By Maggi Andersen
My novel, The Folly at Falconbridge Hall is set in a large, Victorian manor house, so I needed to learn more about the servants who kept these big estates in perfect running order. A Downton Abbey fan, I was intrigued to discover more about the fascinating hierarchy which existed below stairs. The servants were often more straight-laced than their employers.
Footmen were required to be more decorative than other servants. As status symbols, they had to be tall and good-looking, and reflect well on their employers. Their duties were light compared to those of other servants and 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 many people didn’t have them.
Through the centuries the role and dress of footmen has changed.
Distinctive 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 coloring for the breeches and waistcoat, dates from the middle of the nineteenth 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 subservient. 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 chambermaid, believing her to be one of his friend’s guests! It was not until the later nineteenth century that female house servants were wore similar cotton print dresses, with white bibbed cotton aprons and caps.
Footmen were required to powder their hair – a throwback to the eighteenth century when they wore a bag wig with queue and tail. The powder was universally disliked, believed to cause premature balding and colds, because 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 fox-like color. Either the employer provided the powder, or the footman was given ‘powder money’ with which to buy it.
During the nineteenth 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.
Towards the end of the 19th century, however, the shortage of menservants became such that in many country houses parlor maids took over many of the duties of footman.
Footmen have had bad press. Called ‘lackey’ and ‘flunkey’, ‘peacocks among domestics’ and ornamental parasites. According to Lady Violet Greville in The National Review in 1892, a footman must have…
“…Well developed calves and a supercilious expression. Several times a day he partakes freely of nourishing food, including a surprising quantity of beer.”
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 traveling 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.
The running footman was required to be a healthy and agile man, who was dressed and fed appropriately for the comparatively rapid journeys, which he had to perform. A black cap, a jockey coat, white Linen trousers, or a 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. Some runners could undertake to do as much as seven miles an hour, when necessary, and go thirty miles a day, on occasion.
It was true that footmen were heavy drinkers and many liked to gamble. It didn’t get much better in the twentieth 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 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. (Downton Abbey) 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 traveling. But a footman’s 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. Chosen for their appearance, they were 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, totaled: 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.
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 parlor maid.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, the shortage of menservants became such that in many country houses parlor maids took over many of the duties of footman.
The Edwardian footman
Excerpt from The Folly at Falconbridge Hall
A neatly dressed woman in black bombazine, with a lacy cap over her brown hair and a watch pinned to her breast, entered the room. A large bunch of keys jangled at her waist. Vanessa thought her to be in her mid-forties. She had a pointed nose and sharp eyes that looked like they would miss little.
“Ah. Mrs. Royce, this is the new governess, Miss Ashley,” Lord Falconbridge said. “Please give her a tour of the day nursery and school room, and introduce my daughter to her before you take her to her quarters.”
“Miss Ashley.” His lordship nodded. “I shall see you here again at ten o’clock tomorrow. We’ll discuss your plans for teaching my daughter. I’m extremely keen that she becomes proficient in mathematics, the French language and botany.”
“Botany, my lord?” Vanessa’s fears were realized. Completely unprepared, she looked around wildly at the books lining his shelves. Might she have time to bone up on it? She read some knowledge of her discomfort in his eyes, and lifted her chin. “Surely English and history are equally as important?”
“That goes without saying.” He turned back to his desk. “Tomorrow at ten.”
Summarily dismissed, Vanessa followed the housekeeper along the corridor. Did she catch a satisfied gleam in his eye before he turned away? Her mind filled with questions. Was he going to be difficult to work for? Might it be why governesses did not stay long here?
Mrs. Royce glanced at Vanessa’s wrinkled gown and scuffed shoes. “You’ll be suffering from the heat, I expect. We’ve had the devil of a summer.” Without waiting for a reply, she opened the day nursery door as a young maid jumped up. She dropped her sewing as she bobbed.
“This is the nursery maid. Agnes.”
Vanessa greeted the maid as Mrs. Royce approached the child who hadn’t acknowledged their presence. “Miss Blythe, this is Miss Ashley, your new governess.”
Blythe looked up from where she knelt beside a doll’s house with the distant expression of someone woken suddenly, a ragdoll in a tumbled heap beside her. Slender brows frowned at the intrusion reminding Vanessa of her father. She climbed to her feet.
“Please to meet you, Miss Blythe.” Vanessa smiled and stretched out her hand. “I’ve so looked forward to this moment.”
“How do you do,” Blythe said politely. Blythe slipped her little hand into Vanessa’s and at the merest touch withdrew it. She had inherited the black hair and blue eyes of her father, and his height; at ten Blythe almost reached Mrs. Royce’s shoulder.
“It’s almost time for afternoon tea,” Mrs. Royce said. “I’ll take you to your room, Miss Ashley.”
The housekeeper shut the nursery door and led Vanessa down the corridor.
Her new charge seemed quite subdued. Vanessa wondered if the girl spent much time shut up in the day nursery with the maid. She planned to change that immediately. A child should be outside in the fresh air in the cooler part of the day. Vanessa had spied a lovely shady folly through the trees. She hurried to catch Mrs. Royce, who was walking briskly along the corridor.
They climbed up a narrow stairway.
“How many on the staff here?” Vanessa asked to break the silence.
“Twenty house staff. Dorcas is the head maid. The butler is away at present.”
“I didn’t see a footman.”
Mrs. Royce firmed her lips. “We have none.” She stopped and threw open a door. “This is the schoolroom.”
It was a good-sized attic room with comfortable chairs, a table, desk and a slate blackboard on a stand. “Excellent,” Vanessa said with satisfaction.
At the end of the corridor was Vanessa’s bedroom, its sloping walls covered in a daisy-patterned paper and hung with pressed flowers in frames. The white-painted iron bed had a floral coverlet, a writing desk stood beside it. An upholstered chair was placed near the fireplace, which had a wide shelf above the mantel where Vanessa could put the few things she’d brought with her. A rug covered the floorboards. The small room looked snug. Surprised at her good fortune, Vanessa said, “How nice. I shall feel very much at home here.” The curtains were closed, and the room stuffy. She crossed to the window and drew them back, looking down over verdant lawns and trees to the picturesque folly.
“I do hope so.” Mrs. Royce firmed her lips. “Blythe needs stability.”
Had she lacked it thus far? Unsure how to reply, Vanessa found she wasn’t required to, for Mrs. Royce, who appeared to be a woman of few words, already stood at the door. She gestured. “We have all modern plumbing here. There’s a lavatory and bathroom for your use on this floor. Tea will be brought here to your room at four. In future, you shall take it in the schoolroom with Miss Blythe.”
As soon as the door closed behind the housekeeper, Vanessa rushed to open the window. A sultry breeze wafted in, but she relished the light and the fresh air.
In the bathroom, the bathtub had a mahogany surround, and hot and cold water issued forth from a noisy gas geyser. Delighted, Vanessa resisted the urge to bathe and made do by washing her hands. She looked into the mirror and cringed when she spied the dark smudge on her nose. Her eyes went large with alarm. What will the viscount think of her! She scrubbed her face until it glowed with a washcloth, and sponged her hot neck with cool water.
Sources: Chambers Book of Days
Servant Livery Manchester Art Gallery
Daniel Pool in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew