Rake's Progress by William Hogarth Advertisement for personal Sedan chair, from furniture catalog
Rake's Progress by William Hogarth showing for hire sedan chair. Private sedan chair from furniture catalog.

Sedan Chairmen

The sedan chair takes its name from the town of Sedan, in France, where they were first used. The sedan chair first appeared in England as early as 1581, but was shunned by the public. In fact, in the early 1600's when the Duke of Buckingham began to use one, he incurred public censure for making human beings do the work of animals.

But by the time Sir Saunders Duncombe introduced his chairs opinion had changed. In 1634, Sir Saunders Duncombe patented his own version of the sedan chair and obtained a monopoly on the rental of "hackney chairs" for fourteen years. Elaborate costumes and coiffures were now in fashion and the sedan chair offered the surest way of traveling through filthy streets without getting rained on, splattered with mud, or having a coiffure ruined. The sedan chair was cheaper than hackney coaches, and a person could not only travel from door to door in a sedan chair but could travel from indoors to indoors without setting foot outside.

Sedan chair on Queen Anne St.

The for hire sedan chair was painted black outside and upholstered inside. Windows were fitted on three sides, though the front pole man necessarily presented the passenger with a view ahead consisting mainly of his back. The poles were long and springy enough to impart a slight bounce to the ride. The poles threaded through metal brackets on the sides of the body of the chair. They could be quickly removed when the chair was not in use. Passengers entered and departed at the front, between the poles, if they were in place. The sedan's roof hinged at the rear (See print at top of page.) and could be lifted to better accommodate entry and exits. Once within the chair, passengers had to trust to the chairmen's competence, surefootedness, and skill in synchronizing their pace and maneuvers. Cesar de Saussure, a foreign visitor to London in 1725, 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." Although pedestrians were expected to give way when a chair bore down on them, there was always a possibility of a collision at street corners. The men shouted warnings of "Have care!" or "By your leave, sir!" to alert other pedestrians of their presence.

Many of the wealthy owned their own sedan chairs but hired chairmen to carry them as the need arose. The sedan chairs belonging to the gentry were often quite elaborate, with rich upholstery and painted bodies or wooden crests on the roof.(See illustration at the top of the page.) These private sedan chairs were often beautifully painted by the most renowned painters of the day. They were often purchased from furniture makers and appear in furniture catalogs of the day. John Walter a furniture maker who provided furniture for the new Assembly Rooms at Bath in around 1770 also built sedan chairs. The diary of the Earl of Bristol notes that he paid 14 l0s for a private sedan chair in 1735.

The public chairs waited on stands in the street just as hackney coaches did. London and Westminster issued 300 sedan chair permits in the early 1700's. The chairmen were licensed and had to display a number. It cost £1 1 shilling to hire a sedan chair for a week. Chairmen wore a distinctive uniform, varying slightly over the decades and between winter and summer. It consisted of a blue kersey coat or greatcoat, black knee-breeches, white stockings or gaiters, buckled shoes, and large cocked hat.

Colored illustration of chairmen carrying a Lady

Chairs were available at any hour of the day or night. There was a long-established custom of paying the chairmen double fare for transport after midnight. At night a link-boy's torch lighted the way for the chairmen. Lady Mary Wortley Montague gossiped about a lady and gentleman neighbor who escaped from a house fire in only their nightclothes and had to take cramped refuge in a passing sedan chair, which were always made to be single-seat. When Horace Walpole's house was broken into in the small hours of the morning, a couple of chairmen responded to the alarm and helped to capture the burglar.

Some chairmen were less helpful, there were enough problems that fines were levied for bad behavior. Swearing, the commonest misdemeanor, incurred fines ranging from one to ten shillings, but more serious offences brought suspension or discharge.

In England, the two-man chair survived well into the 1800's because it was actually quicker to walk than to ride in London's narrow, uneven streets; at the same time, it often was too dirty and/or unsafe to walk in many areas. Eventually the sedan chair was superseded by the cab. Charles Dickens includes an episode about a sedan chair in Pickwick Papers. Jane Austen mentions them in her Gothic pastiche Northanger Abbey.

Links to more sites with photos of sedan chairs:
18th century Italian private sedan chair
English sedan chair dating from 1770 (scroll down page)
Sedan chair in Tenby Museum and Art Gallery
Sedan chair, showing interior, in Ely Museum
Sedan chair from Tweed Library




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