Running beside the carriage

Picture from

Click on this to see the detail of pre-Great Fire London:Picture from

Madeleine sat in her geography lesson, attending carefully to the slide show.

She was learning about how man could shape his environment to make it safer. Open places, buildings which overlooked each other, wide open, light spaces: these were all less likely to shield criminal activity.

And then the geography teacher showed a picture of a great office block and an underpass below. This, she said, was less desirable.

Maddie did a swift double take. The office block looked awfully familiar.

“Miss, ” she said politely, raising her hand: “I live there!”

It was indeed our town. A new town, an intended Utopia, designed to serve its satellite housing estates with walkways which went under the roads. And now everyone drives and the subways are generally deserted .

The geography teacher coloured. Ideally, to illustrate geography which fosters criminal activity, perhaps she should have stuck to London. Felix and I use those subways to cycle all the time, and the crime rate in our new town is comparatively low.

No: a London tower block of the right persuasion might do it. Or how about a city which no longer exists: say, London before the fire?

Now there was a den of iniquity. Narrow lanes and cramped overhanging houses made the London Streets dark and unsavoury places. ย So much so, that really wealthy people were uneasy even about stopping for too long in case someone helped themselves to the contents of their carriage.

They had a solution, of course. They paid a poor person.

It was the custom to employ a ‘running footman’. They had to be tall and athletic because, while the carriage rattled across the unforgiving cobbles of London, the footman must run beside the carriage. It was his job to clear the way for the carriage, and pay tolls, and generally ease the passage of the very rich indeed through London.

All the best families had one. They were a status symbol, running footmen. They could clear pigs and chickens and still retain energy to announce their master’s arrival at their destination, though how they had the breath I will never know.

It is an outrageous division of labour. Tell you what: I ride in comfort in this carriage and you jog obediently outside and do all my dirty work.

After the Great Fire the need for them was not so great, the streets being wide and light and cleaner than before.

But it was a footman who had the last word on the practice.

And it was with the last nobleman to proclaim his status by keeping a running footman: the Marquess of Queensbury.

It is recorded that the Marquess used to interview running footmen by standing on his balcony in Piccadilly, watching candidates running up and down the street and timing them. Before they interviewed, they must be lent an expensive kit: full livery, made from the finest of materials. Clothes most men would covet, to keep the London winters out.

So one day, the Marquess discovered a really excellent runner. He was head and shoulders above all the other candidates, tells Edward Walford inย Old and New London.ย He would do magnificently tearing alongside the Marquess’s carriage.

When he came to a standstill beneath the balcony the Marquess was well pleased. “You will do very well for me,” he informed the man. And at this, the man replied “and your livery will do very well for me!”, and shot off at high-speed through the London crowds with the pricey kit, never to be seen again.

Which goes to show that all the light and space in the world cannot arm a Marquess against a wily criminal.


42 thoughts on “Running beside the carriage

  1. That was a very satisfying tale about the hotfooting footman, Kate, but I also like how you started this post with Maddie’s powers of observation. I so wish I had been a fly on the wall when your daughter announced in what I imagine was a very sophisticated, polite and convincing tone that the teacher was showing a picture of your town. That humiliated teacher must have turned 50 shades of red.

  2. Great story! And I was pleased to see youngsters today are being taught the basics of urban safety … things I had to deduce on my own as an adult.

  3. Another smile for morning coffee – dreadful smile, should of course tut at least at the stealing – but really was the rich man stupid? instead I’m smiling at the thief’s initiative:)

    I used to wander the streets of London back in the 60s – after parties or baby sitting I hasten to add – and never felt particularly unsafe – on my travels ditto – innocence, luck, or the world was safer who knows? But I was brought up there so maybe I had absorbed the correct way to do so with the proverbial milk:)

    1. Alberta! How lovely to hear your voice! Hope you are most well. I love the thought of you roaming the streets of London. I have always fely very safe in most areas- though there are places I wouldn’t bring my posh camera…

      1. Ah ’tis about being ‘street wise’ I guess – those who live in the these places learn without knowing – but so many more temptations to be wary now – with technology, loss of jobs, drugs etc I dont think I’m being too old in saying life prob. was a little safe r back when – after a war like we had gone through i think we all had our heads down for a bit recovering.

        am busy trying to catch up here – have kept your posts for days when I’m fuctioning but still behind – will get there ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Just yesterday I read about a variation on this theme. According to the internet – I do hope it’s an urban myth- rich folk are hiring disabled tour guides so they can skip queues at Disneyland and the like…

  5. What a job! Not surprising the runner did a runner? Serves the Marquess right for using below-the-belt methods – like feet! Surely against his rules? ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. A lovely two-hander here, Kate, and one I will remember, thanks!

    I did a double-take because I’d always assumed a marquess was a female marquis. Having done a little bit of sleuthing (isn’t this interweb thingy wonderful!) I see I was sorely mistaken. ‘Marquess’ is the same as ‘marquis’ (pronounced the same as the large hospitality tent), while ‘marchioness’ is the female equivalent. Now how could I have not twigged that before? The moral is, Expect to be enlightened as well as educated by a Shrewsday post.

      1. Thank you, Chris. And now I have learnt something new. You remind me, also, of the Marquis of Carabas from Perrault’s Le Maistre Chat.

  7. I loved this story, Kate. For many reasons. Maddie’s experience reminded me of the time someone upon learning my “address” made a comment with a very imperious tone about the gang activity in my city. I didn’t miss a beat before I said, “Could be. My home is next to the Country Club.” LOL! I just hate generalized observations about geography and comparing zip codes. There are parts of Beverly Hills that don’t match other “less desirable” locations. As for the Marquess…elitism breeds a certain karma. Status doesn’t trump street smarts!

  8. What a hoot! It reminds me of the movie, “European Vacation,” where a stranger offers to take the family’s photos. No sooner do they hand over the camera then the stranger takes off with it.

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