Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Below stairs - the Footman

by Deborah Swift

' the lady of fashion chooses her footman without any other consideration than his height, shape, and tourniture of his calf'  Mrs Beeton

Horace Roome, a liveried footman at Shugborough Hall
The footman has been doing his duties in English upper class households since the seventeenth century. His name comes from the fact he was originally employed to run alongside the carriage, to make sure it was not overturned because the original tracks were rutted and full of boulders and tree roots. This then extended to the duties of opening and closing the carriage doors, or running errands when the Lord or Lady were out and about in town.

Image from The Telegraph

'In the eighteenth century they 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.'
from 'A Handy Book of Curious Information' William Shepard Walsh, 1913

The footman was a personal outdoor servant, who would assist a specific person within a household thus adding to their aura of luxury and status.

Appearances were important, so a tall personable footman was paid more than a shorter plain one. They were often dressed in impractical embellished liveries, which were at odds with the duties they were expected to perform. A 'livery' was a uniform that identified the servant’s employer. The heraldic arms of the employer’s family would be echoed in the colour and decorations of the clothes distributed to these servants. The word 'livery' comes from the French livree - to hand over. For more on livery in the 19thC see this article in Jane Austen's world.

Where more than one footman was employed, they had to match, like bookends, in terms of height and colouring. Because they were supposed to submerge their own personality, footmen were often given a name chosen by the employer. James and John for a matching pair, or John Thomas for a single footman were popular names.

Silent service was the order of the day, so shoes that squeaked were replaced, and a footman was not expected to speak or show signs that he had heard the family's conversation.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, footmen began to do duties indoors, and one of their first and surviving indoor tasks was to clean all the boots and shoes of the family before they were required, in other words at night. This could be a long task, as several different pairs of shoes were worn each day by each person or guest. The polish was made of  'charcoal, spermicetti oil, treacle and white wine vinegar' in the 17th century.

Another indoor duty was to trim wicks, re-fill wall sconces, and in the later centuries to deal with the many oil lamps. At Belvoir Castle in the 1830's about six hundred gallons of oil were consumed for light in the four months of winter.

After World War I fewer households could  afford servants, so the position of footman is now rare except in the British Royal Household, where they wear a distinctive scarlet livery on state occasions.

The Gilded LilyShadow on the Highway (The Highway Trilogy, #1)As many of you know, I have been interested in the lives of the servant class, and my seventeenth century books are told from the perspective of ordinary people witnessing extraordinary events.

You might like this lovely Daily Mail article about the real life of servants at Downton Abbey
And this about the duties of the second footman at Manor House

The Duties of Servants Reprinted from 1894 publication by Copper Beech Publishing, Ltd.
The Victorian Domestic Servant - May
Early Modern England, A Social History - Sharpe


  1. Running alongside the coach to keep it from tipping? That sounds pretty dangerous! No wonder they had to be tall.

  2. This was so interesting! So very hard for us in this day and age to understand how they (the servants) managed to work so hard. And reading some historical mysteries, I wish the author would reflect this. Anyway, thank you for this article and the leads in your post to other good articles.

    1. Thanks Donna and Elizabeth for your comments. I'm glad I was not a footman in the early days - far too exhausting!

  3. Now I want to know when in the 17th C they appeared. Brilliant article Dee. I really enjoyed it.

  4. Really interesting. I've heard the phrase "I am the only Running Footman" before. Do you know its origin?

    1. Here is a history of the Last Running Footman, that sounds plausible, but I don't know how accurate it is! http://metro.co.uk/2012/08/22/the-story-behind-one-london-pub-the-only-running-footman-3818215/

  5. Excellent article. Thank you! Tweeted!

  6. This was great to read, thanks for sharing. Will look into your books!


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