The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 132-139 3 October 2010

18th C
Visitors to Bath arrived in the spa town often with no reservations and having no idea of where they were to stay for a period which might last weeks or even months. In 1767, when Margaret was living in The Circus, the young teenager and future writer, Fanny Burney, paid her first visit to Bath, a city she grew to love. Travelling with wealthy friends the party stayed the first night in an inn before seeking help from a friend who recommended lodgings in South Parade. They stayed at No. 14 for the next three months. Today a plaque on the building commemorates the author's visit.

Families usually preferred to rent a whole house if available but most visitors occupied a suite of rooms in lodging houses. Men travelling alone, and staying for a considerable period, usually found accommodation in inns.

Privately owned coaches were the usual means of transport to Bath, and up to about 1750 these were predominantly London built. Several firms of coach builders set up in Bath mid century. Edward Morton in Kingsmead Square was active throughout Margaret Gainsborough's time. By the last quarter of the century roads had improved, carriages were more comfortable and travelling in general had become much less hazardous.

These impovements led to a popular diversion familiar today: day trips by coach to tourist attractions in the area. Destinations included scenes of natural beauty, architectural and industrial sites, impressive institutions like hospitals and almshouses and gentlemen's country houses. One of Gainsborough's contemporaries when on holiday personally escorted his family, including his young daughter, to see a paper factory, a coal pit, a picture gallery, ships unloading at the docks and a china auction. Visits as diverse as these were seen by parents as a necessary part of the education of their young.

For residents of the town and the hundreds of seasonal visitors to Bath there were really only two options for getting about: shank's pony (walking) or hiring a sedan chair carried on poles by two chairmen. This mode of transportation was introduced first in Italy, arriving in London about 1630.

Sedan chairs were well suited to navigate Bath's hilly streets which horse-drawn vehicles found difficult to negotiate, especially in severe winters when, even today, black ice presents hazards to walkers and vehicles alike.

By Act of Parliament in 1708 the Bath Corporation was empowered to licence chairmen for an annual fee of three shillings plus that old bugbear, stamp duty.

Drastic fines of thirteen shillings and four pence were imposed on men caught using unlicensed chairs. There were about eighty registered sedan chairs operating in Bath in Margaret's day. They were all painted black and bore a distinguishing number, the forerunner of the car number plate. Comfortably upholstered inside, with three glass windows, the occupant's view directly ahead was obscured by the jogging figure of the chairman running between the front poles. The roof was hinged to allow it to be raised as the passenger entered and left at the front of the vehicle. This was a particularly important aspect of design which allowed room for the elaborate towering head-dresses worn by women at that time. This fashion led to the publication of THE CHAIRMEN'S LAMENT:

"We've always endeavour'd to make you sit easy
And modell'd our chairs to your fancy and taste;
But now we despair any longer to please ye,
Since your heads are grown double the length of your waist."

Most chairs were made by cabinetmakers like John Bryan and John Walton who were working in Bath in Margaret's time. Each new chair cost about £15 in 1750.

Bathing in the hot water was one of the prime reasons for visiting the town and the sedan chair played a vital role in transporting the visitor to and from the baths. One by one family members were collected from their rooms early in the morning and after a sojourn in the baths each would be picked up and returned, warmly wrapped in a blanket in the enclosed chair. The chairmen would run them home, in through the main door (specially built extra wide) along the hall and up the stairs to the bedroom where a maid would help her mistress into bed to rest and, as one female visitor wrote frankly, to sweat until she had recovered sufficiently to rise and dress for the day's pleasures.

Sedan chair travel was relatively comfortable, although with two carriers it was labour-intensive and therefore an expensive method of transport. It was also a hazardous operation for all concerned, including passers-by. The passenger prayed the chairmen were nimble-footed. If they stumbled on Bath's narrow cobbled lanes the result could be disastrous. The chair was often overturned, shattering its glass windows over the occupant who was frequently injured, as were the chairmen. Broken legs were their most feared injury: legs were the engines of the sedan chair. These 18th C chairmen were celebrated for their strength and endurance but they suffered severely from rheumatism.

On one occasion a chair was roomy enough to take two lightweight schoolgirls sitting side by side when travelling from the Misses Lee's boarding school for girls at Belvedere House on Lansdown to attend a social function at the Assembly Rooms. Susan Sibbald and her friend, identically dressed in white muslin gowns with primrose sashes and wearing wreaths of primroses in their hair, were terrified as the chairmen trotted down the steep Lansdown hill in pouring rain and turned sharply into Bennett Street, fearful at any moment the men would slip on the wet surface and throw the girls out on to the road. The Misses Lee hired a fleet of chairs on this occasion, paying about a shilling for each of them.

Fares were charged according to a schedule of distances covered, as taxis are today: sixpence for up to 500 yards; one shilling from 500 yards to a mile, and if a passenger were unwise enough to command them to stop en route to gossip to a passer-by, the chairmen were entitled to charge an extra sixpence.

Privately owned sedan chairs were granted registration at the Guildhall on condition that they were never to be hired out. Eminent men like William Pitt and Beau Nash often hired a chair and its men for their exclusive use for a week at a time, just as cars are hired today.

Privately hired chairmen cost twelve shillings and sixpence per week, one man usually being senior to the other and named, the second hired by him when needed. They were required to arrive with the chair at the premises at ll am and remain there until ll pm, transporting the hirer's family or clients whenever they were called, and running errands at other times.

When walking about town Margaret Gainsborough soon learned to give chairmen a wide berth, skipping aside whenever she heard their warning shout: "Have a care!" because the runners had no respect for pedestrians and they rushed along at a great rate. Indeed, it was extremely difficult for even a fit young man to keep up with the chairmen in their distinctive uniform of large cocked hat, blue woollen coat or greatcoat, black knee breeches, white stockings and buckled shoes.

Like taxis today, there were sedan chair ranks in dedicated places in the old town. When the girls' school on the hill required a chair, bootboy Billy, the equivalent of today's mobile phone, was sent running down the hill to alert the nearest rank.

The chairmen were a rough and ready lot, dedicated drinkers and fighters and fond of swearing at all and sundry. If reported and charged for using bad language they were heavily fined, the sum varying from a shilling to ten shillings, equivalent to the fee for jogging between the poles for one to ten miles. After dark all chairs had to carry a lighted lamp or be accompanied by a linkboy holding a flaming torch.

The life of Bath's sedan chair service came to an end in 1829 when the Guildhall authorities permitted a hackney carriage service to operate in the city. This was a fleet of one-horse vehicles, each known as a 'fly.' Soon after, the only people to use chairs which, by this time, were wheeled vehicles, were the sick or elderly.