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  • Writer's pictureGraham Key

The 18th Century Minicab !

Sedan Chair History

Named after the town of Sedan in France where it was first used, the sedan chair consisted of a box like cabin with a small door and seated area inside. This was carried fixed on two poles, these being lifted by two men known as ‘chairmen’, one at either end. The passenger would get in and out through a hinged door at the front of the chair.

The sedan chair became for hire in London in the mid 17th century as this fashion spread through Europe and were a more low cost version of a hackney cab. Anyone who could afford it, would certainly not want to negotiate the then filthy streets, which were covered with mud, refuse and excrement ! They could also negotiate narrow streets and passages that hackney cabs could not.

Similar to modern cabs of today, sedan chair stations existed where footman could hail one for their master by shouting, “Chair ! Chair !” The very wealthy however, might have their own chair, kept at their residence, often highly painted and decorated. As cities expanded over the next 100 years however, the sedan chair became impractical and slowly fell out of favor and by the mid 19th century, none were seen.

(Georgian painting of a sedan chair and the Elmhirst chair before and after conservation)

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The Elmhirst Sedan Chair

I had the privilege of being able to conserve and restore a surviving sedan chair, dated 1791, originally belonging to Ann Rachel Elmhirst of Ouslethwaite Hall, Worsbrough. Ann, a formidable character by all accounts, was a descendant of the wealthy Elmhirst family who have known to existed in the areas since at least the 14th century. The sedan chair is now in the care of Barnsley Museums where it had been carefully stored, but unconserved, with all the wear and tear expected of an object of this age donated to a museum collection.

(Ouslethwaite Hall, Worsbrough)

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Could It Be Saved ?

The sedan chair is certainly a valuable asset to the Barnsley collections. Other examples of similar chairs do exist, though obviously each has its own unique history and stories to tell. Initially, the condition of the chair could be viewed as poor. Several tears in the leather walls, detached silk interior lining and broken glass window showed the objects age. On closer inspection however, the main timber structure was deemed to be very good, minus some minor loose joints. Coming up with efficient solutions for repair often make projects seem less daunting.

(The sedan chair prior to conservation)

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The sliding sash design of the window meant that this could be removed and new glass re-instated. Likewise a system of repairing splits and missing sections using a durable polyester backing material was chosen. A painted finish was applied to repairs to draw the eye away from what is new, but still blend in with the old. It is very rare for any museum object to be written off completely and techniques have been developed over time to preserve objects in varying states of preservation. Mechanical cleaning of the interior and exterior of the chair (with brush and vacuum), waxing of metal trim and fittings and cleaning and feeding of the surface leather completed the conservation. The original poles that the chair would have been moved with are now missing. To interpret the object better, once on display, it was decided to make replacements of a similar material and design. These were manufactured from white oak and were based on the dimensions of a very similar sedan chair held in another collection at Cusworth Hall, near Doncaster.

(The sedan chair during conservation)

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Complete - Now Take A Seat !

The finished, displayed object tells us much about the past and the lifestyle of its owner and the social structure in which she lived in the late 18th century and its importance should not be undervalued. This object now forms part of re-vamped displays at the Experience Barnsley Museum & Discovery Centre, in Barnsley’s Town Hall and proves to be a great talking point.

Barnsley Museum's latest website also now has an immersive 360 degree view inside the chair ! Navigate to the link below and go round the first case and click on the icon to see what it would have been like to have been a Georgian aristocrat over 200 years ago !

(The sedan chair after conservation)

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