The Running Footmen

There have always been ways of making running pay. In the days when long-distance travel meant struggling along badly maintained dirt roads and pony tracks, foot messengers could often outrun riders on horseback. The feat of the messenger Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC, has become legend. In Britain the first recorded fell-race is said to have been organised by King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland around 1040 AD as a kind of job interview, with the winner earning the position of royal messenger.

But in the 17th and 18th century, a new employment niche opened up for fast runners that offered hundreds of men not only a decent living, but also a chance to climb the social ladder. ‘Running footmen’ emerged as specialist messenger servants, but it was in accompanying their masters and mistresses on the road that their special status was cemented. Teams of footmen would run beside and ahead of a dignitary’s carriage to clear the route of debris such as stones and branches, and to prepare lodgings and refreshments in advance. The appearance of running footmen at a coaching inn or roadside tavern was cause for the landlord to celebrate – it heralded the arrival of important and wealthy guests.

Running footmen were highly visible extensions of their master’s power and personality. So, in keeping with the norms of conspicuous consumption, they needed to look good. The better dressed, taller and more handsome your footmen were the better it reflected on you. Inevitably, footmen became famed for their good looks, fashionable clothes and youthful vigour. With their physical appeal and relatively high income it’s hardly surprising that footmen quickly gained a reputation for fast living and for leading young girls astray. Not everyone can have been pleased to see half a dozen of these puffed-up young men swaggering into town.

But behind the glamour, being a footman was a tough and demanding role. It was imperative that they stayed in top physical shape, both in order to discharge their duties as runners and to keep ahead of the plentiful competition for their jobs. Training regimes included sessions running in weighted shoes, across sand dunes and through freshly ploughed fields. A book published in Poland in 1782 called The Medicinal Handbook for Runners contained training advice and recipes for herbal infusions and medicines purporting to increase stamina or aid recovery. Much like professional athletes today, diligent footmen would leave no stone unturned in their quest for ‘marginal gains’.

Training hard was also a possible route to long-term security and status. Aristocrats competed with each other to see whose footmen were fastest or could keep pace with a coach and horses for the longest. Much prestige and money was at stake. Footmen’s careers were short, but these contests offered a chance to find favour with their powerful employers, and might lead to a job as a house servant or even an honoured role such as butler after their running days were over.

However, not all potential footmen were prepared to play the long game of gruelling training and servile grovelling. After one young man had impressed the Marquess of Queensbury by winning a trial race along Piccadilly dressed in full livery, the old noble called to him ‘You will do very well for me’, indicating the job was his. The runner had other ideas though, shouting ‘and your livery will do very well for me!’, and sprinted off with the expensive suit of clothes the Marquess had lent him. Unsurprisingly, nobody could catch him.




A Brief History of Timing

What’s the most common question you’re asked after finishing a race? In my experience it’s almost always ‘what was your time?’, and talking to other runners it seems this experience is pretty much universal. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an elite athlete or a first time 5k runner, the vital fact is how long you took.

For many of us this focus on times is what makes running so attractive. It enables you to compete with people you have never raced or even met, and by comparing your times to your own past performances you can track your progress in a striking way. But of course, running predates stopwatches, and history shows that this obsession with timing isn’t as inevitable as we might think.

Rise of the clock watchers

From medieval times foot races were common at village fairs and feast days. Runners would race to a local landmark and back or around a marked course, competing for a prize and some local renown. No efforts were made to time the races – accurate timepieces weren’t available – so comparing the ability of two runners who had never raced each other could only ever have been a matter of debate.

This began to change with the industrial revolution, when running was swept up in a growing obsession with time-keeping in all aspects of life. Factory owners demanded promptness and efficient use of time. Working lives were regulated by the clock, and running followed suit. In this atmosphere a new form of the sport emerged in which individuals competed alone, and against the clock.

This was the era of ‘pedestrianism’, when runners and speed walkers covered huge distances across the country or simply around a measured track within a specified time. The famous Captain Robert Barclay covered 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours in 1809 to win a huge bet. A few years later an elderly female pedestrian tramped 96 miles in 24 hours. Particularly impressive performances were reported in the newspapers, providing a target for other athletes to try to beat.

In the second half of the 19th century the obsession with times became even more intense. By universalising race distances, track surfaces and rules it was possible to compare different athlete’s times fairly and accurately. For the first time the keeping of national records became meaningful. The Amateur Athletic Association set itself up as their administrator, and ratified only those performances that had taken place under a strict set of conditions.

More haste less speed?

Naturally these developments emphasised the importance of quick times over everything else. Not everyone approved of this, particularly in Germany, where an alternative form of athletics had taken root. Here, athletics had developed into something more like gymnastics, where poise and form were as important as muscle power. In running events the winner was the competitor who could go as fast as possible whilst maintaining an effortless stride and graceful posture. To these athletes the straining sinews and grimaces of time-focused British runners were quite unbecoming.

But of course in the end it was the time focused version of running that conquered the world. And today, running’s obsession with measurement and record keeping has reached a new intensity, as GPS watches, heart rate monitors and social media comparison abound. For many people the measurability of running is what makes it such an engaging sport. But there is a growing movement for rejecting the clock and comparison, and focusing instead on pressure free running, technique and escaping the tyranny of the clock. Whichever form you choose, you’re in great historical company.



This article was originally written for Running magazine,

Game for a laugh?

The biggest stars in sport almost invariably come from the ranks of elite, professional athletes. We’ll pay good money to see Serena Williams play tennis or Manchester United play football. They have millions of fans around the world. We’re not, on the whole, interested in watching a novice tennis player bumble their way through their first match, or a bunch of middle-aged blokes playing pub league football.

Strangely though, running seems to be an exception to this rule. Just watch the coverage of the London Marathon or Great North Run. As much attention is paid to the average runners in their fancy dress, running for charity or competing in their first ever race as it is to the real contenders. We’re introduced to elderly runners, people overcoming illness and disability and people straining every sinew just to complete the course wearing diving suits or dressed as rhinoceroses. It’s hard to imagine the media spotlight falling on such unusual heroes in any other sport.

But then there has always been something about watching unlikely athletes racing that has drawn the crowds. In fact, there was a time when races were organised explicitly for the spectacle of watching strange or unlikely people run.

This is a deep history, and linked to the ancient culture of carnivals and fairs, where the usual rules of life were inverted, and laughter, games and sometimes cruelty mixed. These odd races were often organised on fair days themselves, but could also come about as the result of wagers between the idle rich – people with the money to put up a prize tempting enough for people to embarrass themselves to try to win.

During the 16th century races between prostitutes were a popular element of carnivals. The women – who sometimes ran naked – were mocked and often tripped and spat at by the crowds as they ran past. One such race was even organised by the Pope in 1501. Less horrible treatment was meted out to peasant women, who raced carrying buckets of water on their heads. Shepherd girls in Germany were encouraged to fight during their races, and elderly women in England raced one another in front of baying crowds.

Although running was not thought unbecoming to young men at the time, ways were found to turn their races into farces too. Fat men were set against thin men carrying another man piggy-back. The disabled raced under a parody of Paralympic categories – men on crutches in one race, men with wooden legs in another. Fast runners could be handicapped by making them wear a pair of weighted boots or carry a heavy load.

Some of the runners may have taken part in these races for fun and entertainment, but many were impoverished and desperate. They would only have chosen to debase themselves like this in the hope of winning a prize or some money to ease their difficult lives. And prizes were often small – a new shirt or a cut of meat.

Of course today’s fun runners, fancy dress athletes and elderly marathoners are a far cry from the poor people who allowed themselves to become sport for jeering crowds and privileged gamblers centuries ago. But perhaps they tap into a gentler strain of the same public fascination with unlikely runners. Today’s unusual athletes, like their forebears, raise a smile and a laugh from the crowds, but today of course they also attract our admiration. Once laughing stocks, people who run in defiance of social convention have been transformed into inspirational figures and role models.


This article was originally published in Running magazine, March-April 2017.

The Cotswold Olimpicks

We all know – or think we know – the story of the Olympics’ two incarnations. First there were the ancient Greeks competing in honour of the gods at Olympia, then, after a hiatus of 1,500 years, the Games were reborn in their modern form, the brainchild of French Baron, Pierre de Coubertin.

The Cotswold Olimpick Games

But de Coubertin wasn’t the first person with dreams of rekindling the Olympic flame. In fact he was beaten to it by almost three hundred years by an Englishman, Robert Dover.

Dover’s Olimpick Games

Robert Dover was a Norfolk lawyer, an excellent amateur poet, and by all accounts a thoroughly decent bloke. In the early 1600s he moved to the small Gloucestershire village of Saintbury, where he fell in with Endymion Porter, a wealthy landowner with royal connections. Porter was a big fan of country sports, and his enthusiasm may have rubbed off on Dover, for within a short time of arriving in his new home Dover was already planning a spectacular new sports event to take place in the hills above the village.

Dover’s Games drew on a tradition of village sports that was already centuries old by his time. Rural communities across the land held local games on feat and festival days, offering hard-pressed workers a chance to blow off steam and perhaps win a modest prize – perhaps an item of clothing or cut of meat. Dover though seems to have blended this tradition with another, in which wealthy gentry would put on Greek themed pastoral music festivals, to devise a new kind of sporting spectacle.

The result, in about 1612, was the inauguration of a hugely popular annual Games, featuring a range of sports including running races, jumping contests, hare coursing, wrestling and (wooden) sword fighting. Competitors and spectators travelled from miles around to take part, some coming from as far away as London. Unusually, the Cotswold Olimpicks, as they came to be known, attracted people from across the social spectrum. Even Prince Rupert put in an appearance in 1636.

Part of Dover’s motivation for creating the Games may have been to counter the growing influence of Puritanism, which sought to curb village games and revels. This would explain why royals were keen to show their support. The Games offered a rare chance for aristocrats and agricultural workers to show solidarity in the face of the largely middle-class Puritan movement.

A Story of Survival

Tensions between the Puritans and Royalists finally boiled over in 1642 with the outbreak of the Civil War, and Dover’s Olimpicks were forced to halt. Ten years later Robert Dover died. However, after the Restoration the mood changed again, and the Olimpicks were revived, running from 1660 right up to the 1850s. Reports suggest that though still drawing huge crowds, by this time the Games had degenerated into a wild revel frequented by hooligans, drunks and ‘women of loose morals’. In 1852 consent for the enclosure of the common land on which the Games took place was granted to local landowners, and they were again forced to cease.

A hundred years later though, in 1951, the Olimpicks were revived again, becoming an almost unbroken annual fixture since 1965. Today they are in good health once more, featuring running races for children and adults, hammer throwing, shot putting, tug-o-war and, for the mildly deranged, a shin kicking contest. They still take place on the site of the original Games, now renamed Dover’s Hill, and end with a firelight procession back to the village square in Chipping Campden, where competitors and spectators enjoy an ‘after party’ with live music, food and drink. I’m sure Dover would have approved!


This article was originally published in Running magazine, January 2016.

Age, Gender and Sport in England

I apologise for the change from the advertised topic for this post. I was planning to talk about the relationship between childhood experiences and involvement in sport, but have been sidetracked by writing up my PhD thesis which is now taking up most of my time. Part of this process has been to crunch some numbers from Sport England’s Active People Survey, a massive survey of over 150,000 people across the country, which tracks sports participation changes from year to year. I’m using the data to contextualise running within the full range of sporting and active leisure activities popular in the UK today. In particular I’ve been looking at how running compares to other sports in terms of participant demographics.

I have posted a simple ranking of sports in terms of the occupational class of their participants before, but now that I have analysed more up-to-date data that includes extra sports as well as taking into account gender and age, I thought I’d come back to it again in a bit more detail.

First of all, here’s a chart showing the relative gender balance (x-axis) and mean age (y-axis) of participants in a number of popular sports. The dark red lines indicate the mean age and gender for the sample. The fact that the mean gender is just over 0.4 indicates that more women than men responded to the survey. Sports to the left of the dark red line are more popular with women, sports to the right more popular with men. The further they are from the red line the stronger this bias is. The mean age of the sports (on the y-axis) runs from 22 (basketball) to 60 (golf).

Sports participation by gender and age

The next two charts show occupational category data sorted in two ways. Each shows the percentage of participants in a selection of popular sports that have professional or managerial jobs (NS SEC 1-2, shown in blue) and the percentage that have traditionally working class jobs or are currently unemployed (NS SEC 5-8, shown in orange). The first chart shows the sports sorted by the percentage of ‘higher status’* occupations, the second is sorted by ‘lower status’* occupations.

I’m not going to comment on these findings at this stage, other than to say that they reinforce a strange fact about running. On the one hand it is a highly accessible sport with low barriers to entry that attracts men and women in almost equal quantities; on the other it attracts a disproportionately high level of middle class participants. In fact running sits above golf, tennis and mountaineering in terms of its proportion of higher status occupation participants. This is a paradox my research seeks to shed light on, and something I will come back to in future posts.


* The use of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ here is related to the typical level of income and education of holders of these jobs – i.e. the socio-ecomomic status. They are not meant o imply that managerial jobs are inherently superior to working class ones.


Active People Survey:

Sport England. (2016). Active People Survey, 2014-2015. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 8038,