by Marie-Louise Jensen
When I first began planning a story set in Georgian Bath, I assumed that horses and carriages were the normal mode of transport within the city. I was completely wrong.
There were several good reasons why. Firstly, the city of Bath in the early days of the reign of George I was really tiny. Just a handful of streets, squares and alleys. There was no way it would have been worth harnessing horses to the carriage for the short journey to the hot baths or the assembly rooms. Space was also at a premium in a city still confined by its medieval walls. The city was full to bursting with visitors during the season and there never would have been space for stabling for everyone as well.
The streets and alleys of Bath were both narrow and steep and filled with piles of refuse besides, which would have made them impassable to horses and carriages.
The city expanded greatly through the 18th century, spilling out over its original city walls into the green space around. The new streets were wider, grander and cleaner but they were even steeper than before as the city climbed into the surrounding hills. Sedan chairs continued to be used, even once they had fallen into disuse in London. Some of the grander new houses even had huge curved porches incorporated into their design to allow the chair to be carried right into the house and turned around there, so that the wealthy passengers did not need to walk out into the street to climb in. In their defence, it does rain A LOT in Bath.
The chairmen in Bath were notorious. They ran through the streets with scant attention to hapless pedestrians who were expected to keep out of their way. Apparently they did call out a warning, such as 'Have care!' or 'By your leave!' though they gave way to no one. At night they were obliged to either carry a lamp or be accompanied by a link boy with lighted flambeau, but accidents happened nonetheless; pedestrians were run down, passengers were spilled, chairs were smashed.
Chairmen jostled one another in their eagerness to collect passengers and fights regularly broke out between rival chairmen. They terrified ladies with their coarse language and swearing (!), and they were known for locking their passengers into their chair and refusing to let them out until whatever exorbitant fare they chose to demand had been paid. If the passenger was stubborn, they would open the roof and let the rain in on them. (The roofs could be opened to allow passengers to wear tall hats, feathers or elaborate hairstyles undamaged, though presumably only on dry days).
Beau Nash fought an ongoing battle with the sedan chairman who preyed on visitors to the city and was responsible for a licence being introduced. After that, each chair bore a number and could be reported for infringing the rules.
Eventually the sedan chair was replaced by the wheeled Bath Chair. Our present taxi system still bears the same numbered system of licences that were introduced for the sedan chairs all those years ago.