Puppydog tails — 11 March 2014

The rivalry between black licensed cabbies and private hire is legionary, one might have thought that licensed Hackney Carriages had it easier in the past, but after reading Lucy Inglis Georgian: London Into The Streets I’ve discovered we cabbies even had our competitors in Georgian times, and it came from an unlikely quarter – the Irish.

The sedan chair had certain advantages over other modes of transport.

You could get into your chair in the privacy of your home and be carried to your destination without being recognised, with the added luxury of being sheltered from the elements. They also had the advantage of being legal whilst travelling on both road and pavements thus avoiding any congestion.

To be a chair man wasn’t for the weak or faint hearted. The chairs were built to be as light as possible, but to be robust a strong wooden frame was needed with metal fittings through which two stout poles were inserted. A harness would distribute the weight across the shoulders of the bearers and it is estimated each man would be carrying 100lbs for seven hours a day. For the grander houses four men were needed to carry their passenger aloft in his luxury chair.

modbelle_sedan_chair The Irish monopolised this service, it paid well (about one shilling [5p] for a cross London trip), your only equipment was a harness and a wooden pole. You also didn’t need any geographical knowledge (where have I heard that one before?), London’s ‘link-boys’ escorted the chairmen for a few pence, they knew the warrens of streets in the old city, and more importantly the alleys that should be avoided. At night link-boys carried lighted torches to guide the chair men.

Most pubs, hostelries and clubs provided a sedan chair service for their customers use after a hard time drinking, but as today, the men providing the transport were self-employed.

In 1634 Sir Saunders Duncombe took a 14-year licence to provide sedan chairs from a public rank in Green Park.

Open to the air the leather chairs got soaked in bad weather, making them smelly. With hardship at home and the ever expanding City of London, the Irish chair men, who were notorious for swearing, fighting and womanising, remained popular and monopolised this means of transport for 150-years as their ability to negotiate the labyrinth of streets at speed made it the fastest mode of transport.

Picture: G. Borgelli: A Rococo Scene. A gentleman greets a lady in a sedan chair. Most sedan chairs were far less salubrious.

Cartoon: A Modern Belle going to the Rooms at Bath, by James Gillray (1756-1815), published 1796 by Hannah Humphrey, London.

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