Monday, 10 August 2015

Disability in the 17th Century - Fairfax's Wheelchair

From 1664 until his death in 1671 Sir Thomas Fairfax, suffering from a combination of gout and the stone, was more or less confined to his wheelchair. In his book "Black Tom", Andrew Hopper quotes Brian Fairfax, who describes Sir Thomas's wheelchair, "wherein he sat like an old Roman, his manly countenance striking Awe and Reverence into all that beheld him, and yet mixt with so much modesty, and meekness, as no figure of a mortal man ever represented more."
Sir Thomas's original wheelchair now sits in the foyer of the National Civil War Centre in Newark. loaned by the Fairfax family, and an amazing specimen it is too.
Self propelled wheelchairs such as this were very much state-of-the-art at the time and would only have been available to the very wealthy. The first rolling wheelchairs became available in the early 17th century, but it was not until 1655 that disabled German watchmaker Stephan Farfler made a three-wheeled chair that he could propel by use of a rotary handle on the front wheel. You can't see clearly from the angle of the picture below, but Fairfax's wheelchair does have a third wheel at the back and has a rotary handle on each arm.

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