The Vagaries of Mounting Ladies

Whilst viewing an estate clearance sale recently, a few old tack room fittings and stable accessories reminded me of some of the esoteric accoutrements so beloved of wealthy eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century equestrians.

Fig. 1. Extravagant mahogany boot jack by Gillow, circa 1820.

When, myself, a lithe young horserider, I would grasp the reins and a handful of mane in my left hand, raise my left foot into the stirrup and hoist myself into the saddle in the time honoured fashion (figure 2).

Fig. 2. Jacques Swebach, Man Mounting Horse, circa 1800.

Nowadays however, to assist this old wooden Plane mount the dapple-grey mare betimes, an up-turned bucket must suffice.

Traditionally, stableyards, inns and other busy hubs were equipped with substantial mounting steps (figure 3), which enabled corpulent gentlemen to mount their horses with relative ease.

Fig. 3. Permanent stone mounting steps.

Mounting steps were not always to hand, so eighteenth-century gentlemen would often call “leg up!” – indicating to a nearby groom or rustic that he was ready for them to clasp their hands beneath his proffered riding boot and heave him up into the saddle. However, it would have been unthinkable for a lady to be manhandled by a groom in the same undignified manner with the abiding possibility of his head and shoulders disappearing beneath the voluminous skirts of her riding habit.

At any rate, it was improper for a lady to throw her leg over a horse’s back and ride astride it, en cavalier (figure 4), instead, demure ladies rode sidesaddles to protect their virtue (figures 5 & 6).

Fig. 4. Abounding eighteenth-century innuendo.

Fig. 5. George Stubbs, Lady Laetitia Lade, circa 1793. (The Royal Collection)

Fig. 6. Charles Hancock, Lady Portarlington on a Grey Horse, circa 1845. (National Trust, Mount Stewart)

Exertion of any sort was deemed unladylike, so other means of mounting ladies in a courtly manner was preferable.

In 1739 a London gunsmith, Henry Marsh patented a portable spring-loaded contrivance for elevating ladies into their sidesaddles. The device met universal approval and was  produced by such makers as Bainbridge, Gillow and Fowler (figures 7, 8 & 9).

Fig. 7. Bainbridge mahogany ‘lady’s elevator’, circa 1790.

Fig. 8. Gillow mahogany elevator, circa 1810.

To operate a lady’s elevator, a brace of hefty serfs would sit on the seat in order to compress the two enormous internal coil springs whereupon the operative would insert two chocks through apertures in the rear of the base, engaging the springs and securing them in a ‘loaded’ state. The serfs would then retire.

With the aid of a pullout step in the front of the elevator, a lady would take a seat on the contraption and an attending groom would position her horse, side-on, in front of her. When composed, the lady would call out “chocks away!”[1] whereupon the operative would reef the chock ropes, releasing the springs and her ladyship would be propelled aloft and onto the back of the waiting horse.

Predictably, things didn’t always go so swimmingly.

Prior to Rotherham spring-maker, Richard Tredwell’s patent of 1763, coil spring manufacture wasn’t an exact science (in spite of Robert Hooke’s much earlier Law of Elasticity). Elevators’ substantial coil springs made no allowance for the variable weight of individual female projectiles and as a result, the outcomes were many and irregular.

Some ponderous women were merely ejected, quite gently, onto their feet and other, petite women frequently attained frightening heights and occasionally overshot their mark. Further, the release of the elevator could startle inexperienced horses, causing them to bolt, leaving the rider to indecorously impact the ground.

Spring elevators remained largely unaltered throughout the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries with the exception of a few notable modifications to their release mechanisms. In 1770 Fowler introduced a convenient release knob atop the right rear leg of their ‘self ejecting elevator’ (figure 9).

Fig. 9. Fowler mahogany elevator with release knob, circa 1770. (Christie’s)

However, Fowler’s self-ejecting model only enjoyed brief popularity: The mechanisms wore rapidly and frequently misfired, releasing only the right hand spring and inelegantly discharging its human missile some distance off to the left.

U.S. manufacturer, Hammer McCavity produced an adjustable gas-powered elevator with self-contained cylinder and a rider-operated release lever (figure 10).

Fig. 10. Early gas-powered mahogany elevator, circa 1845.

The attraction of gas elevators was that they could be finely tuned to suit the weight of an individual by adjusting the in-built pressure regulator. However unreliable gauges and misuse of the device resulted in numerous accidents and some horrendous injuries.

Although occasionally unpredictable and somewhat perilous, elevators were broadly welcomed by both ladies and gentlemen. The wealthy Yorkshire wool merchant and Parliamentarian, Thomas Goode famously attributed his wife’s elevator (and several heavy landings on her sidesaddle) to her eventual success in bearing him an heir.[2]

Fig. 11. John Sergeant, Fanny Goode, circa 1774.

Jack Plane

[1] The cry later made famous by World War I pilots when preparing for take-off.

[2] Hilary Legges-Askew, The Lady’s World, Cassell, London, October 1886, p. 18.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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3 Responses to The Vagaries of Mounting Ladies

  1. Quercus Robur says:

    This is so funny, almost brought tears of laughter in my eyes. Perfect way to start the weekend :)


  2. Greg Forster says:

    I had to check the calendar; it almost seems plausible


  3. hazel squires says:

    those poor horses backs and no doubt ladies injuries too.


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