Sunday, February 19, 2012
Sunday, February 19, 2012
The local high school's spring sports teams must have begun training, because straggling packs of teenagers are to be seen each afternoon running along the sides of the roads. All of which reminds me of a specialized kind of footman that was once considered indispensable: the running footman.
Chosen for their endurance as well as their speed, running footmen served several purposes. On journeys, the running footman ran ahead of his master's coach to announce his arrival at inns or other houses. In a time when bad roads were a part of all travel, he could run forward and return with reports on conditions ahead. He could be sent to carry important messages or packages, or to summon a physician in an emergency. For some masters, the running footman was also considered a status-symbol for sport, and like a prized thoroughbred horse or dog, and raced against other footmen with hefty wagers on the outcome.
As a combination long-distance runner and bike-messenger, running footmen could be fast indeed, with the best ones recorded as covering seven miles in an hour, and capable of running sixty miles in a day – although, like horses, no one expected them to do this day after day. Costume and livery varied, but a long staff in the hand was a constant, used as a symbolic mark of the position, as a pole to help leap over brooks, and as a weapon to fend off dogs. It also could carry refreshment. The decorative, silver-headed top of the staff often had a small compartment for wine, or, in some cases, to carry a hard-boiled egg.
As roads improved in the 19th c., running footmen gradually disappeared – though they do live on in the names of several famous English pubs and taverns. (The illustration, above, comes from a pub sign, which explains why the footman appears to be running through a vineyard!) The following comes from the Recollections of Irish actor and dramatist John O'Keeffe (1747-1833), published in 1826:
[My Lord's running footman] I have often seen skimming or flying across the road; one of them I particularly remember; his dress, a white jacket, blue silk sash round his waist, light black-velvet cap, with a silver tassel on the crown, round his neck a frill with a ribbon, and in his hand a staff about seven feet high with a silver top. He looked so agile, and seemed all air like a Mercury: he never minded the roads, but took the shortest cut, and by the help of his pole absolutely seemed to fly over hedge, ditch and small river. His use was to carry a letter, message, or despatch; or, on a journey, to run before and prepare the inn, or baiting-place, for his family or master, who came the regular road in coach and two, or coach and four, or coach and six: his qualifications were fidelity, strength, and agility.
For more about running footmen, see one of our favorite on-line resources, Chambers' Book of Days.