Friday, May 31, 2013


As my new release, THE FOLLY AT FALCONBRIDGE HALL is set in a big Victorian house, I had to research how these huge houses operated. I’ve focused today on the footman, and some of the interesting facts I found. There wasn’t a footman at Falconbridge Hall – if you read the book, you’ll find out why!
 Footmen always were more decorative than anything else.  Their duties were light compared to those of other servants and the most important thing was that they should be tall and good looking and reflect well on their employers.  At a time when servants were relatively cheap to employ, and mostly more than earned their keep, footmen were a complete luxury - which is why most people didn’t have them and they were a status symbol.

It was no myth that they were chosen for their looks - according to Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, footmen wore:

'livery,' or household uniform of fancy coat, knee breeches, stockings, and powdered hair, a costume that endured to the end of the 1800s. Because of their appearance at dinner and in public with the family, footmen were supposed to be the most 'presentable' of the male servants. They were evaluated on the basis of the appearance of their calves in silk stocking, and they often gave their height when advertising for positions in the paper–it was considered absurd to have a pair of footmen who didn’t match in height. (Poole, p. 221)
livery 1962.41/3Distinctive livery was a feature of male servant's dress in aristocratic households for two centuries from the Restoration of Charles ll in 1660. This livery outfit with its bold yellow colouring for the breeches and waistcoat, dates from the middle of the 19th century and still shows features of 18th century dress including the style of the coat, and the breeches. This type of retrospective styling was also used for court dress, reinforcing the timeless and traditional feel, and the difference from changing contemporary fashions.

With household uniforms, this distinctive garb also served to distinguish the servant clearly from his master, as well as ensuring that such employees felt noticeably subserviant. Only male servants wore such uniforms, although some advocated its introduction for female staff. In 1725, Daniel Defoe wrote a broadsheet urging the adoption of uniforms for women servants, professing that he had mistakenly kissed a chamber maid, believing her to be one of his friend's guests! It was not until the later 19th century that female house servants were usually dressed in similar cotton print dresses with white bibbed cotton aprons and caps.

Footmen had to powder their hair – a throwback to the 18th century when footmen wore a bag wig with queue and tail. It was universally disliked, as they believed it caused premature balding and colds. The hair had to be dampened, then stiffened with soap and powder. It was necessary to wash and oil the hair at night to prevent it turning a foxlike colour. Either the powder was provided, or the footman was given ‘powder money’ with which to buy it.

The running Footman: The running footman was required to be a healthy and agile man, and both in his dress and his diet a regard was had to the long and comparatively rapid journeys which he had to perform. A light black cap, a jockey coat, white Linen trousers, or a mere linen shirt coming to the knees, with a pole six or seven feet long, constituted his outfit. On the top of the pole was a hollow ball, in which he kept a hard-boiled egg, or a little white wine, to serve as a refreshment in his journey; and this ball-topped pole seems to be the original of the long silver-headed cane which is still borne by footmen at the backs of the carriages of the nobility. A clever runner in his best clays would undertake to do as much as seven miles an hour, when necessary, and go three-score miles a day; but, of course, it was not possible for any man to last long who tasked himself in this manner. 
 The nobility lived in a very dignified way, and among the particulars of their grandeur was the custom of keeping running footmen. All great people deemed it a necessary part of their travelling equipage, to have one or more men running in front of the carriage. For appearances sake more than anything else, although they may be required to lift the carriage out of ruts, or assist it through rivers. Coach travel was slow, seldom above five miles an hour, and was not difficult for these strong, agile gentleman until the end of the 18th Century. Then the speed of travel increased as a consequence of improved roads and equipages, and the custom began to be given up. 

“…Well developed calves and a supercilious expression. Several times a day he partakes freely of nourishing food, including a surprising quantity of beer,” says Lady Violet Greville in the National Review in 1892. Footmen have had bad press. Called ‘lackey’ and ‘flunkey’, ‘peacocks among domestics’ and ornamental parasites.

It was true that footmen were heavy drinkers and many liked to gamble. It didn’t get much better in the 20th Century. When Mr. and Mrs. Chichester’s household went out for the day, the moment their carriage was out of hearing, down to the cellar the butler would go and ring the bell to summon all stable hands, gardeners and workmen …And the beer would flow… both the butler and a footman died of drink. Many an insurance company then would refuse to insure a butler because of his ready access to drink. They were given beer and ale allowances as normal practice. But when you examine the kind of life they lived, it’s not hard to understand why they drank.

The footman was responsible to the butler. For carriage work, he answered to the coachman or the gentleman of the horse. He was expected to help out with valeting for male guests or family members. He was also expected to serve food and lay tables. He needed to develop a wide range of skills, many of which involved intricate rules of etiquette. He was also involved in menial aspects of large scale domestic management: cleaning, lighting, security and endless travelling. But the job was most closely associated with ‘waiting’. To stand on duty at a specific station waiting for his services to be required, perhaps to mend the fire, take a message to someone, or receive and announce guests.

The life of a gentleman servant was not unlike a bird shut up in a gilded cage. They were chosen for their appearance and paid according to their height. Their livery was expensive. In 1863, a single bill for livery items bought by the 2nd Earl of Lichfield at Shugborough, totalled: 120 pounds 7 shillings and 10 pence. It was usual to provide one or two livery suits a year, plus court livery. In many houses, it was the custom to wait to see if a new footman was suitable before measuring him for livery. In some houses, a new male member of staff was shown a variety of second hand livery suits, hoping that one would fit.

In the 19th century, dormitory or single-bedroom accommodation was unusual. Footmen often slept in pull down beds in the servant’s hall. They were the last servants to retire for the night and considered it early if they got to bed at 12.15 am. Even if a footman was out on carriage duty until the small hours, he still had to get up early in order to vacate his bed when breakfast was being served in the servant’s hall.

In 1896 in London, it was usual for menservants to sleep in the basement, well away from the women in the attic.

The footman might have been called an ‘ornamental parasite’, but the footman was the mainstay of a household. 

They were a mark of status, and were essential in an age where male fashion was so elaborate no gentleman could dress himself; furniture was so finely wrought that it needed skilled cleaners, and even in the nineteenth century, being waited on at dinner by a  manservant carried higher status than a mere parlour maid.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, the shortage of menservants became such that in many country houses parlour maids took over many of the duties of footman.

Thomas from Downton Abbey, Edwardian era.

Sources: Chambers Book of Days
Servant Livery Manchester Art Gallery
Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I enjoyed this post so much! I'm working on book two of an MG series based in the Victorian Era, and I needed to know more about the servants in wealthy households. This was a gem. Thanks! I've bookmarked it.

Maggi Andersen said...

Glad it was of some help, Elizabeth. Thanks for commenting.