Chosen for their impressive height, for it was considered absurd to have a pair of footmen who didn’t match in height, their carriage and the appearance of their calves in silk stockings, footmen were also employed for their athletic prowess. Masters would set their footmen in running races against footmen of other great houses with vast sums being bet on the winner.
A footman would hurry ahead of the coach as it approached an inn or country estate so the staff would be prepared for the master’s arrival. They were expected to keep up with a coach without running using a process described as “fair heel and toe,” although they were allowed to trot to ward off cramp.”
For the gentry to set their footmen against their friends’ was very popular in Charles II’s time, as Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary.
August 10, 1660 : I went by water to White-hall to the Privy Seale; and that done, with Mr. Moore and Creed to Hideparke [Hyde Park] by coach and saw a fine foot-race, three times around the park, between an Irishman and Crow that was once my Lord Claypoole's footman. Crow beat the other above two miles.
July 30, 1663: The town talk of this day is of nothing but the great foot-race run this day on Banstead Downes, between Lee, the Duke of Richmond's footman, and a Tyler, a famous runner. And Lee hath beat him; though the King and Duke of York and all men almost did bet three or four to one upon the Tyler's head.
August 11, 1664: This day, for a wager before the King, my Lords of Castlehaven and Arran (a son of my Lord of Ormond's) they two alone did run down and kill a stoute bucke in St. James's parke.
In 1660, betting went up to £1000 on the outcome of a foot race, but this became so prevalent that in 1664, King Charles II passed a law to limit bets to £100 and Queen Anne did so again in 1711 which brought the limit to £10. Runners who won often found no one would run against them, so they would run ‘black’, using assumed names and disguises.
With the coming of hard-surfaced country roads and cobblestoned city streets, coach speeds increased to upwards of seven miles an hour. Footmen were expected to run for up to 20 miles (32 km) without stopping and up to 62 miles (100 km) in a day. Rest-stops were infrequent and brief, consisting of pit stops at coaching inns for the horses to be watered and sometimes changed.
In A Mad World My Masters, a 1608 play by Thomas Middleton refers to a running footman as "you lousy seven- miles-an-hour," "you progressive roundabout rascal," and "linen stockings and three-score-a-day."
They wore light black caps, a jockey coat, white linen trousers, thin-soled shoes and carried a two-meter long pole with a hollow silver ball containing a hard-boiled egg or a little white wine for nourishment. If the coach had to travel at night the running footman carried a torch instead of a pole. In the early part of the 1700's, footmen wore kilts, but these were replaced by breeches, possibly because, as a 1725 writer put it: "Our Village Maids delight to see the Running Footman fly bare-ars'd o'er the dusty Road."
Runners sought odd methods to increase their speed, including the removal of their spleen, or at least reduce its size. The ancient Greeks, baffled by the spleen's purpose and believed it was a hindrance to fast running, used herbs to dissolve it, and in the 17th Century some runners had their surgically removed. Many foot runners, known for theor pale, gaunt appearance, died from consumption from running in high pollution areas after five or six year’s of service.
In the 1670’s, the Duke of Lauderdale gave a dinner-party at Thirlestane Castle . At the laying of the cloth, it was discovered that additional plate would be required from the Duke’s other seat of Lethington, fifteen miles distant across the hills. The running footman instantly darted off, and was back with the required articles in time for dinner.
By 1800, with improved roads, running footmen had a hard time keeping up with coaches and were no longer needed. The last English nobleman who employed one was the infamous Duke of Queensbury who died in 1810.