Running footmen were used by some people in the 1700s because up until the end of the eighteenth-century roads were bad. It resulted in coach travel being slow (seldom above five miles an hour), which was one reason running footmen could keep up and run ahead of coaches and carriages. It almost meant that the running footman needed to be a healthy, agile men to perform their duties. Employers who used them claimed they were a necessary part of traveling equipage and saw them as a dignified way to show a passenger’s importance.
Critics argues that running footmen were mere ornaments and selected based on their physical attributes alone. However, running footmen could also be useful. They occasionally lifted a vehicle out of rut, assisted the coach or carriage as it crossed a river, or ensured the vehicle did not overturn because of ditches, tree roots, or other obstacles. Roads were so bad running footmen could also travel faster than the family coach or a man on horseback. This meant that on occasion they were employed to deliver dispatches, which was frequently the case in Scotland. In fact, supposedly, there were numerous stories of Scottish footmen and their “singular speed.”
One story that demonstrates the swiftness of Scottish footmen involves the Earl of Home. He resided at the Hume castle in Berwickshire, and one evening he had important information that had to be delivered to Edinburgh and sent his footman to deliver it. The following morning when the Earl came down stairs, he found the footman asleep on a bench and assumed he had neglected his duty. He was all set to chastise him when he learned the footman had been to Edinburgh (a 35-mile trip one way) and back. Apparently, the footman was so tired upon his return, he fell asleep on the bench.
Scottish footmen were not the only footmen willing to test their speed. In Paris, in 1778, two Italian running footmen, employed by two noblemen, decided to wager on who was the faster footman. The race was run from the Barriere de la Conference in Paris to the Grate at Versailles and back again, a round trip distance of about 24 miles. The footman who worked for the Duke of Bourbon was named Violette and was a native of Piedmont. The other footman was named Rossignol. He was a native of Rome and employed by the Count of Esterházy and he is the footman who won the race, completing the distance in 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Races between footmen were extremely popular with the public and there were plenty of references to races between footmen as noted:
“One of the most graphic descriptions of a foot-race between two pedestrians, who were also ‘running footmen,’ is given in the diary of Sir Erasmus Phillips … The extract … is as follows: … In the evening rode to Woodstock Park, where saw a foot-race between Groves (Duke of Wharton’s running footman) and Phillips (Mr Diston’s). My namesake ran the four miles round the course in 18 min. and won the race, and thereby his master 1000l., the sum Groves and he started for. On this occasion there were a most prodigious concourse of people.’ The alleged time is, of course, absurd, and shows that the distance cannot have been the full four miles, or that there was some other error in calculation; but the concourse of people to such an exceedingly ‘out of the way’ place as Woodstock is remarkable as showing the popular interest taken in the race.”
Running footmen were popular throughout Europe in the 1700s. For instance, a gentleman traveler to Naples in 1765 wrote that the Neapolitan gentry had no expensive country houses, gardens, hounds, racehorses, or “no great demands for the education of their children.” What they did spend their money on was “Shew and Equipages,” which meant they were willing to hire running footmen. The traveler then went on to explain:
“Accordingly, some of their Princes have forty or fifty Coach-Horses, more than twenty different Carriages, thirty, forty, or fifty Domestics and Pages, besides four or five (and I once saw six) Running Footmen before their Chariots. A Running Footman seems almost an indispensible necessary of Life here; for a Gentleman never rides Post on the Road near Naples, nor takes an Airing, without being preceded by one of these poor breathless Fellows. It may be observed, however, that a Running Footman in the crowded Streets of Naples is very useful, where the Pavement is so smooth, and the Noise of the Crowds so great, that the Motion of a Coach is hardly heard, and many [pedestrians] would be trampled by the Horses, if they had not timely Notice to get out of the Way [from the running footmen].”
Running footmen could also be found regularly throughout Europe. An Irish miss, named Melesina Chenevix, married a Colonel Richard St. George in 1790. He died a couple of years later, and she went traveling in 1799 and 1800 and traveled extensively throughout Europe. While in Germany Mrs. St. George noted:
“Among the modes here, I chiefly dislike the use of running footmen. It is so cruel, and so unnecessary. These unhappy people always precede the carriage of their masters in town, and sometimes even to the suburbs. They seldom live above three or four years, and generally die of consumption. Fatigue and disease are painted in their pallid and drawn features; but, like victims, they are crowned with flowers, and adorned with tinsel.”
To perform their duties, running footmen in England needed to wear appropriate clothing. Their dress usually consisted of “a light black cap, a jockey coat, white linen trousers, or a mere linen shirt coming to the knees, with a pole of six or seven feet long.” On top of the pole was a hollow ball where the footman kept a small refreshment, such as a hard-boiled egg or some sips of wine. Apparently, the pole originated from a long silver-headed cane and was still used in the 1800s by footmen who rode at the back of carriages of nobility. The poles also had a useful capability in that they enabled them to “leap” hedges, brooks, and ditches.
When it came to the dress of the running footman abroad it was different than the footmen in England. Their dress was described as being of a “very gaudy character.” A description of three gaudy footmen who preceded the King of Saxony’s carriage on a Dresden road one hot July day in 1845 is provided verbatim:
“First, in the centre of the dusty chaussée, about thirty yards ahead of the foremost horses’ heads, came a tall, thin, white-haired old man; he looked six feet high, about seventy years of age, but as lithe as a deer; his legs and body were clothed in drawers or tights of white linen; his jacket was like a jockey’s, the colours blue and yellow, with lace and fringes on the facings; on his head a sort of barret cap, slashed and ornamented with lace and embroidery, and decorated in front with two curling heron’s plumes; round his waist a deep belt of leather with silk and lace fringes, tassels, and quaint embroidery, which seemed to serve as a sort of pouch to the wearer. In his right hand he held, grasped by the middle, a staff about two feet long, carved and pointed with a silver head, and something like bells or metal drops hung round it, that gingled as he ran. Behind him, one on each side of the road, dressed and accoutred in the same style, came his two sons, handsome, tall young fellows of from twenty to twenty-five years of age; and so the king passed on.”
Supposedly, William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry, who died in his house in 1810, kept running footmen until the day he died. One story that the Duke liked to repeat often involved how he determined who were the best candidates to hire. Apparently, he dressed candidates in his livery and put them to the test by having them run up and down Piccadilly as he timed them from his balcony. One day a candidate did particularly well and found himself standing on the balcony with the Duke, who said, “You will do very well for me.” The candidate replied, “And your livery will do very well for me.” The candidate then gave positive proof of his running abilities by sprinting off in the Duke’s livery never to be seen again.
By the late eighteenth century, coaches and carriages could travel faster because roads had greatly improved. This put a greater strain on running footmen and when necessary, running footmen in their prime undertook to run as fast as 7 miles an hour and go as far of 60 miles in a day. But such a grueling pace was not something they could do a regular basis. Moreover, with coaches and carriages traveling at faster and faster speeds, they could not keep up with the accelerated speeds and the once common footman seen running alongside carriages came to end.
Once the running footman disappeared, there remained in London but one small memorial to them in the form of a public-house called the Running Footman. It was located on Charles Street in London’s Berkeley Square and was patronized primarily by servants in the immediate area. You could easily locate the public-house from its Running Footman sign that sported a tall, agile footman decked out in his livery and carrying a pole topped with a hollow metal ball. Underneath the sign it read: “I am the only Running Footman.”
-  Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Volume 20, 1889, p. 21.
-  “To the Printer,” in Northampton Mercury, 21 April 1777, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Trench, Richard Chenevix, The Remains of the Late Mrs. Richard Trench, 1862, p. 72.
-  Chambers, Robert, The Book of Days, 1862, p. 98.
-  Ibid., 99.
-  William White, Notes and Queries, 1856, p. 5.
-  Ibid.