The Footman


Duties The 1st Footman Footmen at Emo Court Pay and Accommodation The footman’s livery

The Footman


The footman was essentially the butler’s understudy. His main duties were to wait at table, clean the household plate, answer the drawing-room and parlour bells, and accompany the carriage on outings. Footmen were chosen for their good-looks and height, and were dressed in ostentatious livery. In the best households they were perfectly matched in height and trained to act in unison, knocking on doors or serving dishes with a synchronised flourish. They were expected to have fine calves, and often wore ‘falsies’ to make their legs more attractive.




The footman’s day began at 6.30 or 7am, so that he could finish the dirtiest part of his work before the family came down for breakfast. This might include cleaning knives and boots, carrying coal, brushing and cleaning clothes, and in some households, ironing the family’s newspapers! He wore a leather apron while doing these chores, then changed into his best livery and powdered his hair before serving the family breakfast.


During the day, he was on hall-duty, answering the door to callers, taking cards and announcing guests. He was expected to deliver letters and cards on arrival and dispatch her lady-ship’s letters promptly. If a carriage was ordered, day or night, he went out with it.  


At mealtimes, he assisted the butler in laying the table. He rang the dressing-bell half an hour before dinner, and later rang the dinner-bell, before taking up position to the left behind the master’s chair, to assist in serving. After dinner, he cleared the plates and glasses before serving tea to the ladies in the drawing room and attending to the needs of the men in the smoking room. He lit the candles and lamps at dusk, and last thing at night, he handed the bedroom candles to each member of the household as they retired to bed. His day was not over yet, however, as before going to bed he had to wash his hair free of sticky powder.



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The 1st Footman

If there was more than one footman, the 1st footman served her ladyship, who often called him James, regardless of his Christian name! He carried her tray to her room when she wanted breakfast in bed, and stood behind her chair at dinner, to emphasise her rank and status. He accompanied the mistress on her journeys and visits, opening and closing the carriage door, warming her seat with a hot water-bottle, and wrapping a blanket around her knees. Before setting off, he received directions at the carriage door and passed them to the coachman, whom he sat beside.


When his mistress visited friends and neighbours, it was the footman who knocked at the door or left calling cards. On outings, he walked behind her ladyship, carrying her purchases and protecting her honour.



Footmen at Emo Court

The Dawson family usually kept one or more footmen at Emo Court. In a letter to her sister in 1781, Lady Caroline, Countess of Portarlington, described how her footman, John, had left them for a job elsewhere, and how their new footman was to double as a valet for the earl:

          “Did I tell you we are now entirely without footmen, as the only one we had, which was John, that you may remember in London, took it into his head to hire himself to Mr. Eden the night before we left Dublin, and we were obliged to come away without…Lord Carlow doesn’t mean to have any valet-de-chambre but a footman, which I am very glad of, as if he dresses hair well enough, he will be of much more use than an upper servant. I always regret Michael, for I have never had a footman I liked since”…

                                                (Gleanings from an Old Portfolio, I.157)


Advertisement for a footman in  the Leinster Express, Oct 28th   1870  

Footmen at Emo Court included Bernard Corcoran (1829), Patrick Graham (1901) and William Carpenter(?) (1911). Patrick Graham was 22 years old when the census was taken in  1901 and in the absence of the butler and housemaid he was listed as the head of staff. He was a local man and a Roman Catholic. When the 1911 census was taken, eight of the house staff were home. William C. is listed as the 1st footman, suggesting that the family kept more than one at that time. William was a Londoner, in his early 30s; he was single and a Protestant.


In his diaries dated from 1907-44, Viscount Carlow remembers another footman at the house in the early 20th century, Ned Whelan. Ned’s father was a labourer on the estate and Ned was employed as a footman because of his great height, rising in the ranks to become a valet to the Earl:

          “Ned Whalen, an unreliable rogue of roughly 6 foot 4 inches in height became a footman in the house, afterwards to be promoted temporary valet to Papa.”

However, Ned didn’t last long in the position, as the Viscount adds, his unreliability got the better of him and he soon vacated his post.”


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Pay and Accommodation

We have no record of what footmen at Emo Court were paid, but the recommended wages for a footman in the 1820s was ₤20-30 a year with two sets of liveries. The footmen at Emo Court lived in a room in the attic or basement. The 1900 inventory of the house shows that the footmen’s room contained some luxuries: in addition to basic furniture and a wash-stand, they had two armchairs, a carpet and a hearth-rug, with pictures on the walls and two mirrors (presumably to ensure their appearance was neat and tidy and to aid the daily task of powdering of their hair!).


Advertisement for servants’ clothing Leinster Express, July 1861


The footman’s attire was referred to as livery (deriving from the old French livree, meaning delivered, as Medieval noblemen ‘delivered’ free uniforms to their servants). As the footman was always on show, he was expected to be immaculately dressed. He had two sets of formal livery, which were provided by his master: undress livery, worn when doing menial tasks about the house, and dress livery, worn to impress guests when waiting at the table.                                           

 In the Victorian period, the footman’s formal livery was highly colourful and decorative, retaining the style of the 1700s.

His undress livery consisted of a striped valentia waistcoat, full-length trousers and a dark coat. For dress livery he typically wore black breeches, knee-high white stockings (often padded to make his legs appear more shapely), a red waistcoat and a bright-blue dress-coat with epaulettes and a gold-trimmed collar. White gloves were always worn about the house and calf-skin gloves were worn outdoors, along with a cocked bicorned-hat or, later, a top-hat.


With his powdered hair and fancy livery, the footman made quite an impression, especially when paired with another of matching height and good looks.

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Powdering his hair


In the best houses, footmen were required to powder their hair daily. It was an undignified process in which lots of soap and water was worked up into a stiff lather and then carefully combed through the hair in even rows before the violet powder was applied. The powder was notoriously itchy and scratching was, of course, strictly forbidden.


Late at night, the footman had to wash and oil his hair to free it from the clogging detritus, before starting the process again the following morning. Because of a tax on hair powder which was in place until 1869, some employers made their footmen economise by using ordinary household flour! To the relief of many a footman, the practice of powdering hair finally fell out of fashion in the early 20th century.

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