A number of people have asked me about sedan chairs and tradition we have in Port Naain of racing them. Now it is doubtless possible to go into great detail about this. Whilst not myself an aficionado of the sport I know plenty who are, and I could doubtless thrill you with the names of winning pairs, their times over fixed distances and all that sort of thing. But frankly it would bore me to write it.
Still I do see the need to give an overview and so I shall attempt instead to do that. After some discussion with those ladies who know these things I think I can say that it was Lady Balat who made the sedan chair respectable. Now to be fair, Lady Balat never owned one and almost certainly never travelled in one. She went everywhere by palanquin. Not only that but her conveyance was never carried by less than a dozen bearers. Then there would be the miscellaneous attendants, on fine days she had fan bearers, and she’d always have musicians and perhaps a singer or two. Indeed when her children were little she’d have other maidens to carry them in appropriate cribs.
Obviously she was a lady of considerable wealth, and her husband, realising he had married a lady who was imaginative, beautiful and wildly eccentric, merely shrugged and let her get on with it. So her entourage would wear the garb of some time in our distant past, the bearers indeed wore nothing but a loin cloth. Yet Lady Balat insisted on them being properly rubbed down with oil to protect them from sun, wind or rain. Indeed she would on occasion rub them down personally.
She became almost an institution within the city, and kept up this mode of travel until well into her seventies. Apparently it was her granddaughters who put their foot down and forced her to abandon the show. Rumour had it that they couldn’t see why she should have more fun than they did!
Now I can hear several people asking in a somewhat bemused manner, how did she make the sedan chair respectable?
It was simple really. A lady would ponder the acquisition of a chair of her own. When it came to discuss the matter with her family, she would start the conversation with a comment along the lines of how splendid Lady Balat looked today. She would then make remarks which led the family to suspect she might be considering emulating the great lady by acquiring a palanquin of her own. At this point family would rally round and would offer instead the option of a sedan chair. From their point of view this was a damage limitation exercise, from her point of view, the desired result.
It tended to be ladies who took to the sedan chair. For men of wealth and substance, there was the coach. This might actually be a dog cart, or perhaps a curricle, a gig, or even a trap. Some, for longer distances over uncertain roads, might ride. For men of lesser status, they would tend to just walk. For the lady, the sedan chair was an excellent way to protect one’s hair or hat in inclement weather. Also with a dress of more than moderate length, it would be almost impossible to keep it clean walking along the street. Most ladies would claim that the cost of maintaining a chair was more than covered by reduced laundry bills and hairdresser’s appointments.
So a lady has her sedan chair and bearers. Obviously the day will come when a lady wonders if her bearers are ‘up to the mark.’ So she’ll test them. She’ll covertly time them over a certain distance and seek to compare times with friends. From there it’s only a matter of time before a lady asks a friend whether she’d like to put her bearers through their paces on the route from Foredeck Rooms to the Flensers.
For a little while it’ll remain at that level, the occasional challenge between friends who perhaps want to try out a new pair of bearers. But then competitive nature rears its head. Madam A will hear from her good friend Madam B that Madam C (whom Madam A doesn’t really know) has an excellent pair of bearers who may even be better than the pair that Madam A lauds. Honour demands that Madam A contact Madam C with the suggestion that some form of contest might be in order and Madam C enthusiastically agrees.
Once you have reached this stage, more and more ladies are drawn in, and you regularly see a group of sedan chairs moving with unbecoming alacrity along the Ropewalk. The final straw comes when folk start betting on it and the ladies become really competitive. At this point ladies who do not own a chair start casting an eye over the chairs available for hire, and the lure of easy money provokes even the sluggards who ply that trade into moving faster than their traditional ponderous amble.
Now matters are approaching a climax. The whole situation hurtles forward to its inevitable conclusion. Finally it happens, there is a scandal. The scandal can take many forms. A common one is where somebody starts trying to fix the betting. Rather less common is where there is a fracas in the street. Coming upon two or three chairs and their bearers brawling is not uncommon, and to be honest nobody really takes any notice. There again, where you get two dozen chairs, all their bearers, and perhaps several score of bystanders, fighting a pitched battle up and down Three Mills, then even in Port Naain, the authorities feel obliged to step in. On the other hand, scandal can take many forms. The inadvertent mass poisoning at the Solstice Ball seems to have merely been an attempt to incapacitate rival bearers. Fortunately there were no fatalities, although three elderly footmen and two butlers were laid low for over a week. Similarly people still talk in hushed tones of the midsummer races. These were finally halted when the three leading ladies were discovered to be sitting outside their chairs, disrobing to encourage their bearers to greater efforts.
When matters reach this stage, the Council of Sinecurists is summoned to meet, ‘because something must be done.’ The matter is discussed with due solemnity and then, with awful finality the Council bans sedan chair racing, absolutely and in all its forms.
For a little while, a few months, a year, perhaps a little longer, due propriety is observed. And then, with grim inevitability Madam B will meet Madam A at some function, and comment to her, in passing, that Madam C has an excellent set of bearers who are faster than any Madam B has ever seen. Thus the cycle continues.
It is at this point I feel obliged to announce that I, Tallis Steelyard, have produced a novella.
‘Tallis Steelyard and the sedan chair caper.’
No mere collection of anecdotes but an in-depth expose of the criminal underbelly of our great city. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility. Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society? Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.
Do not miss out,
As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s sly wit and broad understanding of human nature makes his work deliciously appealing. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard, and the characters who inhabit his world, are particularly delightful. Tallis and his creator both have a dry, wry and wonderfully playful perspective, and while the tales may seem like a bit-of-fluff entertainment initially, the aftertaste is that of rich wisdom shared with a wink.”