The Sedan Chair of the Georgian Era

Would you really have wanted to walk around the streets of 18th century? They would have been dirty, smelly places and you could find yourself up to your ankles in the proverbial, probably not a pleasant experience – then why not try the sedan chair and be carried around in style instead.

St James's Palace and Pall Mall. Lady Lever Art Gallery. A Sedan chair in the front, centrecentre
St James’s Palace and Pall Mall. Lady Lever Art Gallery. A Sedan chair in the front, centre of the painting

The name ‘sedan’ came from a town in France where they were first used. They were upright ‘boxes’ carried by two ‘chairmen’ by the use of long poles running from front to back as seen here. The door being at the front of the chair meant that the passenger could get in and out easily without the need for the poles to be removed.

Sedan Chair at No.1 The Royal Crescent, Bath. ©Sarah Murden
Sedan Chair at No.1 The Royal Crescent, Bath. ©Sarah Murden

If wealthy, you could purchase your own sedan chair with your own livery painted on it, or you could simply hire one, very much as you would do today when hailing a taxi. The ‘chairmen’ would have preferred to carry females as they would weigh less, making the journey less arduous for them, but of course, they didn’t get any say with that one.

The average cost of a chair would have been around £4,000 in today’s money, but of course, the grander it was, the higher the price. Here we have a receipt for one made in 1788.

Invoice for a sedan chair 1st May 1788. Yale Center for British Art
Invoice for a sedan chair 1st May 1788. Yale Center for British Art

Given the potential value of such an item they were ripe for having parts stolen, as reported in the Caledonian Mercury of April 1730

Last night the place adjoining to St James’s where her majesty’s sedan chair is kept, was by some persons broke open, and the four great tassels of gold, of considerable value, taken away. A sentinel is now constantly posted near the spot.

Royalty of course, had their own sedan chair maker, Mr Vaughan, who in 1733, made a ‘rich sedan for the Princess Royal for her marriage’. His son took over the family business and here we have the beautiful sedan chair, dated 1763, belonging to Queen Charlotte made by Samuel Vaughan

Samuel Vaughan. Sedan chair 1763
Samuel Vaughan. Sedan chair 1763

Not that you would know it from the image below, drawn in the 1770s, but by 1790 the popularly of Bath was such that regulations had to be set in place for sedan chair owners.

The Circus, Bath John Robert Cozens. 1773. Yale Center for British Art
The Circus, Bath John Robert Cozens. 1773. Yale Center for British Art

This is to give notice to the chairmen of this city, that if their chairs are found placed in any part of the streets other than those appointed by the mayor of the said city, for the standing of their chairs, they shall be obliged to suffer the penalties expressed in the City Act for regulating chairmen.

No chairs are to be placed on any terrace or footway whatever, except on the North and South Parade, St James’s Parade, Westgate, Edgar and Princess Buildings, Paragon and Axford buildings, Belmont and Oxford Row, and those to be kept full ten feet from the respective houses, except in Bond Street and those to be placed in the mid-way of the same street. And all chairmen, who attend at the theatre are to keep their respective chairs a full ten feet from chair-pole to chair-pole, directly opposite the theatre doorway.

All chairmen who are called upon to carry fare out of the liberties of this city, are particularly desired not to exact or make any other demand more than the usual rate of fares. Those who find themselves aggrieved by the chairmen, either by misplacing their chairs, extortion or insolent behaviour, may receive redress by application to the mayor at the Guildhall on Mondays and Thursdays, between 12 and 1 in the afternoon.

An Irishman in a Sedan chair, in which he walks not understanding what it is for, to the amusement of the two porters and a passing woman with a basket on her head. 28 January 1800. British Museum
An Irishman in a Sedan chair, in which he walks not understanding what it is for, to the amusement of the two porters and a passing woman with a basket on her head. 28 January 1800. British Museum

True or false this little tale from 1789 was quite amusing and if we’re honest we  could imagine it happening to some unsuspecting person–

A simple bumpkin, arriving in London, was very much taken at the sight of a chair, or sedan and bargained with the chairmen to carry him to a place he named. The chairmen, observing the curiosity of the clown to be suitable to the meanness of his habit, privately took out the bottom of the chair, and then put him into it, which when they took up their poles, the countryman’s feet were upon the ground, and as the chairmen advanced, so did he, and to make the better sport, if any place was dirtier than the rest, that they chose to go through; the countryman not knowing that others were carried or rather driven, in the same manner, so arriving at his lodgings he paid them what they demanded.

Returning to the country he related what rare things he had seen in London and told people that he’d been carried in a sedan. “A sedan, what is that?” His reply, “it is like our watch-house, only it is covered with leather, but were it not for the name of a sedan, a man might as well walk on foot”.

Sources

Derby Mercury 14 June 1733

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 09 December 1790

Featured Image

A tall female Macaroni sitting in a sedan chair carried by two footmen; the roof of the chair has been lifted to allow her coiffure to stick through, while a boy page stands behind. 17 July 1772 Etching with hand-colouring. British Museum

10 thoughts on “The Sedan Chair of the Georgian Era

  1. Heather Griffiths

    When I see sedan chairs, I always wonder how the fashionable ladies got their enormous hoops (and high wigs and headdresses) to fit into them. Maybe there was advice about this somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      Having seen the chairs close up I think it would have been quite a challenge – a case of trial and error, as you say some of those dresses and hair styles would really have struggled to fit in. I certainly haven’t come across any guidance, but maybe one of readers will have.

      Like

  2. Siobhan M Perricone

    Are you sure the person with a basket on their head in the Paddy Whack image is a woman? It looks like a they’re wearing breeches and a long apron, and the stockings are visible up to the knee.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin M Healey

    I have been to at least two auctions in which ‘ sedan clocks ‘ have been sold. These appear to be smaller versions of bracket clocks. However, I am puzzled as to why such clocks should be fitted into sedan chairs. Surely someone wealthy enough to afford to hire a sedan would own their own watch. Perhaps they were fitted by the owner of the sedan as a means of pricing the fare. I would welcome information on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      Good question! I have read that they were fastened at the front of the chair so that the passenger could check on the time and also given that they had to pay for their trip, see how long it was taking and how much it would cost.

      Having said that, I’ve also read that they were kept in the house of wealthy people and then placed in the chair when they were setting off on a journey. The more clocks one had, the more sedan chairs were owned, therefore the wealthier they were. Either option seems feasible, but sadly not definitive.

      Like

  4. and Siobahn got in ahead of me with the baker who isn’t a woman …
    My first sight of a sedan chair was when I was 5 in the local museum, a very plain, black affair, no fancy work at all! it, together with the pedestrian curricle it was displayed with, are now in the transport museum.
    the two very fancy ones in the Assembly rooms in Bath were quite a revelation!
    The guide books of the time in Bath also gave regulations about how much you could charge; I assume rates in London were comparable
    up to 500 yards 6d:
    500 yds to 3/4 mile 1/-;
    3/4 mile to 1 mile 1/6d;
    1 mile to 1 mile plus 586 yds [1 mile and 3/8] 2/-
    1 3/8 mile to 1 3/4 mile 2/6d
    up to 2 miles 3/-
    for every 586 yards or part thereof an extra 6d

    Liked by 1 person

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