needed such a convenience.) It is interesting to note that Louis XIV also used a chair on wheels, known as a roulette, after a surgery, and when he was old.

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The first wheeled chair built specifically for a disabled person’s transportation was constructed by Stephen Farfler, a paraplegic watchmaker of Nuremberg, Germany, for his own use in 1655. He built a sturdy chair on 3 wheels. The front wheel had handles which he could turn and, using a system of cranks and cogwheels, the chair moved forward on its own.

It’s a little puzzling that this invention did not become more popular. However, this item would have been costly and the cranks would have been labour intensive.

In the 17th century, a popular mode of transportation was the sedan chair. This basically was an enclosed box with a seat, carried on poles by two men. Grace Elliot wrote an excellent history for this blog. Although owning a personal sedan chair was a luxury indeed, a chair could also be hired. It could literally pick one up in the house, and return one accordingly. Again, this was a method of transport from which a person of limited mobility could benefit, but it was not designed or commonly used for that purpose, and cost would further restrict who benefitted.

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The first known use of a wheelchair as we would recognize it was approximately 1700 in England. It was a 3-wheeled design, with 2 large wheels at the side, and a small wheel behind.

I was unable to find out any particulars, but the fact remains that, at this time, a chair of this type would have to be specifically commissioned and built, which would leave it in the domain of the well-to-do. Such a chair was also usually made of wood, heavy, bulky and not easy to move from one location to another.

In 1750, James Heath of Bath developed a chair for the purpose of taking ladies and invalids from their lodging to the baths. (Apparently walking from one’s lodging could be considered too much for a lady.) However, in 1783, John Dawson developed a design that became known as the Bath chair. It had 3 wheels and was designed to be pushed. It had a stiff handle attached to the front wheel, by which means the passenger could steer. This was the design that spread to other spa cities in England and in Europe. A number of types of Bath chair evolved over time: some were open; some were enclosed with hoods and glass fronts. Although the original design was intended to be pushed, it was not long before a modification allowed some to be pulled by a horse.

Bath chair in the Bath Museum Store, Bath
(photo by Rwendland 9/11/2010-
permission for use given via Wikimedia)
The Bath chair was a popular mode of transportation and eventually replaced the 2-man sedan chair. Since it only required one man to push, it effectually cut the cost in half. Victorian England embraced the Bath chair at seaside resorts. It’s important to note that, for the first time, a mode of transportation was concerned specifically with providing transportation for persons with physical limitations. The Bath chair was used well into the 20th century.

Thomas Timms (1855-1934) had to go to work as a child of 10, when his father was in the workhouse. After several other attempts, he started as a Bath chair-man in Leamington Priors, England when he was still very young. Although he tried other employment, he came back to the Bath chair business because he was able to make more money. In time, he acquired his own chairs, and by 1912, he had the largest Bath chair business in the town. I wasn’t able to determine exactly when he finally closed his business, but it appears it was still in operation in the late 1920’s-very early 1930’s. Sometime before his death in 1934, Mr. Timms wrote a brief autobiography of his life. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate a copy; it’s in the form of a pamphlet and is hard to find. At any rate, the Bath chair industry was put out of business in the early decades of the 20th century by a combination of affordable wheelchairs and taxi cabs.

As the 19th century progressed, wheel chairs became less awkward and more comfortable. They could be self-propelled via the large rear wheels. In 1881, a second, smaller rim was added, which made it possible to propel the chair without getting one’s hands dirty. By the early 20th century, wire-spoked wheels and adjustable back, arm and foot rests were devised. Light-weight chairs made of wicker on metal frames were also produced. In 1916, British engineers produced the first motorized wheelchair, although cost kept it from gaining much popularity.

In 1932, Harry Jennings, an engineer in Los Angeles, CA, designed and built a folding wheelchair for his friend Herbert Everest, a disabled mining engineer. Together they established a company, Everest and Jennings, to mass-produce the chair. Everest & Jennings dominated the industry during the mid-20th century until the Department of Justice filed an anti-trust suit. (Apparently the company managed to keep the cost of the chairs very high.) Subsequently new companies developed new designed and expanded options for wheelchair users.

Although transporting individuals with limited mobility has been a concern for eons, it seems that making affordable transportation available for people with such difficulties as a population came into its own with the Bath chair. The vast popularity of Mr. Dawson’s design, the lower cost involved, and the availability seemed to spark more ideas. I think it’s safe to say that the Bath chair was an important link in the history of transportation for individuals with mobility issues.

Sources include:
BBC History of the World on line. “Bath Chair.”
Chairdex. “History.” (History of the wheelchair.)
Leamington History Group-Discover Royal Leamington Spa on line. “Thomas Timms 1855-1934 Leamington’s Last Bath Chair-man.” June 26, 2013.
Doctor’s Review website. Rosenhek, Jackie. “Before Wheelchairs.” February, 2007.
Encyclopedia Britannica on line. “Bath Chair.”
Prezi website. Aoyama, Brittany. “Stephen Farfler.” November 5, 2013. Full transcript.

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Lauren Gilbert, the author of Heyerwood: A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband Ed. Her second novel, A Rational Attachment, is in process.





4 comments:

  1. Lauren, what a fabulously interesting post - I had read of wicker Bath Chairs in 18th c period novels, but to actually see that drawing of Stephan Farffler, circa 1655 propelling himself with a hand-crank, so exactly like the high-tech racing chairs of disabled athletes was nothing short of jaw dropping! This is so fascinating, so obscure, just the kind of information I love this blog for. I'm so grateful for your curiosity and your research.

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    1. Thank you, Olivia! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I was amazed by Mr. Farffler's invention, too.

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  2. Their problem was that there was nowhere to register a good idea like this, so the inventor could profit from sharing the idea ... anyone know when the patent office started???

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  3. another great post. I've worked with people with disabilities for over 20 years and this history of the wheel chair is great.

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