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Posts Tagged ‘The New Bath Guide’

Inquiring readers: In early October, Prof Elaine Chalus, Historian of 18-19C British gender, politics & society, sent a link to eight sessions of the Bath 250, A Virtual Conference, The 250th Anniversary of the New Assembly Rooms of Bath, given on 29t & 30th September 2021. I have listened to only a few of the presentations and hope to listen to many more before the two weeks are over. The presentation that resonated the most with me so far was of  Stephen Pool’s discussion of the sedan chairmen. I hope my synopsis accurately summarizes his main points.

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After the French Revolution that promoted new ideas about equality, Bath sedan chairmen signed a declaration of fidelity to the King of England and the Constitution. They numbered 326. Interestingly, as a group the general public considered them to be rude and their language offensive, making their support of the King all the more interesting. In their defense, Steve Pool states:

“They worked in all weather. The worse the weather, the more likely they were to be called upon, from morning to night. In standing rain, the chairs became wet, inside and out”

Often, when the weather became intolerable (wind, snow, rain), many chairmen were nowhere to be found, and customers who sought their services were forced to walk towards their destinations through the elements.

Sedan chairmen’s manners were considered by many customers to be insolent in public situations. The fashionable crowd often  considered them rude and grating. Cartoonists especially loved to capture these exchanges. Today we should not confuse these Georgian caricatures as objective or realistic observations. (Unfortunately, I could not find the many images in the public domain in Steve Pool’s presentation, except for this one.) 

A modern belle going to the Rooms at Bath-Gillray

A modern belle going to the rooms at Bath, James Gillray, 1796. Wikimedia Commons. The chairmen are drawn as rough, unhappy, and loutish. The belle is tender and refined. Notice the traditional Bath chairmen outfits.

Rules and regulations by the magistrates regarding the conduct of chairmen give us an insight into the difficulty they encountered in making a decent living. 

  1. Chairmen were required to apply for a license each winter to operate.
  2. Their clothes and combination of colors were strictly enforced. 
  3. Work began at 6 AM and lasted until midnight.
  4. The number of stands were enforced with the permits restricted for each site. If the maximum number of permits was reached, the chairmen would have to find another stand in another part of town.
  5. Only two places in Bath permitted an unregulated and unranked number of chairs: at the upper and lower assembly rooms, and occasionally “at the theater on play night or outside the Guildhall after an entertainment.” (Interestingly, the magistrates made sure that the stands connected the lower town with the newer uptown.)

Costs for licenses and stands were high for a 12-month period. In addition, complaints about the chairmen’s conduct were heard twice a week by the magistrates at lunchtime. Serious offenses included carrying customers without a license (40 shillings) to standing at a stand that was already full (10-20 shillings.)

When one considers that in 1739  chairmen charged only 1 shilling for any journey between 500 yards and a mile, and only 6 pence within city walls, and that this charge did not change for most of the century, one can understand why the chairmen began to object against the rigid, unchanging pricing system.

One other consideration is the customer’s behavior. Anstey, in his poeticals in The New Bath Guide 1780, described this incident in verse:

THIS Morning, dear Mother, as soon as ’twas light,

I was wak’d by a Noise that astonish’d me quite,
For in Tabitha’s Chamber I heard such a Clatter,
I could not conceive what the Deuce was the Matter:
And, would you believe it ? I went up and found her
In a Blanket, with two lusty Fellows around her
Who both seem’d a going to carry her off in
A little black Box just the Size of a Coffin;

Pray tell me, says I, what ye’re doing of there ?’
Why, Master, ’tis hard to be bilk’d of our Fare,
And so we were thrusting her into a Chair:
We don’t see no Reason for using us so,

For she bad us come hither, and now she Won’t go ;
We’ve earn’d all the Fare, for we both came and knock’d her
Up, as soon as ’twas light, by Advice of the Doctor:
And this is a Job that we often go a’ter
For Ladies that choose to go into the Water.”

Can anyone blame the chairmen for their gruff, forward, and insistent manners? The constant tugs of war among the magistrates, workers, and those of the Quality and rising middle classes who required their services, created many conflicts. The magistrates set down precise distances and costs, which were published in Bath Guides. When the city grew outside of traditional boundaries, the chairmens’ grievances for wanting an increase in fares for lengthier trips, and for the steep uphill treks to Landsdowne, north of the city, fell on deaf ears. 

Comforts of Bath Rowlandson Met museum

Rowland, Comforts of Bath, Plate 12. Notice the bath chair on the left. This hill in front of the Royal Crescent, was a favorite setting for the caricaturist to show the challenges of the sick and aging in getting around Bath’s hilly terrain. Public Domain image. Met Museum.

Steve Pool’s discussion included the chairmen’s rebellion, in which they refused to pay for licenses or carrying anyone to their destinations. In 1794, the magistrates included a higher scale of charges. They ended the discussion by stating that “This sweeping industrial relations victory was made possible through democratic reform societies, Mason trades unionism, and a measure of the chairman’s collective industrial strength.”

As a contemporary listener, I compare today’s low wage workers, whose minimum wages have not changed for two decades, with the chairmen in Bath’s past. The Bath chairmen revolted; today’s minimum workers are revolting as well. History’s past has turned full circle and is still relevant today in terms of liberty and equality!

Only a few more days remain for readers to view the Bath 250 Virtual Conference (see link in the introduction), which, in the 5 workshops I’ve viewed, has been filled with new information. 

Sources:

Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive: Anstey, Christopher, 1724-1805. The new Bath guide: or, memoirs of the B-r-d family. In a series of poetical epistles. [London]: Sold by J. Dodsley; J. Wilson & J. Fell; and J. Almon, London; W. Frederick, at Bath; W. Jackson, at Oxford; T. Fletcher & F. Hodson, at Cambridge; W. Smith, at Dublin; and the booksellers of Bristol, York, and Edinburgh, 1766

Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme, by John Matthews. A Critical Edition for Readers of Jane Austen. Series Editor: Ben Wiebracht. A book review on Jane Austen’s World blog.

Thomas Rowlandson, Comforts of Bath, Plate 12, Publisher: S. W. Fores (London), January 6, 1798. Public Domain image, Met Museum.

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