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On This Day... 19 October 1687: Sedan Chairs

By Alexander Clapperton, October 19, 2014 - 11:07am
A Sedan Chair

In the first of an occasional series, we look back at events in Edinburgh's history that happened on this day.

On this day in 1687, the first sedan chairs became available for public hire in Edinburgh.

Although some the wealthier residents of the city had owned their own private sedan chairs for many decades, this was the first opportunity that the lower orders had to experience such luxury. The bearers of these "hackney chairs" were typically Highlanders who had migrated south in search of employment: men used to heavy labour and being outdoors in all seasons.

The fleet of black-panelled chairs were ideal for transporting those not inclined to spoil their clothing by walking through the steep, narrow and filthy alleys of the Old Town, and far more practical than horse and carriage in the crowded streets. They were further improved by the addition of a tilting seat, allowing the occupant to ride out the steep inclines of Edinburgh's streets without being thrown against the walls of their tiny cabin. A lift in one of these chairs to anywhere within the city would cost a mere sixpence, though travelling to anywhere outside the walls would add a shilling to your fare (and then no further than a half-mile). Alternatively, four shillings would hire the chair for the entire day.

However, transport in them could be hazardous, as Edinburgh's high winds frequently caught the sides of the somewhat unstable boxes, causing them to be overturned. It was frequently necessary to hire an additional two men to run either side of the chair, making sure it remained upright. Further, the council had to order that all chairs carry a lamp on their front pole so that they would be more visible at night, as several collisions had lead to "many hurts and inconveniences that have happened to the inhabitants & by the chairmen carrying or resting their chairs without lights under cloud of night".

At the peak of their popularity, there were over 180 chairs for hire in Edinburgh, and one of their shelters (where the bearers would wait for a fare) can still be seen at the Pleasance end of the Cowgate.