The forgotten footmen
UK, 1450s- 1700s
Professional long-distance runners can make a good living these days from their natural ability to get from A to B in the quickest time possible, but one of the first groups to earn money for running for prolonged periods were known as the ‘running footmen’, and they had it tough.
The running footmen appeared in the mid 15th century. Their job was to accompany the horse-drawn carriages transporting wealthy people on their journeys, clearing obstacles from the road, helping free the carriages should they become stuck and running ahead to alert the local innkeeper that Mr and Mrs St John-smythe would be with them shortly and would be requiring roast grouse and a nice claret for dinner.
A running footman became a status symbol – the more you employed, the posher you were, and the really wealthy could have up to six footmen trotting ahead of their carriages as they travelled the country. The problem was, as the years went by, the job became harder and harder. Fifteenth-century carriages rolled at a relatively modest 5mph, thanks to the terrible state of the roads (council budgets for road repairs were minuscule even back then), but as the quality of the highways and byways steadily improved, the coaches got faster and the later generations of running footmen had to keep up. By the late 18th century the carriages were estimated to be doing a heady 7mph (that’s 8:34 min/mile) and their human outriders were expected to run up to 60 miles a day, often clocking up 20 miles without a break.
Unsurprisingly, many running footmen collapsed and died from exhaustion. Others suffered the same fate after three or four years’ service, having contracting tuberculosis (possibly from the germ-laden air they constantly ran through, breathing heavily). Those deaths may have given rise to the erroneous 18th-century idea that running was bad for the health.
An onerous life indeed, but to add insult to injury the footmen’s employers often raced them against each other for sport and entertainment. The toffs, of course, couldn’t resist betting on the proceedings: ‘In the evening rode out to Woodstock Park, where saw a race between Groves (Duke of Wharton’s running footman) and Phillips (Diston’s),’ wrote one Sir Erasmus Phillips in his diary in 1720. ‘My namesake ran the four miles round the course in 18 minutes and won the race, thereby his master £1,000, the sum he and Groves started for. On this occasion there was a most prodigious concourse of people.’ As far as we know Groves and Phillips emerged unscathed but it was not always the case.
‘In the 18th century, footmen were frequently matched to race against horses and carriages,’ wrote William Shepard Walsh in A handy book of Curious information. ‘One of the last recorded contests was in 1770, between a famous running man and the Duke of Marlborough, the latter wagering that in his phaeton [carriage] and four [ horses] he would beat the footman in a race from London to Windsor. The poor footman, worn out by his exertions and much chagrined by his defeat, died, it was said, of over-fatigue.’ Just to clarify, that’s 25-odd miles for our footman against a top-of-the-range coach pulled by four horses. He never stood a chance.