Race memory – An Irishman’s Diary about the ‘Running Footmen’

When Irish footmen were all the rage in English aristocratic circles

Detail of a sign on a pub in London’s Mayfair

Detail of a sign on a pub in London’s Mayfair

 

In London’s Mayfair, there is a pub with a very odd name – The Only Running Footman. That’s the shortened version. The full, even odder title is “I am the only Running Footman”. This used to be accompanied by a sign with a picture of the said runner, whereon also hung a tale of forgotten Irish history.

The word “footmen” has evolved to mean male servants in general. But it used to be more literal, referring to those whose job was to run in front of aristocratic carriages, announcing their arrival.  

Sometimes there were other tasks involved – paying tolls, alerting innkeepers, occasionally helping to dig the carriage out of a hole. As often as not, though, the liveried footman was an end in himself for his employer, an exercise in personal branding.

Chambers’ Book of Days, an 1869 almanac, described the practice as something from former times, when “all great people deemed it a necessary part of their travelling equipage that one or more men should run in front of the carriage, not for any useful purpose […] but principally and professedly as a mark of the consequence of the traveller”.

It had already disappeared then, doomed by increased traffic speeds. But in an earlier era, when roads were bad or non-existent, a good footman could easily outpace a horse over long distances. 

According to Chambers, the best models averaged seven miles an hour and could cover up to “three-score” (ie 60) miles a day.

One of the most famous was said to have been “Langham, an Irishman” from Elizabethan times. His greatest feat did not involve a carriage. Perhaps inspired by having a useful job, for a change, he once ran from Warwickshire to London to fetch a medical prescription for his master’s ailing wife, covering the round trip of 148 miles in 42 hours.  

This included a night’s rest at the doctor’s – employee benefits, 16th-century style.  Even so, it was agreed that no horse could have equalled the performance. The grateful patient rewarded him with “a new suit of clothes”.

Langham was not unusual in his nationality. Irish footmen were all the rage in English aristocratic circles then. And how much this had to do with innate athleticism and how much with economics is unclear.  

But since the footman was a prestige possession, quality must have mattered. Candidates didn’t just need speed and stamina. They were also ideally tall and of impressive bearing. In these and other respects, Ireland must have had a competitive edge.

 In any case, stage-plays of the period have numerous references to Langham’s compatriots, often sublimated because audiences were so familiar with the concept.  

Thus a 1607 play called The Puritan, once misattributed to Shakespeare, has a character said to be capable of doing something with a “most Irish dexterity”. 

By the time this was published in an 18th-century collection, it needed a footnote explaining that the phrase meant “with the agility of a running footman”.  

Similarly, a 1616 play by Thomas Middleton mentions someone with an “Irish dart”, a reference to the footman’s pole, part-decorative, but also bearing a small container at the top for his lunch (a hard-boiled egg, typically, and some wine).

There were running footmen in other parts of Europe too, of course. Chambers quotes “Mrs St George”, a traveller in Vienna circa 1800, who was appalled at their treatment there. “They seldom live more than three or four years and usually die of consumption,” she lamented.

Maybe they were better looked after in London, although Fynes Moryson, an earlier English travel writer (and bigot) thought that Irish footmen performed best when treated poorly. It was definitely a mistake, he suggested, ever to let them sit on a horse, or they would never run again.

The pub in Mayfair is a vestige of the practice’s declining years. Like the footmen of Vienna, by 1800, the London profession in general was on its last legs. The reprobate fourth Duke of Queensberry, who died in 1810, was the last to use footmen regularly. And Chambers has a story about him that I hope is true.

He was wont, it is said, to test-drive prospective runners, requiring them to don his livery and then perform up and down the street in Piccadilly, while he watched from his balcony and timed them. 

After one such trial, he declared himself happy, telling the applicant, “You will do very well for me”. The man replied, “And your livery will do very well for me”. Then he absconded, with the alacrity that had recommended him.