Running Footmen

I’m slightly back on my ‘fun facts about servants‘ kick, since I’m reading another book I picked up at the same time as Frank Victor Dawes’s Not in Front of the Servants, which I blogged the ever-loving-hellfire out of a few weeks ago.

This book is called What the Butler Saw by E.S. Turner (1962), and although it has some interesting stories in it, it’s not quite as rigorously academic as I would like. There is most definitely an undercurrent of, “Servants didn’t have it so bad. You just can’t get good help anymore.”

Anyway, one figure to appear in Turner’s book (and a figure I have never heard of before) is the ‘running footman‘. This is probably because I work mostly with the nineteenth century, and running footmen had all but died out by then.

A running footman is exactly what you think it is: a footman who runs. EVERYWHERE. You need a message delivered 20 miles away? I’ll be back tomorrow. *zoom*” “You want someone to announce your arrival at an estate you’re going to visit? I’ll run alongside your carriage and then sprint when we get close, so they have warning. *zoom*”

Turner writes, “More strenuous, much more strenuous, was the lot of the running footman, who had two roles: one, as a messenger with urgent dispatches; two, as a species of herald in front of his master’s carriage. This fleet-footed servant took enormous pride in his calling, but it was a dying one, rendered superfluous by steady improvements in highways and communications; and by the end of the [eighteenth] century only old-fashioned noblemen retained servants of this type.

“The sort of emergency in which the running footman excelled is illustrated in a story of the Duke of Lauderdale [….] In his castle at Thirlstane, near Lauder, the Duke was informed, as his table was being laid for dinner, that there was a shortage of plate. He therefore sent a running footman over the Lammermuir Hills to his other castle at Lethington, near Haddington, fifteen miles away to fetch some additional articles, and the mission was completed in time for dinner.

“An Earl of Home one evening ordered a running footman to set off at once from his Berwickshire castle to Edinburgh on important business. On going downstairs next morning the Earl found the man asleep in the hall and was about to chastise him for disobedience when the man explained that he had already been there and back, a matter of thirty-five miles each way.

“The writer John O’Keeffe says of a running footman he saw in his youth in Ireland:

“‘He looked so agile, and seemed all air like a Mercury; he never minded roads but took the short cut, and by the help of his pole, absolutely seemed to fly over hedge, ditch and small river.’

I never thought an eighteenth-century aristocrat might need to verify a potential employee’s pole vaulting skills, but there you go.

“The running footman who preceded his master’s carriage did so primarily to let people know that a great man was coming, though in theory his function was to assist in the equipage over rough or muddy ground. Usually he wore a jockey-style parti-coloured livery with white linen trousers and carried a long ornamental staff, in the head of which might be housed a hard-boiled egg and a small quantity of wine. [What, that’s it? Not also a five-course meal and some cocaine to keep his energy up???] If  he needed a respite he would signal with his staff to the coachman, but this was rarely necessary. The running footman on carriage duty was prepared to cover sixty miles and more in a day, at an average of six to seven miles an hour.

“In London the fourth Duke of Queensberry (‘Old Q’) continued to employ running footmen until his death in 1810. He would try out applicants in Piccadilly, lending them his livery for the occasion, and then stand watch in hand on his balcony to time their performance. There is a story that he said to one candidate: ‘You will do very well for me.’ The reply was, ‘And your livery will do very well for me,’ with which the runner bolted.” (30-32). Presumably to sell the livery or to commit acts in the Duke’s name (since the livery would be recognized) and therefore be able to get away with not paying for things. “Add it to his Grace’s bill!” That sort of thing.

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One Response to Running Footmen

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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