Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chamber Horse

An exercise chair with inner springs (illustrations below) from early 18th century was used by diverse people from the author of the novel Pamela, John Wesley, the children of King George III and prisoners to James Bond...

The Chamber Horse or exercise chair of the Georgian era (early 18th to early 19th century) may not seem to fit in a food history blog, but... food and exercise... close enough.  While searching through antique furniture books in the Library of Congress the other day, I saw a picture of this odd chair and was very curious about how it was made.  The photo is from the Victoria and Albert museum.

John Wesley kept his chamber horse in the dining room.  Ah, so yet another reason to be in this blog.  According to a letter he wrote:  "I wish you would desire George Whitfield to send you the chamber-horse out of my dining-room, which you should use half an hour at least daily." [Aug. 18, 1790 letter to his niece Sarah Wesley] 

Samuel Richardson, the author of the enormously popular novel Pamela, was directed to use a "hobby-horse" - more details at the end of this post.  Note the dessert on the table in the painting of a scene from Pamela

The person would sit on the seat, and pull down using the arms or rail while bending his/her knees.  The springs within the layers of wood would collapse upon themselves, like an accordion.  The leather covering was made with slits to allow the air to escape during contraction.  The chair mimicked riding on a horse or in a chaise de poste/post-chaise (carriage) and was considered exercise if one couldn't go riding. 

It “…was all the fashionable rage in its day, and was used by the rich and sedentary at their homes. The poorer classes could use it at apothecary shops for six cents an hour. It was claimed to be a true health preserver…"  [The Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic: a weekly journal… 1894]

To make it easier (or even possible for shorter people) to get up on the raised seat, the bottom of some chairs pulled out to make a step.  This picture is from the  Frederick Parker Collection of Chairs, London Metropolitan University


So how were the chairs made? A good description and image is in Thomas Sheraton's book Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book... appendix. London: 1793:

"Of the Chamber Horse.    The upper figure shews the inside when the leather is off, which consists of five wainscoat inch boards, clamped at the ends; to which are fixed strong wire twisted round a block in regular gradation, so that when the wire is compressed by the weight of those who exercise, each turn of it may clear itself and fall within each other.

The top board is stuffed with hair as a chair seat, and the leather is fixed to each board with brass nails, tacked all round. The leather at each end is cut in slits to give vent to the air, which would otherwise resist the motion downwards.

The workman should also observe, that a wooden or iron pin is fixed at each end of the middle board, for the purpose of guiding the whole seat as it plays up and down. This pin runs between the two upright pieces which are framed into the arms at each end, as the design shews.

The length of the horse is twenty-nine inches, the width twenty, its height thirty-two. To the top of the foot board is eight inches, and to the board whereon the seat is fixed is thirteen."


As early as 1740, the Chamber Horse invented by Henry Marsh of Clare Market, appeared in the last third of the advertisement for "Fuller on Exercise (A Book with reading)" in the London Daily Post on March 7, 1740.

"This is to answer some Objections to the Look of the Chamber-Horse, (for Exercise) invented by HENRY MARSH, in Clement's-Inn Passage, Clare-Market; who, it is well known, has had the Honour to serve some Persons of the greatest Distinction in the Kingdom; and he humbly begs the Favour of Ladies and Gentleman to try both the Chamber-Horses, which is the only sure Way of having the best. This Machine may be of great Service to Children."

The children of King George III played with a Chamber Horse, which was made by John Bradburn, the royal cabinet maker and listed in the 1768 Great Wardrobe Bill. George III and Queen Charlotte had fifteen children, six by 1768, as shown in the painting. ["George III, Queen Charlotte and their six eldest children," 1770, by Johann Zoffany, in The Royal Collection] The chamber horse was located in Buckingham House (later Buckingham Palace), and described in the Great Wardrobe Bill:

For a neat chamber horse to carry four children at once with a mahogany frame and spring seats covered all around with Moracca[sic] Leather the top lined with fine green cloth and brass nails with four handles to hold by. Two of them supported with iron brackets finely polished and made to turn on a swivell [sic] and four foot boards made to fall down automatically for the convenience of carrying it through any doorway. L10 15s

The Royal Collection no longer has this wonderment. The base of it may have been similar to the bottom of a round-about.  The image below had the caption: "The Roundabout - Here is the merry-go-round, 'miserable straggling boys' who receive a few half pence running within the bars."  [Pyne, William. Costume of Great Britain. 1808] Click on the image to see details of the Roundabout and it's horses and coach:

King George III gave a similar one to the Countess Egremont of Petworth House according to an article in the London Times which includes the above description. ["Georgian Chamber Horses to Reduce Weight." Times (London, England) March 31, 1962].    Alicia Marial Carpenter (d1794) married the Earl of Egremont in 1750, and they had six children born from 1751 until 1763, when he died. This was probably the Countess of Egremont who received the gift from the King, since she was also a 'Lady of the Bedchamber' to his wife, Queen Charlotte. To see a picture of the Countess, and her dress… which would never have fit in the chamber horse... check HERE  (at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco).


The 1740 ad at the beginning of this posting was entitled "Fuller on Exercise." Francis Fuller (1670-1706) published his book Medicina Gymnastica: or, a treatise concerning the power of exercise in 1704, and included a chapter on horseback riding. It was reprinted several times until 1777. In addition the chamber horses, the ad discussed a board/frame a man created to relieve his colic:
"Nothing ought to be thought ridiculous... a very worthy Gentleman not long ago, had such an odd sort of Cholick... that he had a Frame made, to which he himself was fastened with Bolts, and then was turn'd Head downwards, after which manner he hung till his Pain went off."

Charles Heckethorn's book Lincoln's Inn Fields and the localities adjacent ...[London: 1896] included an abridgement of the ad, but for some reason put the date as 1739-40. I have looked through all the October 1739 issues, and it did not appear, however the ad is in the March 7, 1740 paper. Heckethorn felt that the board treatment "...led an ingenious gentleman to invent a machine, [chamber horse] which is thus referred to in an advertisement which appeared in the London Daily Post and General Advertiser, of March 7, 1739-40.”


As convenient as the Chamber horse was at home when not physically able to ride a horse, or in inclement weather, another option was when a person couldn't get out at all. In a letter trying to lessen Alexander Murray's time in Newgate Prison in 1751, there was a concern that in three months he was getting sick, forcing him to "ride every Day on a Chamber-Horse." Murray (1712-1778) was a younger son of the 4th Lord Elibank. A staunch Jacobite, he spent five months in Newgate for not kneeling at the Bar when the House of Commons summoned him to the sentencing about his causing problems during the City elections.

Alexander Murray by John Faber Jr, after Allan Ramsay mezzotint, (1751) at - National Portrait Gallery, UK
Some people did not use their chamber horse, rather like current exercise equipment in some homes. As early as 1766 they began to appear in auction and other sales. In Jane Austen's unfinished novel, Sanditon, 1817, it seems that Mr. Hollis rarely used his chair, sold used ones, or rented his by the hour: 

"And I have told Mrs. Whitby that if anybody inquires for a chamber-horse, they may be supplied at a fair rate — poor Mr. Hollis's chamber-horse, as good as new — and what can people want for more?"


Another writer with a chamber horse association was Samuel Richardson (1689-1761).  Two of his wildly popular books were Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, 1740 and Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, 1748.  Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) painted  "Pamela and Lady Davers," 1743-4 (above, now at the National Gallery of Victoria.  Melbourne, Australia).

Richardson (sketch from The Works of Samuel Richardson, 1883) used a "hobbyhorse" according to George Cheyne (1671-1743).  In Cheyne's book The English Malady; or, A Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Distempers, Dublin, 1733 he recommended exercise.  "It is of no great Consequence of what Sort or Kind the Exercise be…certainly riding on Horse-back is the best of all…"


For some reason I just keep coming back to the Chamber Horse subject to look for more information.  It is odd, unusual, has some interesting technology and I had never heard of the thing... I'm hooked.  But then, I've spent years, years reading through patents, early books and manuscripts and visiting some very odd cooking apparatus (stew stoves/brick stoves, iron ovens, 1800 steam kitchens)... not to mention two years researching lemonade.  I like odd, and a challenge.  So, I keep adding to this post.  The latest was the Pamela connection. 

A further hunt may be into coil-spring upholstery history - when the springs began to be used for comfort not as exercise.  A quick search online gives a patent in 1822. 

I have put off mentioning a pop culture connection, possibly because I don't like the movie.  Anyway, in the beginning of the 1960s Casino Royale film, David Niven (as the retired superspy) is using a chamber horse.

©2012 Patricia Bixler Reber


  1. you can now buy an electrical version

  2. I actually saw one of these chamber horses in a Georgian House Museum (House Number 29) in Dublin few years back. Fascinating things indeed.

  3. Chuckle! Readying the derrière for riding a horse!