Regency Culture and Society: The Sedan Chair

An infirmed lady resusitating in Bath in Georgian or Regency England would likely own a sedan chair, perfect for carrying her above the dirty streets to the Pump Room to take the waters.

The sedan chair in England was made popular in the 17th century.  In London, by 1634 sedan chairs could be hired and were licensed and numbered by courtier Charles I.  The “hackney” chairs would be controlled under this system for fourteen years, with forty or fifty chair available to the Ton and available for a lower rate than a hackney coach or carriage.  Better still, an occupant could be transported from indoor to indoor if they so required.

The chair was essentially an enclosed box, held up by two poles in the back and front with a door and seat inside.  In London, they were traditionally painted black on the exterior, with an upholstered interior and windows on the sides and to the front.  Poles were said to be long and of a springy wood threaded through metal holders so that they might be easily removed when not in use; the wood was said to give the passenger a gentle, bouncing ride.

The Jane Austen Centre gives a wonderful historic account of the sedan chair in action: 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, the men shouted warnings of “Have care!” or “By your leave, sir!”, there was always a possibility of a collision at street corners.

The name comes from a town in France, Sedan, where the chair first made its European debut and manufacture.

By the Regency era, the sedan chair had waned in popular and was more likely to be seen bearing elderly passengers loathe to change their habits or infirmed Bath-ers not able to move easily enough from doorstep to the Baths.

A lovely verse about the sedan chair falling into disuse which appeared in the Pall Magazine in 1908:

It stands in the stableyard under the eaves

Propped up with a broomslick and covered with leaves

It once was the pride of the gay and the fair

But now tis a ruin–that old sedan chair !

It is battered and tattered it little avails

That once it was lacquered and glistened with nails

For its leather is cracked into lozenge and square

Like a canvas by Wilkie–that old sedan chair!

here came the bearing straps

here were the holes

the poles of the bearers when once there were poles

was cushioned with silk

it was wadded with hair

has waited by portals where Garrick has played

has waited by Heideggers Grand Masquerade

For my Lady Codille for my Lady Bellair

It has waited and waited–that old sedan chair!

Hcu I quantum mutata I say as I go

It deserves better fate than a stableyard though

We must furbish it up and dispatch it with care

To a Fine Art Museum–that old sedan chair !

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