The Brighton Man-Fly

Update 2 April 2013: Tracy Anderson, who is currently researching the lives of the Pavilion’s servants, has discovered this picture and description of a fly from a volume of cuttings in the Brighton History Centre.

Print of a Brighton fly, 19th century
A Brighton fly, 19th century

Two unassuming buildings in a Brighton backstreet have recently been identified as possibly the only surviving examples of early nineteenth century ‘fly stables’ in the country. The structures in 13A and 14 Stone Street have now been given Grade II listed status.

Grade II listed status ‘fly stables’
Grade II listed status ‘fly stables’

A fly was a small, covered, very low carriage drawn by a single horse, ideal for short distances, and looked not unlike a hansom cab. They were usually charged at the same tariffs. Flys were the cause of some debate in the early nineteenth century – mostly due to being numerous and because of complaints about variable rates, and so the town Commissioners, the local authority of the day, issued a table of fares and started to regulate them. They could be described as the Regency equivalent to the mini-cab, and were particularly popular in the busy seaside resort of Brighton, and may even have originated here. The difference to a normal coach or hansom cab was that they were pulled and pushed by manpower rather than horses.

The Brighton Ambulator, a guide book compiled by a local man and published in 1818, sheds a little light on this means of transport:

‘The local conveyances in Brighton are innumerable. A nouvelle kind of four wheel vehicles, drawn by a man and an assistant are very accommodating to visitors and the inhabitants. They are denominated flys, a name given by a gentleman at the Pavilion on their first introduction in 1816’.

This guide book claims that the man-fly had superseded the sedan chair. But this isn’t quite true, as a diminishing number of sedan chair men are still listed in later guides and directories.

In his 1862 History of Brighthelmstone, John Erredge tells the story of how both the vehicle and its name were invented in Brighton in 1809, although sadly without providing references:

‘During the erection of the Royal Stables, in Church Street, in 1809, a carpenter, who lived in Jew Street, named John Butcher […] 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 amongst 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”.’

These ‘man-flys’, operated by men and boys, were probably the best mode of transport in the narrow, packed streets of Brighton’s old town centre where the thoroughfares were far narrower and windier than they are today. Once the town began to spread out, with the development of Regency Square and,from the early 1820s, with Hanover Crescent (north east of The Level) and the two suburban ‘towns’ (Brunswick and Kemp), horse-drawn flys or hansom cabs were quicker and better suited for travelling greater distances.

Brighton’s flys appear in a number of prints and drawings, many of them placed in picturesque manner in front of the east side of the Pavilion. They were also referred to as ‘fly-by-nights’. Here is one from a print from c. 1823. The ‘Fly-by-Night’ can be seen in the bottom right corner.

They were also referred to as 'fly-by-nights'. Here is one from a print from c. 1823. The ‘Fly-by-Night’ can be seen in the bottom right corner.
They were also referred to as ‘fly-by-nights’. Here is one from a print from c. 1823. The ‘Fly-by-Night’ can be seen in the bottom right corner.

A fly was included in the lithograph of the Steine front of the Pavilion in James Rouse’s The Beauties and Antiquities of the County of Sussex from 1825:

A fly was included in the lithograph of the Steine front of the Pavilion in James Rouse’s The Beauties and Antiquities of the County of Sussex from 1825
A fly was included in the lithograph of the Steine front of the Pavilion in James Rouse’s The Beauties and Antiquities of the County of Sussex from 1825

And here is one parked outside Mahomed’s baths in 1818:

Fly parked outside Mahomed’s baths in 1818. ha922800
Fly parked outside Mahomed’s baths in 1818. HA922800

Flys had not completely disappeared by the end of George IV’s reign. In 1830 Bruce’s History of Brighton notes flys which are either pulled by horses or mules or hand-drawn. Those drawn by horses or mules are grouped with hansom cabs and the hand drawn ones are grouped with Sedan chairs.

If anyone knows of other examples of ‘men-flys’ or fly stables in pictures of the city or anywhere else, please let us know.

Alexandra Loske, Doctoral researcher and Guide, and Dr. Sue Berry, Historical researcher

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7 Responses

  1. jfwakefield

    Reblogged this on Austenonly and commented:
    Introduced to Brighton slightly late( 1816) for Lydia Bennet to have enjoyed them, but this is a fascinating post, and I think you will enjoy reading about Brighton’s “manflys”.

    • Thanks!

      • Ian Parker

        Dear Sir(s),
        A quick note to confirm my interest in this article as Henry Parker is my Gt-Gt Grandfather.
        – Born 6th Feb 1811 (Lindfield, East Sussex),
        – Married Ann Brown 5th June 1832
        – Died: 1 Stone St, Brighton, 22nd July 1893.
        Currently sharing this and much more information on Henry with the new owner in hope of adding to this connection. Regards…Ian Parker

  2. This is a very interesting article because I had no idea that such contraptions existed. We shall certainly visit Stone Street on our next trip to Brighton, though perhaps there is nothing much to see these days.

  3. Helen shipley

    What an interesting article. I have often read about these vehicles but was unsure what they were like. I’m also intrigues by the research and wonder if any gardeners are mentioned? An ancestor is rumoured to have been employed at Windsor then he and his brother supposedly came to Brighton through that employment. They are Thomas and John Leach from Berkshire. Another relative opened the Gardeners Arms public house, near Brighton Station, named thus because of Thomas and John and I know my Great Great Grandfather married Thomas’ daughter, Sarah Leach and he also became a gardener, as did my Great Grandfather, and my Grandfather, the last two moved into floristry and had a shop in Hove from C1913, in which both my parents worked. Other family members also worked there and in other shops and my cousins still run a wholesale gardening business. Thomas Leach, or his son, was also the gardener of the Northern Enclosure’, now Victoria Gardens. I know family stories are often exaggerated or misquoted but the brothers did come to Brighton from Berkshire, so perhaps there is some connection – perhaps. There are also supposed to be associations through the stables but that is quite nebulous and I’m not at all sure which branch of the family it involves – could be ‘Smith’ (oh joy), ‘Brigden’ or ‘Cross’, as well as the possibility of it being a ‘Banks’ or ‘Leach’. Or none of them.
    I’m supposed to be looking for sources re Queen’s Park, formerly Brighton Park but this article has distracted me.

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