Boatswain’s chair or bosun’s chair oldest known evidence

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      I am working on a research article about caving equipment, and have been looking for the earliest known use of a boatswain’s chair. Although these are often talked about as being something originating with sailing, I have struggled to find evidence of them in sailing. I would be interested in either the very simple “stick tied to a rope”, or a “canvas seat tied to a rope”, or the more complex “plank connected at each end, hanging from the rope”. These are what I have found so far:

      Earliest mobile platform, a “triangle”, which is a triangular arrangement of planks encircling a mast, which could be raised or lowered, in 1784:

      Earliest known use of a boatswain’s chair by sailors, hauling non-sailors up Pompey’s Pillar, Egypt, in 1798. It was described as a “small bench suspended by a rope”:

      Earliest known use of the term “boatswain’s chair”, 1858:

      I would welcome anything earlier, in any language. I am looking for actual evidence, rather than conjecture, because I already have enough of the latter stretching back to the earliest seafaring ships. I have read suggestions that important people were hoisted onboard a ship using them, so that they didn’t have to climb a ship’s ladder. Examples are Catherine of Braganza in 1662:
      But as far as I can tell, the use of a boatswain’s chair onboard ships, to hang over the side of a ship, or to get people on and off ships, has precious little actual evidence before the 1800s. Can you provide any?

      Meanwhile I have evidence of them being used by steeplejacks in the 1760s, and the “stick tied to a rope” kind by cave explorers in 1723, and guano miners in caves in 1595.

      (My article has touched on sailing many times, including the earliest forms of abseiling, the complete lack of descenders until very late in the game, development of different types of ropes, the origins of wiregate carabiners, pulleys, the earliest use of ropes and ladders to explore caves, winches of various kinds, controlled descent of a boatswain’s chair, the origin of pull-up cords, the use of certain knots, splicing. It is normal for me to find something going back much earlier than people realise, but in this particular case, I am drawing a blank. If you wanted to see what I have been working on, it’s here: )

      David Hepper

        Doing a search of contemporary newspapers, I can offer a slightly earlier use of the term Boatswains Chair.

        During a Coroner’s Inquest on the death of a seaman who fell from the mizen topmast of the P & O ship Ganges in 1855, it was reported that the deceased was being assisted by a boy “…who was in the boatswain’s chair”, when the fall occurred.
        [Source – Bombay Gazette dated 2 March 1855, accessed from the British Newspaper Archive 10 March 2023]

        There is also an earlier reference, although not specifically by name; in an article that appeared in newspapers in 1833, covering “The treatment of female convicts on their passage to Botany Bay”, citing the testimony of John Owen, Boatswain of the convict ship Amphitrite. He states that before departure they were often visited by Elizabeth Fry and other Quaker ladies, and “It was Owen’s place, as boatswain, to sling the chair for Mrs Fry and the other ladies when they came on board”
        [Source: London Evening Standard dated 16 October 1833; accessed from the British Newspaper Archive 10 March 2023]


          Oh that is awesome! Bravo, and thanks so much for both of those, this is the sort of thing I was after 🙂

          It is rather telling that it only got a couple of decades earlier. I wonder what the chances are of pushing it back before the Pompey’s Pillar ascent…


            They were originally called a “chaise volante” (flying chair). I have found English references from 1818 about an “important nautical experiment”. It can be read here (1819 reprint):
            They used it to get to shore, dangling from pulleys on a tightly stretched rope. They only describe it as a “seat”, and do not mention how it was made. But it is very interesting indeed that it is named in French, considering that the Pompey’s Pillar ascent involved French sailors.

            I have not managed to find any French references to it with that name (but did find several about a stair lift made from a chair hanging from ropes).

            David Hepper

              Further searching of the Newspaper Archive has turned up another reference that pushes your date back to the 18th century – the full piece reads =

              “Yesterday, the wife of a Captain in the Jamaica trade, who had been on board to take leave of her husband, was let down the ship’s side in a chair, when the rope broke and the lady fell into the river, and notwithstanding all possible assistance was given, she was drown’d in sight of her husband”

              Source: Stamford Mercury 7 October 1773 from the British Newspaper Archive accessed 11 Mar 2024


                Oh that is awesome! Great find 🙂
                Thank you for having the patience to wade through those papers.


                  I have to wonder how on earth you manage to find anything with that website’s dreadful search feature.

                  There doesn’t seem to be a way to say “find articles with all of these words”, even if you put + in front of them (search all words).
                  Even if you tick “exact match”, it still finds matches like chairs when you searched for +chair.
                  And if you “use quotes”, it sill finds matches for one of the words in the quotes, so the results page just keeps highlighting “use” in a sentence with none of the other words anywhere to be seen.

                  Worse still, there is no way to say “find matches that are close to each other”, so;
                  +”rope” +”chair” +”ship”
                  Which should definitely find relevant matches, finds “ship” at the start of a page, and “chair” at the end of it, separated by 10 new headings along the way.

                  Do you have some tactics to make it actually be … useful?


                    “The most tender and timorous must be convinced of the ease and safety of this operation, by recollecting that it is the very same with that, by which, the most delicate ladies, when they make a visit on board large ships, without any danger, are hoisted up in a chair from their boat, and replaced there again.”

                    Relating a story from 1667, but published in 1825:
                    “But by this time Sir W. Batten was come to be in much pain in his foot, so as he was forced to be carried down in a chair to the barge again”
                    Does not say if he was hoisted or carried in a litter. I suspect the latter, since it makes no mention of rope or hoisting.

                    Frank Scott

                      Looked up on-line Oxford English Dictionary, no ref to Boatswain’s Chair prior to 1878, but for Boatswain’s Cradle there are two interesting refs:
                      • 1861: A means of escape to the crew and passengers .. is open to all with the most perfect safety by a boatswain’s cradle, basket, or slung cask, being attached to the hawser. [Shipwrecked Mariner January, 102]
                      • 1938: This is the machine that was used to pull visitors up in a boatswain’s cradle from the year 1600 until the British occupation of Egypt. [H. V. Morton, Through Lands of Bible ix. 305]


                        I did try to reply several days ago, but I think my comment is stuck in a moderation queue, maybe because I had links in it. I will try to recreate it with some corrections, and without the links to see if I can bypass the queue;


                        I already managed to find Boatswain’s Cradle in 1860 (just one year earlier). But the statement “boatswain’s cradle from the year 1600” is not related to sailing. It relates to monks using it to raise someone into a fortified monastery. This is something that was definitely used long ago, and looking back through a lot of historical accounts, this seems to be the earliest mention of the use of one in a monastery (I managed to find the source book, which was an interesting read). However, the monks did not keep records, so the dates are often highly suspect, and while another one was recorded using a basket instead of a boatswain’s chair in 1616, it could well have been earlier.

                        I cannot substantiate that date from a sailing perspective. This (primarily 16th century focus) historian also knew of nothing:
                        reddit website /r/AskHistorians/comments/b9d1iu/boarding_a_17thcentury_vessel/
                        I think it is much more likely that they started to be used with sailing around the early-to-mid 1700s, but I welcome anything that proves otherwise 🙂

                        I found many more images from the 1500s, all of which showed only gang planks and ladders, even when ascending from rowing boats. Even King Henry VIII is depicted using a ladder:
                        modelshipworld dot com /topic/26489-looking-for-references-16th-17th-and-18th-century-docks-dockyards-ports/
                        rct dot uk /collection/405793/the-embarkation-of-henry-viii-at-dover
                        [attempt 4]


                          Got a much earlier one!

                          1709, an injured captain wrote;
                          “I being not able to move my self, was hoisted in a Chair out of the Ship, and also out of the boat into [another ship] the Batchelor”


                            This one is quite gruesome. Don’t read it unless you really want the historical details. I have deliberately broken the link to stop you clicking on it. You can thank me later.
                            “He was afterwards put on board the Fleet, where, among other Indignities, they fixed him in a Chair, and hoisted him up to the Yard-Arm of a Ship, that so the Deformity of his mangled Visage might be more conspicuous, and be seen by the Christians which were yet in the Port.”

                            This does not sound like a normal boatswain’s chair, since he had been (intentionally, badly) injured at that point, and would not have been able to hold on to a rope. It sounds like an actual chair, tied to a rope. However, it is technically a chair tied to a rope, hoisted up to the yardarm of a ship…


                              “Mr. Hook, Gunner, was brought on shore in a cradle, being wounded in both thighs”
                              An injury that might prevent the use of a chair. Details of the cradle are not given.


                                I have come to the conclusion that the 1571 incident definitely does not describe a boatswain’s chair, though it does describe an actual chair, which was suspended from a rope.
                                It was originally written in old Italian;
                                “posto sopra una sedia d’appoggio, fatta cicogna l’inalzarono sopra l’antenna d’una Galera”
                                which I think translates to:
                                “placed on a support chair, made a stork they raised him above the antenna of a galley”

                                “Stork” I think means crane, though it is hard to know with that one. But “sedia d’appoggio” specifically means a chair that provides back or arm support. Like a normal chair with a backrest. It does not seem to mean “suspended chair”, and does not ever seem to have meant that. It refers to the type of armchair you might use to sit in your living room.

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