October is Black History Month in the UK and today we hear from Dr Paul Seaward, our former Director and British Academy/ Wolfson Foundation Research Professor about the politics of footmen and the amateur political ambition of a black servant…
In November 1710, the satirist, clergyman and Tory activist Jonathan Swift went to Westminster to see the opening of Parliament following his party’s success in the election of that year. He failed to see anything but the crowd, and so amused himself among the tombs at Westminster Abbey and visiting an eating house for his dinner and picking up gossip. He heard that the Warwickshire High Tory, William Bromley had been elected the new speaker, and that ‘Pompey, Colonel Hill’s black, designs to stand speaker for the footmen.’ He promised to canvass on Pompey’s behalf, speaking to his own servant, Patrick, to solicit more votes for him.
Swift’s casual remark raises a host of fascinating questions. It is certainly a striking idea that MPs’ servants and attendants would pass their time by creating what was presumably their own Parliament; and even more notable that it was a black servant who was canvassing to be elected its presiding officer. There is no corroborating evidence, as far as I know, for the existence of Pompey, though black servants, and especially black footmen, were not an uncommon sight in eighteenth century London, and Pompey is not an unusual name to have been given to one of them. There is no specific evidence either for the custom of electing a Speaker among the footmen. But there are some suggestive indications of the practice of servants mimicking their masters and mistresses. Footmen, who had plenty of time on their hands as they hung around waiting for their masters or mistresses to finish their visits to friends, the theatre, the shops or to Parliament, may have been especially prone to do so. At around the same time as Swift wrote, Richard Steele complained in The Spectator about the behaviour of livery-wearing servants in a pub somewhere in the vicinity of the House of Lords:
It is a common Humour among the Retinue of People of Quality, when they are in their Revels, that is when they are out of their Masters Sight, to assume in an humourous Way the Names and Titles of those whose Liveries they wear. By which Means Characters and Distinctions become so familiar to them, that it is to this, among other Causes, one may impute a certain Insolence among our Servants, that they take no Notice of any Gentleman though they know him ever so well, except he is an Acquaintance of their Masters. My Obscurity and Taciturnity leave me at Liberty, without Scandal, to dine, if I think fit, at a common Ordinary, in the meanest as well as the most sumptuous House of Entertainment. Falling in the other Day at a Victualling-house near the House of Peers, I heard the Maid come down and tell the Landlady at the Bar, That my Lord Bishop swore he would throw her out at Window if she did not bring up more Mild-beer, and that my Lord Duke would have a double Mug of Purle. My Surprise was encreased in hearing loud and rustick Voices speak and answer to each other upon the publick Affairs by the Names of the most Illustrious of our Nobility; till of a sudden one came running in, and cryed the House was rising. Down came all the Company together, and away: The Ale-house was immediately filled with Clamour, and scoring one Mug to the Marquis of such a Place, Oyl and Vinegar to such an Earl, three Quarts to my new Lord for wetting his Title, and so forth. It is a thing too notorious to mention the Crowds of Servants, and their Insolence, near the Courts of Justice, and the Stairs towards the supreme Assembly; where there is an universal Mockery of all Order, such riotous Clamour and licentious Confusion, that one would think the whole Nation lived in jest, and there were no such thing as Rule and Distinction among us. The Spectator, No. 88 (11 June 1711)
Steele wrote about this again – and seems to allude to the assembly that Swift mentioned – in his play The Conscious Lovers, written sometime between 1710 and 1713, perhaps around the time he was arranging to be elected to the House of Commons. In the play Tom, a young gentleman’s servant, makes clear to his father, a servant to the same household, that he regards himself and his companions far superior to ordinary servants, and explained how they behaved within some of the public spaces – the Court of Requests and the Painted Chamber – of the Palace of Westminster:
Why now, Sir, the lacquies are the men of Pleasure of the age; the top-Gamesters, and many a laced coat about town have had their Education in our Party-coloured regiment,–We are false Lovers, have a taste of music, poetry, billet-doux, dress, politics, ruin damsels, and when we are weary of this lewd town, and have a mind to take up, whip into our Masters’ wigs and linen, and marry fortunes… our order is carried up to the highest dignities and distinctions; step but into the Painted Chamber—and by our titles you’d take us all for men of quality—then again come down to the Court of Requests, and you see us all laying our broken heads together for the good of the nation: and though we never carry a question Nemine Contradicente, yet this I can say with a safe conscience (and I wish every gentleman of our cloth could lay his hand upon his heart and say the same) that I never took so much as a single mug of beer for my vote in all my life. (1.1. 170-186)
This sort of mimicry was not the only issue with the footmen or lackeys of the nobility and gentry in seventeenth and eighteenth century London, for they also took on the carelessness, arrogance and sometimes the casual violence of their employers; often (as the above suggests) they were seen as sexually predatory as well. They could be assertive about what they regarded about their customary rights: the Steele references both bitterly complain of their demands for ‘board wages’, or a customary right to meals, and the most notorious event in which footmen were involved in the eighteenth century was the riot in the Drury Lane theatre in 1737 when they violently reacted to an attempt by the management to bar them from free access to the gallery, a practice that had – as far as they were concerned – become established as a right over the last few years (Swift refers to footmen having ‘a seat reserved’ for them in the Playhouse, in his satirical Directions to Servants).
The footmen may have taken on the political attitudes of their employers. An entry in the Commons Journal in January 1642, a time of particularly high tension in the capital, refers to how the guards that Parliament had set up to protect it from royalist thugs had been offered an ‘affront’, and made it clear that footmen loitering about on the stairs up to the chamber were held responsible. While one member freely offered that his servant should be laid by the heels if it had been him, another, a future royalist officer, was noted to have vigorously rejected the idea that his own servant should be punished. After the Restoration, there were frequent complaints about the behaviour of the footmen standing on the stairs and in the lobbies and making it difficult for Members and others to get through.
In one case, reported to the House in May 1678, a footman of Lord Mulgrave, wearing his livery, jostled one member and beat up his servant as he came up to assist: a witness ‘saw Mr. Mainard himself down on the Ground; and one of the footmen held him by the Hair, whose Hand the Examinant loosened out of his Hair: And says, One John Wilkinson, formerly Servant to the Duke of Buckingham, beat Mr. Mainard, whilst the other held him by the Hair.’ Both Mulgrave and Buckingham claimed to have sacked the men concerned: unfortunately it is unclear which Maynard of three was meant, or whether there was some specific political subtext to the altercation. In June 1685 – another nervous time, as London anticipated the landing of the Duke of Monmouth in the South-West to begin his rebellion, the House of Commons ordered that footmen be limited to Westminster Hall, and that they should not carry personal weapons. The order that footmen be excluded from the stairs and lobbies of the House became repeated so frequently that it ended up as one of the routine orders, passed at the beginning of every session. (Footmen didn’t always get it their own way, though: the Lords in November 1667 dealt with a complaint that the Duke of Cumberland’s footmen, carrying his sedan chair, had been beaten up by a couple of ‘carmen’, perhaps because they objected to the loss of the trade, rather than for some political reason.)
Pompey’s canvassing in 1710 probably itself had a political dimension. Colonel Hill – either his owner, if he was enslaved, or his employer, for both options were possible in early eighteenth century England – was Jack Hill, the brother of Abigail Hill, the friend and confidante of Queen Anne whom the adept, though widely mistrusted, Robert Harley delicately used as an instrument to force a wedge between the Queen and her principal military and political advisers, the Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Godolphin. The proposal to appoint Hill — already colonel of a foot regiment – to the colonelcy of a dragoon regiment as well provoked a furious falling-out between the Queen and Marlborough over the control of appointments in the army, and although Marlborough managed to block it, he could do nothing to prevent Hill becoming a brigadier-general a few months later. While the power of the ‘duumvirate’ was draining at court, the 1710 election, held in the wake of the Sacheverell trial which had galvanised Tory political opinion, smashed it within Parliament, producing a rout of their Whig allies and replacing them with ‘high’ Tories, determined to pull the country out of an expensive European war which they believed to be aimed only at enriching Marlborough and Godolphin and their friends. The speakership election in which Pompey was engaged would have mirrored the proceedings in the Commons on 25 November when it elected a High Tory Speaker, Bromley, without opposition.
It is unfortunate, though scarcely surprising, that the snippet from Swift’s letter is all we know about Pompey and his bid for political prominence. In the absence of an archive belonging to the Hill family, it is unlikely that we will find out much more. For the moment, anyway, Pompey provides no more than a tantalising glimpse of the political opinions and ambitions of a black (possibly) Tory in the turbulent world of early eighteenth century footmen.