Those of us who enjoy reading stories set in England during the Georgian and Regency eras often picture characters traveling in carriages of all types, riding on horseback, or walking. Those of us who write stories in these eras research to decide whether our characters would be riding in a coach, landau, or gig, and sometimes we force our characters to ride sidesaddle or struggle to walk cross a London street filled with mud, manure, and the contents of chamber pots dumped out of windows.
It seems very seldom that we picture anyone riding in a chair. Yet it was often quite a common means of getting around town. While it could keep you out of the muck, this mode of travel came with its own set of challenges and dangers.
What Does it Mean to Ride in a Chair?
The first time I read about a character riding in a chair through town, I briefly pictured servants carrying a dining room chair down the street. Then I realized the author of the book, Frances Burney, must be referring to a sedan chair. I’d heard of them but had no idea how common they were.
A sedan chair consists of a small enclosed cabin, like a miniature coach with no wheels. Instead, poles extend from either end. The chair is carried by one man in front and another in back, and it could weigh up to 250 pounds or more. The unfortunate men tasked with the job of carrying this weighty conveyance through the streets were often known as chairmen. So back in the 1700s, being chairman of the board was not such a plush job as it is today. (However, it was not the worst job in Bath as we will see later.)
Who Rides in a Chair?
A sedan chair provided a discreet and convenient way to traverse a fairly short distance when it would not be seemly or safe to walk, especially alone. A woman, or rather a lady, could ride in a chair unaccompanied by a chaperone. If she were to walk, she would need to have a servant or companion and both of them would be subjected to the refuse and public attention of the street. In a chair, a lady could close the curtains and pass incognito, unless she was riding in a family chair with recognized markings on it.
Older individuals and invalids found sedan chairs particularly convenient because they could be carried right up to the threshold or even inside the destination. If you were not fit enough (or didn’t want to exert yourself) your chair could be carried right to the location where you were to bathe in the hot springs or take the water for its miraculous healing powers.
However, it was not just transportation for the weak. Beau Brummel is supposed to have said if there was even a chance of rain, he believed it was more manly to ride in a sedan chair than to carry an umbrella.
Traveling by chair was not practical over a long distance, but it was very helpful in towns with hills or narrow streets where a carriage would not be able to travel safely (or at all.) They were particularly common means of transportation in Edinburgh, Scotland due to the narrow streets, and Bath, England due to the hills and the percentage of visitors who came to cure physical ailments. There are accounts of them being used in Philadelphia and New York and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of a status-conscious individual transported down the streets of Boston or Annapolis via their own personal chair. In his final years, Benjamin Franklin supposedly rode in a chair carried by prisoners from a nearby jail.
Calling a Chair
A few wealthy families owned their own sedan chairs, but most people, even those of ample means, would hire a chair in the same way we call a taxi. It was less expensive than a hackney so ideal for those seeking to preserve their dignity while still watching their pennies.
Rich families would send a servant out to call a chair, like hailing a taxi. The less wealthy could hire a chair at a chair rank, which was usually denoted by two blue posts. On our recent trip to Bath, we saw two of the few surviving examples of chair garages, where public chairs would be stored.
Dangers of Travel by Chair
Traveling in a chair kept you above the manure and away from prying eyes, but it did not insulate you from every danger. First, you might get seasick, particularly if your chairmen were carrying you quickly and none-too-carefully through traffic so they could move on to the next fare. Chairmen had the right-of- way on the pavement (sidewalk to Americans) but chairmen in a hurry might dodge around slower traffic rather than wait for pedestrians to move. Remember, that chair is heavy!
There are stories of collisions in chairs, particularly when several arrive simultaneously at a popular destination. In one story, star-crossed lovers were reunited—literally—when their chairs collided and they tumbled into one another’s arms.
Another danger was extortion. The tops of sedan chairs could be removed to allow space for a tall hat or extravagant wig. Unethical chairmen had been known to drop their chair far short of the destination, remove the top, and demand more money to complete the trip. The passenger could be virtually helpless to resist paying the extra fare, particularly if she were a female who would be in danger walking alone, an invalid who could not walk, or anyone who wanted to avoid foul weather. There were no police to investigate dishonest chairmen, and while many chairmen were licensed, many more were laborers who worked one fare and then disappeared down the nearest side street.
Not the Worst Job in Town
The opportunity to make extra money through tips or extortion was one reason being a chairman was not the worst job in the town of Bath. However, the main reason carrying a heavy chair up and down hills was not the worst job in town is that there was one job that was so much worse. And it was unfortunately quite essential.
The worst job was to be an attendant at one of the baths visited by invalids hoping for a cure to their skin diseases and other ailments. At some springs and sick resorts, visitors were only ordered to drink the waters. At Bath, doctors ordered people to take (i.e. drink) the iron-rich water every day but also to bathe in it because it was warm.
Naturally-heated water bubbling up through the springs was a miracle to ancient Celts, Romans, members of the medieval population, and the Georgians, who developed the town of Bath into a major entertainment center, much like Las Vegas is today.
Attendants at the baths stood in the steaming hot water all day, assisting the sickest of the sick. Their skin turned orange from the minerals in the water. At the end of a long day—which might easily last 12 hours–they had to clean out all the filth in the bathing pools. It was a hard way to earn a living.
A Missed Opportunity for Tourism
In an era where tourists are always looking for new experiences, I think the entrepreneurs of Bath are missing the mark by not offering sedan chair tours of Bath. Or sedan chair tours of 20 meters of Bath.
Human labor was cheap until about a century ago. Many families hired someone to help around the house but couldn’t afford a horse. These days, transportation is relatively inexpensive while the cost of hiring help in the home is an extravagance. In any case, the experience of riding in a sedan chair is unlike anything else I can imagine, and tourists might be willing to pay a fair sum to try it out.
I’ll be back to sign up when it happens.
I’m sorry to report that none of the characters in any of my 18th or 19th Century books ride in a chair to get anywhere. In my current work-in-progress, I’m not sure my characters will be in town long enough to ride in a sedan chair. But maybe I’ll have to change the story so that they can have a chance to be suspended in a swaying conveyance above the pavement and street, never quite sure if they will make it to their destination intact, clean, and with a full purse.
If you like reading stories of the Regency (Jane Austen) era, you might enjoy my Wayward Regencies Romances including my Christmas novellas Dinners with Mr. Danville, An Excuse for Poor Conduct, Change of Address, and Bride of Belznickel.
Thanks for reading!