The fly-by-night: A unique Brighton mode of conveyance

Fly outside Mahomed's Baths
Fly outside Mahomed's Baths

Its introduction was quite a favourite feature among the nobility.

One can be seen in old prints of Mahomed’s seafront baths, parked near the entrance, probably awaiting a fare. Others are visible in the foreground of old views of the Royal Pavilion, being trundled along. This curious wheeled sedan chair was called a “man-fly”, “hand-fly”, “fly-by-night”, or just a “fly”. And it is a lexicographical fact that this use of the word “fly” - which later became common parlance for a one-horse cab - originated in Brighton.

Fly by the Pavilion, by James Rouse, 1825

Fly by the Pavilion, by James Rouse, 1825

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fly” thus: “The name of a light vehicle, introduced at Brighton in 1816, and originally drawn or pushed by men; but a horse being soon employed, the name was gradually extended to any one-horse covered carriage, as a cab or hansom, let out on hire. Perhaps short for ‘fly-by-night’.”

The earliest usage cited is from Charles Wright’s Brighton Ambulator (1818), which records: “A nouvelle kind of four-wheel vehicles, drawn by a man and an assistant, are very accommodating to visitors. They are denominated Flys, a name given by a gentleman at the Pavilion, upon their first introduction in 1816.”

Wright claims they had superseded sedan chairs, though in fact the latter were still in use in 1833. Fares began at a shilling, “from the Castle, Chapel Royal, Theatre, or Royal and Old Baths, not exceeding the distance of West Street”, and went up to two shillings, if you went as far as the Royal Crescent, “not exceeding Crescent Cottage”.

An hour’s “airing” in a fly cost 1s 6d, or 2s for an hour and a half. If two adults took a chair or fly together, “the fare shall be a half fare extra”. “The Chairmen or Flymen to be entitled to half fare additional after two o’clock in the morning.”

The historian J.A.Erredge casts light on this innovative vehicle’s origins. While the royal stables were being built in 1809, he records, a carpenter named John Butcher, of Jew Street, “accidentally fell and injured himself.

Upon his recovery, not being able to resume the heavy work of his trade, he constructed a machine of similar make to the sedan chair, and placed it upon four wheels. It was drawn by hand, in the same manner as Bath chairs, while an assistant, when the person was heavy, pushed behind.

Its introduction was quite a favourite feature among the nobility, and a second fly, in consequence, was soon constructed. These two vehicles were extensively patronised by the Prince of Wales and his noble companions; and from being employed by them on special occasions of a midnight ‘lark’, they received the name ‘Fly-by-nights’.”

The most remarkable of the Brighton man-flies, says Erredge, was one customised for George Battcock, surgeon, and known as “Dr Battcock’s Pill Box”. When Butcher sent a fly to Blaker the coach-maker to be repainted, Blaker, “having an eye to business, purloined the design, and improved upon it by making two or three to be drawn by horses”, so extending the meaning of the term “fly”.

I quote Sir Walter Scott, in 1828: “We then took a fly, as they call the light carriages, and drove as far as the Devil’s Ditch.” And Thackeray in 1853: “No flys so pleasant as Brighton flys.”

The wheeled chairs were an ideal means of getting about Brighton’s narrow central streets in the Regency era, though once the town expanded the horse-drawn or mule-drawn version became more expedient. And their presence near Mahomed’s baths is explained by a contemporary description: “The Fly-by-night is made airtight: persons who have taken a warm bath are placed in them to prevent their taking cold from the night air.”