London still has many pubs left that are worthy of a visit. Most have the usual generic names: Red Lion, Royal Oak, Builder’s Arms or King’s Head.
But one to be found in Mayfair has what must be a unique sign above its door – The Only Running Footman.
For this Guest Post Alex Murray writes about this pub’s fascinating history.
Following in the Footsteps of The Only Running Footman
London’s been the place for high society for many centuries and its colourful past, and indeed present, continue to play a key role in British history. However, it’s sometimes interesting to follow the course of history through a career of a certain period – in this case following in the footsteps of a London footman!
A Step Back In Time
Back in the 17th century, the carriages of wealthier classes were largely the private equivalent of the black cabs seen nowadays. Although there was less vehicle congestion, London’s narrow streets weren’t conducive to easy passage for carriages. Besides being narrow, they were packed with pedestrians, barrows, carts and animals, whilst the ancient equivalent of the congestion charge – tolls – were frequent along London’s main roads and bridges. This meant that carriage journeys managed by just the carriage driver could be fraught with obstacles. So, most households also employed footmen, whose job involved running before the carriage, clearing a route, carrying lanterns after dark and paying tolls, facilitating an easy, direct journey for the carriage itself.
The Look of Livery
Although a servile role, being a footman was a prestigious job. The average wage was about £7, although overall ‘vails’ (the early equivalent of tips and perks) generally brought the role up to about £40 a year (around 1750). With the modern equivalent salary being around £60,000, it’s easy to see why a young man of a humble background might be keen to join a household as a footman, especially as accommodation was also included.
An extremely dapper, free uniform was also a major attraction, as the role also offered full livery, usually comprising of white stockings and crisp white shirts. To look the part, the man would be expected to be handsome, physically fit and at least 6 feet tall. Despite the poor hygiene and health issues in the 16th and 17th centuries, a surprising number of young men easily attained the required height and fitness.
One Foot in Two Doors
A footman was often considered to be the eyes and ears of the ‘downstairs’ world because his role involved a significant amount of mingling with ‘upstairs’. Although after the Great Fire of London  the congested streets of London were clearer and carriages were able to dominate the streets without the need of footmen, footmen did not become redundant. Many households simply redeployed them, using their footmen as escorts to the carriage as well as to run errands, messages and letters, both official and more personal.
With a role in delivering ‘discrete’ communications and accompanying their wealthy employers on their own visits and activities, opportunities to glean gossip and identify indiscretions were plentiful and a footman could command high regard from his employers and colleagues because of what he knew and his levels of discretion about it! Unfortunately, because of this, footmen also gained a reputation for ‘cockiness’, based on their self-assumed superiority to other servants!
With their role in escorting gentlewomen of London’s highest families, footmen were also believed to have quite a standing ‘above their station’ where the ladies were concerned. Although in theory they were not allowed to marry, many actually did and still more had regular girlfriends and romantic encounters, at all levels of society!
The Only Running Footman
As dashing servants (in all contexts), footmen were popular London characters. Many aristocrats enjoyed ‘racing’ their footmen against those from other households, placing hefty bets on their own man, who of course had to be up to the job; a genteel sport noted several times in Samuel Pepys diary throughout the 1660s.
Significant footsteps of the footmen’s historic role can be retraced through the pub and restaurant ‘The Only Running Footman’ in Mayfair. Originally the Running Horse hostelry, popular with local Mayfair footmen, the pub was bought in 1749 by an ex-footman and renamed ‘I Am The Only Running Footman’. It’s thought the host’s aim was to offer a hostelry dedicated to the earlier footman role, as by then the footmen’s original running role had developed into that very different man-servant role.
Despite this, footmen still wielded considerable power to earn their extra vails through their presence ‘upstairs’. On visiting England back in 1725, notable Swiss scientist Nicolas Theodore de Saussure noted his impression of footmen in his journal:
If you take a meal with a person of rank you must give every one of the five or six footmen a coin on leaving. They will be ranged in a file in the hall, and the least you can give them is a shilling each, and should you fail to do this you will be treated insolently the next time.
The Nightingale Sang . . . and a Footman Ran . . . in Berkeley Square
The Only Running Footman is in Charles Street, just beside Berkeley Street and the famous Berkeley Square. This Mayfair area remains a prestigious London address and has an established history of accommodating high ranking families from British aristocracy. So it makes delightfully ironic sense that the running footmen from these prominent addresses would historically have been striding between these areas (and later the pub) gaining their vails and gossip, before sharing them, along with their tales and intrigues of the society of their time, in their very own hostelry which can still be visited today.
Another tale of running footmen can be found at Mayfair’s leering peer.
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 11th April 2014