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.