Footmen: the Curse of Manly Calves in Silk Stockings

Male servants conveyed the right image

In the Georgian and Regency periods, higher social standing was demonstrated by having more and more male servants, like footmen. If they wore livery, so much the better. If they had little to do, employers did not care  Ostentation was all.

one of footmenIn 1777, Lord North (often called “the Prime Minister who lost America”) proposed to tax male servants at a guinea a man to help pay for the American wars. He reckoned that some 100,000 menservants were kept for purposes of “luxury and ostentation”. (The tax was increased in 1785 and not completely repealed until 1889. You can read more about it in an extensive article on The Regency Redingote.)

The cost of keeping bewigged footmen increased again in 1795 when the tax on powdered hair began to be enforced, at a guinea a head. Opponents of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, stopped using powder themselves. They began to apply the term “guinea-pigs” to those gentlemen who still powdered their hair, and so paid the guinea in tax.
peacock footmen were prized

But powdered footmen were still employed by rich households to demonstrate their standing, in spite of the increasing taxes.

Even Mr and Mrs Bennet, In Pride and Prejudice, kept a footman. (You may not have noticed him. He appears just once, in chapter 7, to deliver a note to Jane. We don’t find out whether or not he wore a powdered wig.)

The Longbourn household

gold, the cost of footmenMr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice had a very comfortable income of two thousand a year. The Complete Servant (1825) by Samuel and Sarah Adams advised spending 25% of a large income on “servants and equipage, including horses, carriages and liveries”.
Did the Bennets spend as much as £500? They certainly had a butler, a footman, a housekeeper, a cook, and housemaids, as well as outdoor servants for coach and horses, garden, farm and shoot. Perhaps surprisingly, given the number of ladies in the household, there was no lady’s maid. Sarah, the housemaid, helped with hair and dressing.

bewhiskered Victorian butler

A Victorian butler

Mr Bennet’s butler might have been paid 40 guineas a year and his footman about half that. The servant tax would have added an extra twenty-five shillings (£1:5s) a year for each of them, plus a further guinea if the footman wore a powdered wig. The rates went up steeply in 1812 to help pay for Britain’s wars against Napoleon. Mr Bennet would then have been paying tax of £3:2s for each male servant; if he had more than ten in total, the tax was £7:13s for each of them. Compare that with a scullery maid, whose total yearly wage was less than the tax on a single manservant.

So employing male servants was very expensive. But as a gentleman, Mr Bennet probably felt he had no choice, even though he was putting no money aside for his poorly-dowered daughters.

footmen in liveryThe naming of footmen

Gentry addressed footmen by Christian name. It might be their own name. It might not. Some families always used the same names for their footmen: the most senior might be “Charles”, the next “John” and so on. The approach was convenient for the employers who did not have to bother to learn the real names of real people.

For the footmen, it probably felt demeaning, but what could they do? (Perhaps they followed some of Dean Swift’s advice for getting their own back?)

The curse of footmen — Dean Swift’s “advice”

Jonathan Swift, author of Directions to Servants

Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay Directions to Servants (published posthumously in 1745) devotes many pages to its “advice” to footmen, including suggested excuses to use when absent for

somewhat longer than the message requires, perhaps two, four, six, or eight hours, or some such trifle.

My favourite is probably this, relating to service at table:

Never wear Socks when you wait at Meals, on the Account of your own Health, as well as of them who set at Table; because as most Ladies like the Smell of young Men’s Toes, so it is a sovereign Remedy against the Vapours.

Swift’s satire had little effect. A file of nine tall, matched footmen in silver and lace preceded the Countess of Northumberland’s sedan chair. It’s not clear what else her footmen actually did. (Footmen often created trouble among the maids, but it was always the female who was dismissed; a member of a matched set of footmen was too difficult to replace.)

a running footmanThe 18th Century Running Footman did have to work

A running footman worked harder than a house footman. He might have to cover 60 miles a day, running in front of his employer’s carriage. “Old Q”, the fourth Duke of Queensberry, a friend of the Prince Regent, used to stand on his balcony at 138 Piccadilly to time applicants running along the street below. (He also kept a personal groom whose duty was to leap on a waiting pony to follow any lady who caught the Duke’s eye and to report back on who she was and where she lived. Or so rumour said.)

A finely-turned calf in knee breeches & stockings?

one of the footmenA century after Swift, Mrs Beeton castigated fashionable Victorian ladies for choosing footmen “without any consideration than his height, shape, and the tournure of his calf” but the practice continued.

Even in the late 19th century, height mattered: a first footman of up to 5 ft 6 ins could earn £30 a year; one of 5 ft 10 ins to 6 ft earned £32 to £40.

Finely turned calf? Not sure that the guy on the right qualifies on any of Mrs Beeton’s counts.

6 thoughts on “Footmen: the Curse of Manly Calves in Silk Stockings

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Absolutely love this. How about the footmen who served their ladies in other ways, unmentionable of course? Can you imagine anything more boring than having to stand at doorways for the sole purpose of opening the blasted door any time anyone wanted to go through? At least your running footman got some exercise!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Liz. And I agree it’s fascinating. So much more I could have included, but it would have turned into a novel rather than a blog post 🙂

      I find the running footman extraordinary. 60 miles in a day? How many pairs of shoes/boots did they get through? Makes modern marathon runners look tame.

  2. Melinda Hammond

    Brilliant – what an enjoyable post, thank you! I think Liz is right, many must have found the waiting around pretty boring and I am sure they were glad to “serve” their ladies! There is a fascinating account by one John MacDonald, a Scottish orphan who dragged himself up from nothing to become a postilion and then footman to many families – his travels taking him all over the UK. He appears to have been a favourite with the ladies and (if I remember correctly) is purported to be the first to carry an umbrella in London!

  3. Joanna Post author

    Thanks, Melinda. Yes, John McDonald appears to have been quite a guy. And he travelled abroad too, it appears, though he was very expensive to take overseas. (Colonel Dow had to pay 40 guineas to get McDonald to go to India with him.)

    As for “serving” the ladies, i couldn’t possibly comment but McDonald was nicknamed “Beau”!!

  4. Sophie Weston

    Love this blog. I had never noticed the Bennets’ footman! You really do learn something every day.
    I always remember the matching footmen, who had to be over 6 ft, in Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret Countess. It’s a potential tragedy for the young man on the existing staff, who’s worked his way up from scrawny boot boy and acquired not only muscles but also terrific household skills but, of course, will never put on the required inches.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Sophie. The Ibbotson book shows how a plot can turn on the most mundane things. And it must have been quite difficult, 200 years ago, to find 6 ft tall men to be footmen when the average height was about 6 inches less than that.

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