The for­got­ten foot­men

UK, 1450s- 1700s

Runner's World (UK) - - Coffee Perks -

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.

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