In romance novels footmen are depicted as tall, dark, and handsome men in fancy livery, preferably matched in height. Surprisingly, this description of these statuesque men, who were as much a status symbol as servant, is true. According to Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, footmen wore:
“livery,” or household uniform of fancy coat, knee breeches, stockings, and powdered hair, a costume that endured to the end of th 1800s. Because of their appearance at dinner and in public with the family, footmen were supposed to be the most “presentable” of the male servants. They were evaluated on the basis of the appearance of their calves in silk stocking, and they often gave their height when advertising for positions in the paper–it was considered absurd to have a pair of footmen who didn’t match in height. (Poole, p. 221)
In olden days, footmen traditionally ran alongside carriages or to obtain items of importance, or raced other footmen of great houses in order to win bets for their masters. The Chamber Book of Days relates these stories of legend:
For example: the Earl of Home, residing at Hume Castle in Berwickshire, had occasion to send his foot-man to Edinburgh one evening on important business. Descending to the hall in the morning, he found the man asleep on a bench, and, thinking he had neglected his duty, prepared to chastise him, but found, to his surprise, that the man had been to Edinburgh (thirty-five miles) and back, with his business sped, since the past evening. As another instance: the Duke of Landerdale, in the reign of Charles II, being to give a large dinner-party at his castle of Thirlstane, near Lander, it was discovered, at the laying of the cloth, that songe additional plate would be required from the Duke’s other seat of Lethington, near Haddington, fully fifteen miles distant across the Lammirmuir hills. The running footman instantly darted off, and was back with the required articles in time for dinner!
Footmen acquired their names from their running duties, accompanying their masters or mistresses alongside carriages or horses. They carried a long cane containing a mixture of eggs and white wine for sustenance, but many accounts talk of thin, gaunt footmen who became too old before their time.
In the eighteenth century [footmen] were frequently matched to run against horses and carriages One of the last recorded contests was in 1770 between a famous running footman and the Duke of Marlborough, the latter wagering that in his phaeton and four he would beat the footman in a race from Windsor to London. His Grace won by a very small margin. The poor footman worn out by his exertions and much chagrined by his defeat, died, it was said, of over fatigue. In the north of England the running footman was not quite extinct till well into the middle of the nineteenth century. So recently as 1851, on the opening of an assize court, there the sheriff and judges were preceded by two running footmen. About the same date the carriage of the High Sheriff of Northumberland on its way to meet the judges of assize, was attended by two pages on foot holding on to the door handles of the carriage and running beside it. A Handy Book of Curious Information: Comprising Strange Happenings in the … By William Shepard Walsh, 1913
By the 18th century, footmen began to work under the supervision of a butler, taking on such duties as “carrying coals up to rooms, cleaning boots, trimming lamps, laying the table for meals, answering the front door and, at Erddig, sleeping in the butler’s pantry to ensure nobody stole the family silver” (Willes, page 18). The footman’s life was not an easy one. He arose at the crack of dawn and worked until 11 p.m. at night almost without pause. Frederick John Gorst, a former footman at the turn of the 20th century tells of the day he fainted:
Dr. Burton asked me how much time I had off for rest and recreation, and I told him that I had not had a day off since I began to work at Ashton-Hayes six months ago. Moreover, I had not had a holiday nor seen my family in more than three years. He shook his head in disbelief, and said:
“John, this is a very serious matter. How old are you?”
“I’m almost eighteen, Dr. Burton,” I said.
“You are very tall for your age, and your pale complexion leads me to believe that you need some sunshine and fresh air.”
- First Footman’s Daily Duties: Manor House
- Second Footman’s Daily Duties: Manor House
- Servant Livery: Manchester Art Gallery
- Roles and Duties in the Victorian Household
- Also click on my other post, Footmen in Movie Adaptations
- Chamber Book of Days, Running Footmen
- Of Carriages and Kings, Frederick John Gorst, with Beth Andrews, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, 1956.
- Household Management, Margaret Willes, The National Trust, London, 1996.
The Footman: A Servant’s Day in London
Since I am now at leisure,
And in the Country taking Pleasure,
If it be worth your while to hear
A silly Footman’s Business there,
I’ll try to tell, in easy Rhyme,
How I in London spend my Time.And first,
As soon as Laziness will let me,
To cleaning Glasses, Knives, and Plate,
And such-like dirty Work as that,
Which (by the bye) is what I hate.
This done; with expeditious Care,
To dress myself I strait prepare;
I clean my Buckles, black my Shoes;
Powder my Wig, and brush my Cloaths;
Take off my Beard, and wash my Face,
And then I’m ready for the Chace.Down comes my Lady’s Woman strait:
Where’s Robin? Here. Pray take your Hat,
And go—and go—and go—and go—;
And this—and that desire to know.
The Charge receiv’d, away run I,And here, and there, and yonder fly,
With Services, and How-d’ye’does,
Then Home return full fraught with News.Here some short Time does interpose,
‘Till warm Efflucia’s greet my Nose,
Which from the Spits and Kettles fly,
Declaring Dinner-time is nigh.
To lay the Cloth I now prepare,
With Uniformity and Care;
In Order Knives and Forks are laid,
With folded Napkins, Salt, and Bread:
The Side-boards glittering too appear,
With Plate, and Glass, and China-ware.
Then Ale, and Beer, and Wine decanted,
And all Things ready which are wanted,
The smoaking Dishes enter in
To Stomachs sharp a grateful Scene;
Which on the Table being plac’d,
And some few Ceremonies past,
They all sit down, and fall to eating,
Whilst I behind stand silent waiting.
This is the only pleasant Hour
Which I have in the Twenty-four;
For whilst I unregarded stand,
With ready Salver in my Hand,
And seem to understand no more
Than just what’s call’d for, out to pour;
I hear, and mark the courtly Phrases,
And all the elegance that passes;
Disputes maintain’d without Digression,
With ready Wit, and fine Expression;
The Laws of true Politeness stated,
And what Good-breeding is, debated:
Where all unanimously exclude
The vain Coquet, the formal Prude,
The Ceremonious, and the Rude.
The flattering, fawning, praising Train;
The fluttering, empty, noisy, vain;
Detraction, Smut, and what’s prophane.
This happy Hour elaps’d and gone,
The Time of drinking Tea comes on.
The Kettle fill’d, the Water boil’d,
The Cream provided, Biscuits pil’d,
And Lamp prepar’d; I strait engage
The Lilliputian Equipage
Of Dishes, Saucers, Spoons, and Tongs,
And all th’ Et cetera which thereto belongs.
Which rang’d in order and Decorum,
I carry in, and set before ‘em;
Then pour or Green, or Bohea out,
And, as commanded, hand about.
This Business over, presently
The Hour of visiting draws nigh;
The Chairman strait prepare the Chair,
A lighted Flambeau I prepare;
And Orders given where to go,
We march along, and bustle thro’
The parting Crouds, who all stand off
To give us Room. O how you’d laugh!
To see me strut before a Chair,
And with a stirdy Voice, and Air,
Crying—By your Leave, Sir! have a Care!
From Place to Place with speed we fly,
And Rat-tatat the Knockers cry:
Pray is your Lady, Sir, within?
If no, go on; if yes, we enter in.
Then to the Hall I guide my Steps,
Amongst a Croud of Brother Skips,
Drinking Small-beer, and talking Smut,
And this Fool’s Nonsence puting that Fool’s out.
Whilst Oaths and Peals of Laughter meet,
And he who’d loudest, is the greatest Wit.
But here amongst us the chief Trade is
To rail against our Lords and Ladies;
To aggravate their smallest Failings,
T’expose their Faults with saucy Railings.
For my Part, as I hate the Practice,
And see in them how base and black ’tis,
To some bye Place I therefore creep,
And sit me down, and feign to sleep;
And could I with old Morpheus bargain,
‘Twou’d save my Ears much Noise and Jargon.
But down my Lady comes again,
And I’m released from my Pain.
To some new Place our Steps we bend,
The tedious Evening out to spend;
Sometimes, perhaps, to see the Play,
Assembly, or the Opera;
Then home and sup, and thus we end the Day.
Norton Anthology: Robert Dodsley Poem: The Footman, 18th Century