Bath History, II:1988, 113-137.
[NOTE: I am grateful to Bath History for giving me permission
to include this article. All copyright rules apply. I photocopied
it from the volume at the Bath-Northeast Somerset Library. This article
originally had illustrations, but they did not photocopy well and were
undescipherable after scanning. Click
here to see S. H. Grimm's 1773 watercolor, "The Circus, looking toward
Gay Street," which features a sedan chair. CC]
By the turn of the 18th century London theatregoers were sufficiently aware of portable chairs as a characteristic of Bath for Thomas D’Urfey to set the opening scene of one of his plays at ‘The Kings Bath. From whence Chairmen go in and out, as carrying people to and from the Bath . . . .”1 If the contemporary stage properties were anything like authentic (a doubtful expectation for 1701), what the scene would represent would not be the box-like sedans long familiar on the streets of London and certain other European cities but a much more primitive conveyance —the humble bath chair, not to be confused in name or appearance with the wheeled Bath chair of a later period.
Ever since Bath had catered for the sick and the lame there must have
been available some occasional means of transporting those patients unable
to walk from their lodgings to the warm medicinal waters of the various
baths. In earlier centuries simple litters no doubt fulfilled the purpose;
but at some date, perhaps in the 1630s, as the number of visitors to the
city increased, specially adapted or constructed chairs carried on poles
came into regular use. With them arose a new occupation of hire chairman.
Henceforth even healthy bathers would often order a chair to carry them
from bedchamber to bath and back again, keeping well wrapped up on the
return to conserve body heat and encourage copious perspiration. Samuel
Pepys with his wife and servants followed the standard procedure on the
visit in 1668, being collected from their rooms one by one at an early
hour and then, after soaking in the baths, ‘wrap in a sheet and in a chair
home and there one after another thus carried . . . home to bed sweating
for an hour . . . .” 2 A similar account by Celia Fiennes in the
1680s describes the typical conveyance to the bath as
Celia Fiennes also saw on the Bath streets a quite different kind of chair, similar to those in London, ‘to carry the better sort of people in visits, or if sick or infirme’ — in other words the sedan proper. The exact date when sedan chairs reached the city is uncertain. Their history began in Italy where they developed to contend with narrow, hilly, urban streets impracticable for coaches. British travellers like Fynes Moryson (in 1594) and John Evelyn (in 1644-5) noted with interest the seggioli of Naples and Genoa, public hire chairs slung from poles and borne on the porters’ shoulders.4 The fashion had spread to Paris by 1617 and to London in 1634/5 when Sir Sanders Duncombe, a court favourite, obtained royal patents to run a fleet of public sedans in an attempt to reduce the congestion and noise caused by the increasing numbers of coaches on the street.5 The need for a sedan chair service in Bath stemmed from its growing fashionableness set against the restrictions of its cramped site. As one visitor put it, the city’s small compass, still largely within the medieval walls, had forced its inhabitants to ‘croud up the streets to an unseemly and inconvenient narrowness’.6 Difficult for carts and waggons, let alone coaches, Bath’s tight thoroughfares were more suited to chair traffic than to horse-drawn vehicles.
Two forms of portable chair were therefore to be found in Bath in the later 17th century: in Celia Fiennes’s words again, from her later report of 1698, ‘the company use all the morning the Chaires of Bayes to carry them to the Bath, soe they have the Chaire or Sedan to carry them in visits’.7 By that date a score or more of each type of chair may have been in service during the season. The physician Thomas Guidott had once suggested that twelve chairmen (or did he mean twelve chairs, with two men to each?) might suffice for the clientele of the baths,8 but that was in 1676, on the eve of a series of royal visits that boosted Bath’s popularity further during the last quarter of the century. Certainly twenty porters stood by at the top of Lansdown to meet Queen Anne in 1703, in case she and her retinue preferred to make the dangerous descent into the city by sedan instead of coach 9, but that would not have represented the total population of chairmen by that stage. Indeed only four years later an Act of Parliament empowered the Bath Corporation to license up to 60 chairs,10 a provision that would be interpreted in future years as permitting sedan chairs to that number and bath chairs besides.
Although chairmen were not officially licensed before 1708, the Mayor and Justices must have had some jurisdiction over them, certainly those attending the baths. Later writers have claimed that the chairmen had already earned a reputation for insubordination and unruly ways, but there is at least some countervailing evidence about their helpfulness and respectability. Thomas Parker for example, described as a ‘chairman at Bath’, in testifying in 1688 to eleven of the ‘cures’ listed in Guidott’s Register, mentions the case of one former paralytic, a Somerset blacksmith, who returned to Bath the year after his cure to present each of the guides and chairmen concerned in his treatment with a ‘Pair of Tobacco-Tongues, of his own Work’ in appreciation.11 Another chairman, Philip Taylor, is said by John Wood to have been the first to introduce sash windows into Bath. If so he sounds like a man of some standing, and hence more likely to have been a chair manufacturer or entrepreneur than a mere porter. 12
The abovementioned Act gave the Corporation substantial regulatory powers over the chairmen, who now had to pay an annual licence fee of three shillings (plus stamp duty) and faced a fine of 13s. 4d. per offence for operating with an unlicensed chair. Each vehicle had to carry a distinguishing mark or number on the back, while penalties were laid down for overcharging, abusive language, or refusal to carry a passenger, on proof by one or more witnesses. At the same time the Act prescribed the scale of fares: any transit within the walls to cost sixpence, any between the intramural area and the extramural parts of St James’s or St Michael’s parishes to cost one shilling, and up to sixpence to be paid for every half hour of waiting. It was to be this charging system that caused resentment in later years, when it was argued that the real object of the Act’s sponsors had been to discourage new building projects beyond the walls (where the Corporation owned only limited sites with rentable value) by imposing punitive chair fares on extramural residents and visitors. This point will be returned to.
Meanwhile Bath could boast a hire chair service of up to 60 sedans (or ‘glass chairs’ as they were alternatively called because of their windows) at a time when London and Westminster were permitted 300. The chairs themselves doubtless resembled metropolitan models, painted black externally and upholstered within. Windows were fitted on three sides, though the front poleman necessarily obstructed the passenger’s view ahead when the chair was travelling. The poles were longer than those of bath chairs and springy enough to impart a slight bounce to the main body of the sedan, 13 where they threaded through metal staples and from which they could be quickly removed when the chair was not in use. Passengers entered and departed at the front, stepping between the poles if they were in position, but were saved having to stoop too low because the sedan’s roof, hinged at the rear, could be lifted. Once ‘box’d within the Chair’14 passengers had to trust to the chairmen’s competence, surefootedness, and skill in synchronising their pace and manoeuvres. Occasionally there were accidents: a chairman stumbled or ran into something, windows shattered, the whole contraption overturned. Sedanmen often showed scant respect for pedestrians even on pavements, demanding precedence and the near side of buildings, taking corners too fast, and jostling through constricted areas like the notorious narrow passage between Orange Grove and Terrace Walk. Yet a foreign visitor to London in 1725 praised the skill of its chairmen, and their Bath equivalents were probably no worse. The chairs were pleasant and convenient, he wrote, ‘the bearers going 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; all foreigners are surprised at their strength and skill.’ And although pedestrians were expected to give way when a chair bore down on them, at least the men shouted warnings of ‘Have care!’ or ‘By your leave, sir!’.15 As in the capital the Bath chairmen wore a distinctive uniform, varying slightly over the decades and between winter and summer but comprising essentially a blue kersey coat or greatcoat, black knee-breeches, white stockings or gaiters, buckled shoes, and large cocked hat. Whether they ever copied the London chairmen in aiding their lift with shoulder straps remains in doubt, but there is no evidence of this additional support in later prints and drawings.
New regulations affecting chairmen came into force in 1721 and 1739,
both following further improvement Acts.16 The Act of 1720 enabled
the city authorities to appoint stands or ranks in different parts of Bath
where chairs must wait for fares instead of being stationed randomly and
obstructively. The second Act revised the tariff to take account of the
city’s recent expansion to the west and north, particularly the Kingsmead
and Queen Square developments where it was reckoned at least sixty families
of distinction had taken houses. The call for a change in the pricing system
came in a pamphlet published in February 1738/9, Case of the Inhabitants
in the Suburbs of Bath and of All Strangers that Resort to that City
in Relation to the Hire of Chairs Stated. Claiming that the motive
behind the original licensing of chairs was ‘to restrain the Progress of
Building without the Walls; and to confine Strangers to lodge in the Houses
within the Walls’, the anonymous author proceeds to spell out some of the
ill effects of the current regulations. Any passage of a chair through
the walls, no matter how short, meant a shilling fare. For journeys ‘to
any Part of the Suburbs, Precincts or Liberties, except in the Parishes
of Saint James and Saint Michael’, no scale of charges had been laid down,
so that the chairmen’s demands were quite arbitrary — varying, for instance,
from sixpence to five shillings for one ride of 600 yards. Moreover, every
time the chair was pitched (i.e. set down) in the course of a ride to allow
its occupant to speak to an acquaintance, even if only for a moment, entitled
the chairmen to charge another sixpence. On top of all that the existing
legislation required any complaint about the chairmen’s conduct to be backed
up by at least one witness, with the result that
The ensuing Act introduced amendments much on these lines. The distinction between journeys within and without the walls was at last abolished; the revised scale was based on distance alone — sixpence for up to 500 yards, one shilling from 500 yards to one mile. Chairmen were not obliged to take passengers beyond the city liberties (which on the north extended as far as the later Cottle’s Lane and Walcot church), nor further than the foot of Beechen Cliff or of Claverton and Bathwick downs. Halts of ten and twenty minutes respectively could be requested during sixpenny and shilling rides. Henceforth passengers’ complaints might be received simply on oath, but chairmen’s rights were also respected supposing a passenger refused to pay or damaged a chair. A final provision allowed for privately owned sedans on Bath streets on condition that they were registered at the Guildhall and never loaned or hired out.
Whether intended or not, the new fare structure again had a direct influence on the city’s growth. To be carried from Queen Square to the fashionable heart of Bath around Orange Grove and Terrace Walk — where the principal coffee houses, luxury shops, circulating libraries and assembly rooms were located — cost one shilling, hardly a negligible sum for a single ride in one direction. According to John Wood, the effect was ‘that it restrained the Progress of Building to the Westward, and encouraged it to the Eastward, to the very utmost of my Wishes.’17 Wood had set his sights on developing the ground towards the river, eventually to be covered by the Parades. All this area would be within a sixpenny fare.
Some insight into the operation of sedans during the middle decades of the 18th century is to be had from the manuscript register of licensed chairmen preserved in the Bath Record Office. Chairs were listed annually in numerical order, the numbers matching those painted prominently in white on each vehicle. It can only be presumed that chairs were owned by their licensees; certainly individual chairmen tended to retain the same chairs from year to year. Certain pairs stayed together for long periods. Samuel and John Bond were holding chair number I when the extant register opens in 1745 and were still licensing it in 1756 when it ends. Others chopped and changed. Richard Hircombe with chair 2 and Richard Lester with chair 4 both went through six different partners in the same period, while chair 5 was successively under licence to several quite separate pairings.
The register is also revealing about offences and penalties. Swearing, assault, fighting, refusal to carry a fare, and general bad behaviour, all appear in the record. Swearing, the commonest misdemeanour, incurred fines ranging from one to ten shillings, but more serious offences brought suspension or discharge. Twice Richard and Edward Gifford were threatened with loss of licence if they persisted in fighting, and in 1756 four pairs were suspended because their chairs were deemed to be in an unacceptable physical condition. What the register further makes plain is that sedans were hireable by the week if required. Various well-known residents and visitors were among those availing themselves of this facility in the 1740s and 1750s —William Pitt, William Stanhope, Richard Nash, and Dr William Oliver among them.
Under the licensing procedure chairmen were permitted to ply with a
bath chair as well as a sedan,18 and doubtless many of them switched from
one vehicle to the other in mid-morning after the early portage of people
to and from the baths. About this period the appearance of the bath chair
drastically altered. The old custom of collecting bathers from their bedside
and delivering them back there afterwards still prevailed as John Macky
had described it around 1720: ‘The chairmen, whatever storey you sleep
on, come to one’s bedside, strip you, give you their dress, wrap you in
blankets, carry you off.. . and then after bathing you are carried home’.
19 And the chairs were little changed (except for the colour of
the cloth) since the days of Celia Fiennes. A visitor of 1725 speaks of
them as ‘very ordinary, covered with blue . . . open before but have Curtains
to hide the persons wrap’d up in a Blanket’.20 But there were drawbacks
from the bather’s point of view. At the baths themselves traffic congestion
often delayed the appointed chair, and when it did arrive it was a dubious
enough contraption to have to travel back to one’s lodgings in, at least
in Smollett’s eyes. Having been kept waiting in the cold slips for their
chairmen, bathers were hauled off home with their pores still open
The reference here to the Hospital governors ties in neatly with two
entries in the institution’s minute books. In November 1749 it was ordered
that ‘a close bathing chair be forthwith made according to the directions
of Mr. Palmer by Mr. Jelly the house carpenter’. The following January
two more chairs on the same model were asked for. There is a strong likelihood
that the portable chair still to be seen in the old Hospital building on
North Borough Walls is one of these three chairs, or possibly the survivor
of a later unrecorded commission. It resembles a sedan in general form,
except that it is somewhat smaller and bellies out low down at the front
ending in a projecting footrest. The whole front removes, as does the gently
domed roof, so that handicapped patients could easily be helped in and
out. Instead of side windows the frames are filled with stiff linen, painted
black on the outside like the rest of the vehicle. The rear is bowed like
one of the modish new shop windows of the time. Very similar chairs can
occasionally be discerned in later prints of Bath, so Smollett’s statement
that the ordinary chairmen adopted the design for themselves can be accepted,
though not all these chairs had low curved projections at the front. Additional
proof comes from an eyewitness account of about 1761:
Much more prominent on the Bath scene, however, was the traditional
sedan, on duty throughout the day and well into the night. After dark a
travelling sedan had to carry a lighted lamp or be accompanied by a link
boy holding a flambeau: just as well, for chairs had the right to the pavement
provided they did not ‘stop, jostle, or rub against any Person walking
singly close to Houses or Walls." 25 Ordinary pedestrians
had good cause to walk warily when fast-moving chairs were in the offing,
with nightfall simply adding to the dangers. Chairs parked at their regular
stands, which normally occupied part of the pavements, constituted a hazard
at any time, especially if their long carrying poles had not been removed.
In the semi-documentary pages of Humphry Clinker Smollett again
condemned the Bath practice of leaving sedans and bath chairs out in the
Nor was physical damage to chairs a small consideration if it put them
out of service or deterred passengers. Hence the concern of Bath’s licensed
chairmen in the 1780s and 1790s at a spate of vandalism against sedans
despite the penalties for wilful damage as stipulated in the various Acts
of Parliament. Sedan no. 91 belonging to John Pike and Samuel Tyly was
attacked on several occasions, the interior lining torn out and the cushion
and cushion cloth stolen. In 1793 seven chairs stationed in Bartlett Street
near the Upper Assembly Rooms were cut and defaced, so arousing the whole
body of chairmen in Bath that they clubbed together to offer a £20
reward for information leading to a conviction. Some years later they demonstrated
their solidarity again after another case of multiple vandalism, this time
the reward being put up jointly by chairmen and the city treasurer.32
Although they lacked the showy luxuriousness of certain private chairs
(to the designs of Chippendale among others), Bath’s hire sedans seem to
have been well enough crafted and appointed. The redesigned bath chairs
ordered for the Hospital in 1749—50 were, as noted earlier, constructed
by Thomas Jelly the builder (or by one of his family), presumably according
to the pattern supplied by the master-glazier Thomas Palmer. Glaziers would
necessarily have been employed in the manufacture of the big-windowed sedans
and might sometimes have made complete chairs. Otherwise the principal
local sedan firms appear to have been cabinet-makers rather than coachbuilders:
craftsmen such as John Bryan, who advertised the manufacture and repair
of sedans in 1760, and John Walter around 1770, provider of furniture to
the new Assembly Rooms.33 Little can be said about prices, though
the Earl of Bristol paid £14 l0s. for a private sedan in 1735 and
another £5 for having it reupholstered in black mourning fabric sometime
later — a reminder that the upholstery trade also had a role in the creation
of a chair.34 Surviving evidence from prints and drawings suggests
that the utilitarian public chair underwent a certain stylistic evolution
in the course of the 18th century, with the original rather foursquare
shape gradually achieving a more elegant line. Details of windows, frames,
and fittings would certainly have varied over the years, and in any case
the designs of different manufacturers and the coexistence of older and
newer models must inevitably have led to some diversity among the chairs
plying the streets at any one time. Fashions in dress too may have played
a part, for although the wide-hooped skirts of the mid-century were flexible
enough to have been bent into the confining space of a sedan, their voluminousness
may still have influenced the design and dimensions of chairs. Far less
easy to accommodate in a low-ceilinged vehicle were those towering feathered
heads of the 1770s, extravaganzas of the hairdressers’ art, which inspired
‘The Bath Chairmen’s Petition’, a set of wry quatrains beginning:
A more significant portent of the future, the first chairs on wheels were beginning to appear in the city. Unlike the old established vinaigrette in Paris, wheeled chairs in Georgian Bath were seen as purely invalid vehicles, appropriate enough to conduct the aged Beau Nash to the rooms in,36 but hardly a means of transportation otherwise. The commonest type to be met with by the later eighteenth century was perhaps the Merlin chair, brainchild of the extraordinary Belgian inventor and mechanic, J.J. Merlin, one of whose supposedly health-giving swings long served as an attraction at Bath’s Sydney Gardens.37 As Fanny Burney discovered during her stay in 1791, even the half-paralysed Lady Duncannon was able to propel her Merlin chair unaided across the room.38 If it was the standard model, self-propulsion was achieved by turning wheels attached to larger driving wheels of what looked in other respects something like an armchair. Machines like this stimulated local enterprise. William Ramsden of South Parade advertised a wheelable chair with an adjustable footrest and an apparatus for carrying invalids up and down stairs in an upright position; this latter piece of equipment could alternatively be fitted to an ordinary chair ‘or to the bathing chairs used in this city, which will be a very considerable improvement to them’.39 By the 1790s the cabinet-maker John Dawson of Abbey Street had committed himself to the manufacture of wheelchairs and portable chairs. These he had for both sale and hire.40 It may have been one of his that was auctioned from Lyncombe Spa House in 1799: ‘a gouty wheel chair to run in the streets’.41
As Bath expanded in fits and starts of speculative building, and as the resident and visiting population increased, the number of sedans grew in sympathy, from around 60 in 1745 and 80 in 1755 to a permitted limit of 250 in the byelaws of 1793-4. This entailed more and more regulation, whether to prescribe the exact posi-tioning of pavement chair stands or to control the nightly traffic jams at the assembly rooms or outside the theatre. Guidebooks for visitors diligently listed the measured distances of common rides ‘to prevent any imposition from or disputes with the chairmen’42 — from Pump Room to Trim Street, from the Guildhall to the upper end of Belmont, from the New Assembly Rooms to the Hospital or the centre house of the Royal Crescent, and so forth.
The local improvement Act of 1793 and the byelaws stemming from it gave a necessary opportunity to update and clarify the administration of the sedan service (as well as providing for the licensing of hackney coaches for the first time). Licensed chairs were required to be of a sturdy build, 5’3” tall and 2’2” wide within, decently lined, equipped with a lantern at night (the Act also permitted lighted torches), and painted black on the outside with the registration number in white on the front, rear, and top part. While awaiting hire between 6 a.m. and midnight, chairs had to occupy one of 22 listed stands up to the limit specified for each, ‘and if any licensed chairmen shall go with their chair to a stand, which shall be full of the number of chairs appointed to that stand, such chairmen are to go with their licensed chair to some other legal stand, which shall not then be full . . .‘. To give some examples, 4 chairs were allowed on South Parade, 8 in the Abbey Churchyard (of which no more than 4 outside the Pump Room), 6 by the Cross Bath, 6 in both Queen Square and the Circus, 4 in St James’s Square, 2 in Camden and 6 in Lansdown Crescents respectively, and 8 in Laura Place with Great Pulteney Street. No restriction was put on attendance at assemblies as long as chairs were called up in order and maintained reasonable decorum.
All this the chairmen could accept as simply codifying present practice. What they objected to was the Corporation’s neglect to take account of the recent spread of the city up the steep slopes of Lansdown, and hence the increased effort of carrying a human burden long distances uphill. Their dramatic gesture of protest was reported nationally in the Gentleman’s Magazine. On licensing day they mutinied, marched en masse to the Guildhall which they surrounded, insulted the Mayor, broke up the chairs of backsliding colleagues, and refused pointblank to carry passengers. Negotiations quickly followed, the Corporation set up an ad hoc committee to consider the grievances, and the matter was settled by granting the chairmen a fare of sixpence for each 300 yards of hilly ground traversed instead of for each 500 yards, the rate for more level terrain.43
The authorities had a special reason for fearing the chairmen’s disaffection
at this period. In the wake of the French Revolution’s recent excesses
and the growth of radical societies in London and the provinces, a mood
of hysteria about possible working-class insurrection was sweeping the
country. Nationally, chairmen had a mixed reputation; Sir John Fielding,
half-brother to the novelist, had once lumped them in with ‘Porters, Labourers
and drunken Mecanics’ as constituents of the urban ‘mob’. In Bath they
would sometimes get drunk, act outrageously, insult their passengers, and
fight among themselves, but this seems to have been exceptional behaviour,
a sudden letting off steam. They had after all an arduous yet frequently
tedious job, involving long hours on call which they often passed in nearby
taverns or with their dogs 44. In a century of minimal policing
of the streets the Corporation was therefore glad to acknowledge the general
reliability of the chairmen by giving them some role in peacekeep-ing.
After the fright of the Gordon Riots in 1780, for instance, when the new
Catholic chapel in Bath was set on fire, chairmen were among those enrolled
for special paid duties of patrolling the streets at night.45 Only
eleven months before their mutinous strike action of 1793 the chairmen
had indeed won much approval by signing the resolutions of the Bath Loyal
Association against ‘the wild Doctrine of EQUALITY’.46 ‘We are conscious’,
the 326~ signatories stated in their declaration, ‘that our Livelihood
and the Happiness of ourselves and Families depend entirely upon the prosperity
and peace of the Kingdom in general and of this City in particular.’ They
would lay down their lives in the defence of King and Constitution.47
And, as it turned out, once their little difference about steep hills had
been settled with the Mayor, this ‘so well-regulated and well-disposed
a body of men’48 proved more than willing to assist in quelling
the food riots of the 1790s. Yet their mixed reputation seems well-founded.
In January 1798 they were themselves the cause of disturbances, and their
exactions and insulting behaviour were reported to be a common complaint.49
This is not easy to square with Richard Warner’s view of Bath policing:
But Bath and its sedans felt safe enough in the early 19th century for
Jane Austen’s characters to walk and ride the streets with equanimity;
in imagination Catherine Morland even danced in her chair as she returned
from the ball.52 In another novel of the time the beautiful but
poverty-stricken heroine, having found her hoped-for refuge in Rivers Street
shut up, stands hopelessly in the frozen snow, babe in arms, as a sedan
approaches: ‘Chair, my Lady’. It is the chairmen’s usual beat, even in
the snow. ‘We will carry you very safely, my Lady’, but the moneyless heroine
has to say no.53 According to the author of some limping but informative
lines printed in 1822, this polite exchange with the chairmen would be
more characteristic of summer than winter behaviour:
In spite of the comment in 1809 that ‘Bath is so encreased in Size that most People have Coaches who formerly only went in Chairs’, 56 there was no very obvious lessening of demand in the first quarter of the century while Bath remained a popular resort.
Over two hundred sedans still registered annually. They remained the
official form of chair transport even if, increasingly, they shared their
stands with numbers of unlicensed wheelchairs. On the move the sedan-men
continued to dominate the footways, ambling along at a brisk pace and expecting
precedence from every pedestrian they encountered.
Dickens’ descriptions refer in fact to the final phase in the history of portable chairs in Bath. The decision of the local magistrates in 1829 to approve a hackney carriage service in and around the city was bad news for the chairmen. Since the Bath Act of 1793 (which theoretically sanctioned coaches for public hire), the situation had been transformed by the development of the light, four-wheeled, one-horse vehicle known as a ‘fly’. After the introduction of a fly service at Brighton in 1816 the fashion had spread; so that in issuing regulations and fare rates, and prescribing where waiting flies should stand, the Bath authorities were only going with the trend.60 But for the chairmen it seemed to spell disaster. Despairingly they petitioned their customers, explaining that two-thirds of their number were married with large families, that they had houses to maintain, that they contributed to the rates and were liable to serve as special constables, and that they depended on continued patronage.61
Yet it may have been less the competition from fifty licensed fly carriages that sent the use of chairs into a spiral of decline, to virtual extinction soon after 1850, than the disappearance of their most characteristic customers. A publication of 1841 with the sombre title The Decline and Fall of Bath 62 charted the loss of visitors and all the business they once brought. At the height of the season many of the best lodgings were now empty; public entertainments were being deserted; luxury trades and services had dwindled; ‘whole streets, formerly occupied by the noble and wealthy, are now being inhabited by mechanics and the humbler orders of tradespeople!’. Moreover, the task of carrying invalids had long since been usurped by wheelchairs, which had attained their classic character in the Bath chair proper, manufactured in the city by firms like Austin Dawson and James Heath. Although some two hundred portable chairs remained under licence until around 1840, they were for the most part grossly underemployed. By 1851 the explanation in the City of Bath Act that references to hackney carriages covered sedans as well was largely redundant, so few were then regularly plying for hire. From the late 1850s local guidebooks mention only wheeled chairs, of which at their height there were reported to be up to 162 available. Any thoughts of reviving the sedan business in the future would be merely exercises in nostalgia.
Bath’s history of carried chairs is far from unique. As a style of public transport the sedan had been a European phenomenon, already common before 1740 in the cities of Italy, Germany, France, and other countries.63 Large fleets of hireable chairs were on request in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, while on a smaller scale the amenity could sooner or later be found at Exeter and Bristol, York and Chester, Newcastle and Glasgow, the spas and watering places of Leamington and Brighton, Weymouth and Cheltenham . . . almost any centre in fact where the gentry assembled in sufficient numbers.64
Employing two to carry one, portable chairs could never be cheap to
hire and hence their principal customers were the well-to-do, the status-conscious,
and the chronic sick. These Bath attracted in abundance. It was in fact
wholly due to this annual visitation of short-term residents that the city
was able to offer a chair transport service the equal of any European capital,
and to do so over such an unusually long span as two hundred years. Once
the fashionable company deserted the place, leaving only the invalids and
the elderly retired, the carried chair became obsolete and the wheeled
variety took over for the next century or so.
1 Thomas D’Urfey, The Bath, or the Western Lass (London, 1701)
2 Samuel Pepys, The Diary, ed. R. Latham and W. Matthews (London, 1970-83) vol. 9 p. 233, entry for 13 June 1668.
3 Celia Fiennes, The Journeys, ed. C. Morris (London, 1947) p. 20.
4 Fynes Moryson, An Itinerary Containing his Ten Yeeres Travell (Glasgow, 1907-08) vol. 1 pp. 239 and 360; John Evelyn, The Diary, ed. ES. De I3eer (Oxford, 1955) vol. 1 p. 112, vol. 2 p. 353.
5 According to R. Straus, Carriages and Coaches (London, 1912) p. 91, Duncombe had 40-50 sedans ‘making for use’ before the end of 1643, but Evelyn remarks that ‘few persons of Reputation would make use of them a good while after, it being held a conveyance for voluptuous persons & Women of pleasure to their leu’d Rendivozes incognito — John Evelyn, op. cit., vol. 1 pp. 11-12.
6 William Stukeley, Itinerarinin Curiosum. 2nd ed. (London, 1776, but first pub. 1724) p. 146.
7 Celia Fiennes, op. cit., p. 236.
8 Thomas Guidott, A Discourse of Bath (London, 1676) preface.
9 Emanuel Green, ‘The visits to Bath of two queens’, Bath Nat. Hist. & Antiqii. Field Club Proc. vol. 7 (1893) p. 231.
10 6 Anne c. 42.
11 Thomas Guidott, A Collection of Treatises Relating to the City and Waters of Bath.
2nd ed. (London, 1725) pp. 365-9.
12 John Wood, An Essay towards a Description of Bath (1765, repr. Bath, 1969, p. 220.
13 The chair would spring up and down several inches, at least on 19th-century poles — Bath Chronicle 31 Dec 1885.
14. John Gay, Trivia, ed. W.H. Williams (London, 1922, repr. text of 1716) p. 29. Cf. Gay’s lines on p. 38 about the assuming chairman.
15 Cesar de Saussure, A Foreign View of England in the Reigns of George I & George II, ed. Mine Van Muyden (London, 1902) pp. 167-9.
16 7 Geo Ic. 19 and 12 Geo II c. 20.
17 John Wood, op. cit., p. 248.
18 One licensing form of c. 1757 has survived: see Broadsides and Posters no. 190 in Bath Reference Library. It carries the city arms at the top and states the regulations and penalties governing the use of ‘glass’ and bath chairs.
19 John Macky, A Journey through England (London, 1722 or earlier) pp. 129-30. The Duke of Chandos was concerned about Wood’s flying staircase at the first St John’s Hospital lodging house he built precisely because it was inconvenient for ‘carrying tip a sick body in a cedan with ease’ . C.H. Collins Baker and MI. Baker, The Life . . . of James Brydges, First Duke’ of Chandos (Oxford, 1949) p. 305.
20 ‘Diary of a Tour by Three Students from Cambridge. 1725’ (Bath Reference Library, MS. 13 914.238) pp. 118— 19. The writer noted the ordinariness of bath chairs contrasted with the ‘many fine Chairs for the Ladies’ (i.e. sedans).
21 Tobias Smollett, An Essay on the External Use of Water. 3rd ed. (London, 1770, but first pub. 1752) p. 35.
22 Ibid. pp. 32-3, 37. Cleland’s career is outlined in Roger Rolls, ‘Archibald Cleland, c. 1700-71’, British Medical Journal 14 April 1984 pp. 1132-4.
23 F. Kielmansegge, Diary of a Journey to England in the Years 1761-1762 (London, 1902) p. 121.
24 Christopher Anstey, The New Bath Guide (1820, repr. Bath 1978, but first pub. 1766) p. 14.
25 Licensing form c. 1757, op. cit. note 18 above.
26 Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker, Bramble to Lewis, 23 April.
27 John Penrose, Letters from Bath, 1766-1767, ed. B. Mitchell and H. Penrose (Bath, 1983) p. 83.
28 Chesterfield, 4th Earl of, The Letters, ed. B. Dobree (London, 1932) Vol. 6, letter no. 2391, 28 Nov 1765.
29 Thus a pair of chairmen carried a 14½ stone man for a bet the 3½ miles from Orange Grove to Bathford Bridge without stopping — Bath Journal 23 Nov 1761. A similar 19th-century feat took a loaded chair non-stop to Box, while another chair is said to have conveyed a female invalid, in stages, from Bath to London — Bath Weekly Chronicle, Notes & Queries 5 May 1945 (Bath Reference Library).
30 John Penrose, op. cit., p. 195.
31 Bath Journal 25 May 1761.
32 Bath Chronicle 25 April and 5 Dec 1793 and 16 May 1799. An earlier incident was reported in ibid. 8 Feb 1781. Bath chairmen may have had their own benefit societies as the Westminster men did — Case and Petition of the Licensed Hackney Chair-men . . within . . . Westminster (London, 1712).
33 Holburne Museum, Bath, Furniture Made in Bath (exhibition catalogue, 1985) pp. 4 and 6.
34 Hervey (John), 1st Earl of Bristol, The Diary, ed. S.H.A. Hervey (Wells, 1894) pp. 117-18.
35 Bath Chronicle 8 Feb 1776.
36 This was in October 1760: see Mary Delany, The Autobiography and Corre-spondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany, ed. Lady Llanover. 1st series (London, 1861) vol. 3 p. 607.
37 For Merlin see the exhibition catalogue by Anne French, John Joseph Merlin, the Ingenious Mechanick (London, Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, 1985).
38 Fanny Burney, The Journals and Letters, ed. J. Hemlow (Oxford, 1972) Vol. 1 pp. 43 and 46.
39 Bath Journal 12 April 1779. Ramsden had gout sufferers in mind.
40 Bath Chronicle 29 June 1797 and 22 March 1798.
41 Bath Herald 29 june 1799.
42 The New Bath Guide (1790) pp. 50-2. Another safeguard for passengers was the list of chairmen, with their addresses and chair numbers, posted up in the Pump Room together with the regulations on chairs — see ‘Visit to Bath by an Irish clergyman, 1772’ (MS. copy by C.W. Shickle in Bath Reference Library).
43 The chief documentation for this whole episode is: 33 Geo III c. 89; Bath Corporation Minute Books (Bath Record Office) meetings of I Aug, 10 Sept, 1 Nov. 10 Dec 1793 and 12 Feb and 9 April 1794; Extracts of the Acts . . . and Bye-Laws Relative to Licensed Chairs and Chairmen within . . . Bath and around (Bath, 1794); Gentleman’s Magazine 26 Nov 1793; Bath Chronicle 24 Nov 1793. Fares were now chargeable by short time intervals as an alternative to measured distance.
44 Bath Chronicle 29 April 1 790 -- ‘Scarce a chairman but has his spaniel and terrier, and some of them three or four of each kind lying about his stand.’ Another way to break the monotony of waiting was the mock funeral’ ritual meted out to chairmen late on morning duty at their stand because of a hangover; they were carried on a litter in a bizarre street procession, as described in William Hone, The Table Book (London, 1878) pp. 21-2.
45 C.W. Shickle, ‘Transcripts of Bath Corporation Minute Books’ (Bath Reference Library) meeting of 27 June 1780. Policing duties were likewise given to chairmen in London, Edinburgh, and perhaps elsewhere.
46 Bath Chronicle 20 Dec 1792.
47 Bath Loyal Association, Minute book and list of signatures 1792 (Bath Record Office).
48 Bath Herald 8 Aug 1795.
49 Bath Chronicle 11 Jan 1798. It may be relevant that many Bath chairmen were said to be Irish (as in London) or Welsh.
50 Richard Warner, An Historical and Descriptive Account of Bath and its Environs (Bath, 1802) p. 93.
51 Commissioners on Municipal Corporations in England and Wales, Report on the City of Roth (1835) p. 1118.
52 Northanger Abbey chapter 10.
53 Bayfield (Mrs. EG), Black Rock blouse (London, 1810) vol. 3, pp. 66-7.
54 A Summer in Bath (Sherborne, 1822) p. 62. The following lines describe the zigzag course of some chairs on rainy nights.
55 Rowland Mainwaring, Annals of Bath from . . . 1800 (Bath, 1838) pp. 318-19.
56 The Jerningham Letters, 1780—1843, ed. Egerton Castle (London, 1896) Vol. 1 pp. 332-3, Lady Jerningham to her daughter 19 Jan 1809.
57 ‘Hired street conveyances, old and new’, The Leisure Hour (Sept 1864) pp. 600-03.
58 Charles Dickens, The Letters, vol. 1, 1820-39 ed. M. House and G. Storey (Oxford, 1965) p. 242.
59 Perhaps first proposed by the surgeon Cleland in the late 1740s when recommending that two sedans be on all-night duty for the use of visitors and medical practitioners — Thomas Smollett, Essay, op. cit., pp. 42-4.
60 Bath Chronicle 14 Jan 1830. The first hackney fly stand was at Fountain Buildings.
61 Rowland Mainwaring, op. cit., pp. 318-19.
62 Anonymously published in Bath, 1841, with subtitle, The Private Correspondence of Capt. Sniallarnis and T. Broadlauids, Esq. , pp. 6-9. The tenor of this pamphlet was that religious bigotry had been a maior factor in driving people from the city.
63 Carl Christian Schramm, Abhandlung der Porte-Chaises oder Trage-Safften (Nurnberg, 1737) passim.
64 For general accounts of sedans in Britain see R. Straus, Carriages and Coaches (London, 1912) chapter 4; H.W. Hart, ‘The sedan chair as a means of public conveyance’, Jnl. Transport History Vol. 5 (1961-2) pp. 205 -18.