The Heber Edwards chair
By Bernard Nurse

The Dulwich Society has been given an unusual chair patented in 1922 by Heber Edwards, who was then living at 80 Lordship Lane. Martyn Harryman has refurbished and re-upholstered it. The special features that Edwards registered were that the height of the seat could be adjusted quite simply by sliding it into different grooves and the seat could also be turned over to form a small table. It could therefore be used as an ordinary chair, a typist’s or music stool as well as a side table. No mechanical aids were required and he said it could be produced quite cheaply. It is not known how many of these were made. This example was found by chance in a Lyme Regis antique shop some years ago, purchased by Kimberly Clarke, a local resident there, and generously donated to the Society in 2015 when she moved abroad.

Heber Edwards can be identified as Walter Heber Edwards, born in Spalding, Lincolnshire about 1883, the son of Heber Edwards, a bootmaker and shopkeeper. In 1901 he was working for his father as a bootmaker and living with the family and his five brothers and sisters at 115 Plashet Grove, East Ham. He clearly had an inventive frame of mind, taking out seven British patents for adjustable chairs between 1904, when he was only 21, and 1924. The first application dated 1903 (no. 19,911) describes him still as a bootmaker living at 425 High Street, Manor Park. His “improved adjustable chair” would now be called a recliner and was claimed to have all the advantages of expensive ones but available at a greatly reduced price. Three years later he had moved to Newcastle and gave his occupation as chairmaker. His next invention (no. 16,216) was for an improved chair arm which moved backwards and forwards with the back rest. The following year he developed a chair with high sides that could be lowered to form a couch or bed (no. 15,483). In 1911, he was living in Monkseaton, near Whitley Bay as a bootmaker and repairer with his wife, Henrietta.

By 1918, Edwards had moved to East Dulwich and another period of inventiveness began. Four more British patents were applied for between 1921 and 1923. The first (no. 184,223, applied for in April 1921) was for a folding chair; it had detachable armrests and foot rest and additional tension springs all designed to make it more suitable for invalids. Edwards was now described again on the patent as a chairmaker. The next patent (no. 188,091), applied for in August, was for the chair in the Society’s possession. An application with the same specifications was also made to the French patent office a year later (no. 555,041). However, this time he made a virtue of its small size by explaining that it was intended specifically for children as there was a need for seats to be capable of being adjusted to match their personal height. He claimed those made at the time relied on mechanical aids which were more expensive and risked injuring children if not used properly. He said his chairs would also be useful for adults working in an office or playing the piano. His last two inventions from 1922 and 1923, proposed improvements to the back of adjustable chairs with the use of springs (patent no. 213,653) and the addition of leg rests that would raise the legs of the sitter or convert a chair into a bed (no. 215,087, applied for in February 1923 and granted in May 1924).

Edwards’ address at 80 Lordship Lane, on the west side between Ashbourne Grove and Chesterfield Grove, was listed in the commercial directories as a boot repairer’s shop in 1918 and as second hand boot dealer’s in the last entry for 1924. Heber Edwards is on the electoral registers with his sister, Melinda, from 1920-1923. It is not known what happened to him after this date, neither have any other examples of his work been traced. His interest in adjustable chairs was shared by many others at the time. One of the most popular designs for an adjustable lounge chair was sold by Morris and Co. from the 1870s. With the growth of office work, use of sewing machines and factory labour there was a huge market for chairs suitable for extended periods of sitting. The period between 1860 and 1920 saw a dramatic increase in the number of patents in this field especially registered in America. However, by using wood and rejecting metal mechanical aids, Edwards’ proposals were going in the wrong direction. Height adjustable threaded steel posts were in use from the 1870s and strong steel tubes, much lighter than cast iron, became generally popular in furniture production in the 1920s. Wood was used by craftsmen such as the Barnsleys in the Cotswolds, but for expensive hand made products. His traditional designs had no place in the modernist age and the small workshop could not compete with factory production at the cheaper end of the market. It is unlikely that many of his products were made but if any readers know of other examples of his work or what happened to him after 1924, the author would be interested to hear from them.