Servants back in below-stairs Britain

Barrie Clement, Labour Editor, reports on the latest boom industry - domestic service - and talks to a butler about the demands of the job; Royals 'are the worst employers'
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The Independent Online
Servants are back. The wealthy, particularly those with new City money, are hiring more butlers, maids and chauffeurs than ever before.

Getting the paid help to take the strain out of living the high life has led to a doubling in the past two years of inquiries to one of the leading domestic help agencies in London.

While this has helped to push up pay rates of staff whose pay has been notoriously low, there is one group of employers which continues resolutely pay bottom dollar - the Royal households.

Their staff are among the lowest paid domestic staff in the capital and "hate" working there, according to the companies which supply them.

At any one time, around a third of the employees at Buckingham, Kensington and St James's palaces are on the books of employment agencies, anxious to escape the drudgery and low wages.

Even experienced royal butlers, the most senior servants, only earn around pounds 12,500 a year compared to earnings of up to pounds 40,000 elsewhere. First- class cooks and housekeepers make around pounds 200 a week, half the amount they would expect to be paid in other grand houses in London, industry sources say. The volume of work is also greater at the palaces because of the amount of entertaining that goes on.

One source said: "There is an incredible throughput of employees. People do it to get their foot in the door, but they hate it."

Agencies concede that servants receive an excellent training at the royal households and sometimes there are trips abroad. And a spell at one of the palaces is a clearly an unbeatable adornment to the curriculum vitae.

Yet short royal arms and cavernous pockets remain a problem for the Windsors' servants. Almost as parsimonious are the aristocrats of London, but they find there is now mounting competition from the nouveau riche for the most experienced servants. The City's boardroom "fat cats" are increasingly spending a proportion of their earnings on domestic help and are prepared to pay a little more than "old money". Between 70 and 95 per cent of the inquiries received by agencies now come from the newly rich.

Massey's Agency, a supplier of butlers, valets, footmen, chauffeurs, cooks, maids, nannies and assorted amanuenses, reported the 50 per cent increase in demand over the last two years.

The burgeoning demand for servants, however, also highlights the growing gap between rich and poor in London.

In the latest edition of the Low Pay Unit's New Review, Rosie Cox, who teaches at Coventry University, points out that during the 1980s the richest 10 per cent of the capital's population saw their disposable income rise by 62 per cent whilst the poorest 10 per cent saw theirs fall by 17 per cent. "One place where the polarisation can be seen is in the homes of the well-off where those who are less well-off are increasingly employed," she said.

Many of the servants are part-time, female, benefit-dependent immigrants.

Wages for cleaners in central London are between pounds 4 and pounds 7 an hour, but there is no sick or holiday pay and the servants are often unpaid when their employers are away. Live-in domestic workers such as nannies and au-pairs do no better. A qualified nanny will earn around pounds 150 a week plus bed and board, while an au pair will earn as little as pounds 35.

A survey of agencies supplying staff for the super-rich in London found there were more than 1,000 households which have two or more full-time employees. The old complaint that "you just can't get the staff", seems to be true, but few enter the profession out of choice.

There is often a strong Upstairs-Downstairs flavour to the employer-employee relationship and many servants are expected to be servile. Sharing a house can be stressful with domestic workers feeling they are never off duty, even at night or on days off.

According to Ms Cox some butlers are still required to iron their employer's newspapers. Ian McCartney, Labour's employment spokesman, expressed his disgust at the rising demand for servants.

"This was the generation of young people who were going to be our engineers, our designers, our scientists and our teachers. Instead we've turned them into nursemaids and skivvies for the fat cats".

Friend who must never be familiar

How does one cope with an honoured guest who has pocketed the master's most cherished antique snuff box?

"One advises the gentleman who has pilfered the object that after he has completed his examination of it, he might care to look at another artefact which he might find equally interesting," says Boris Roberts. He finds that his years as a door-to-door Mormon missionary and training at the Ivor Spencer School for Butlers has prepared him for virtually any eventuality.

Mr Roberts, a 51-year-old father of six, has worked as a commis chef, restaurant manager and salesman and is about to take up a "position" at Claridges where a butler is in attendance for the occupants of penthouse suites.

One of nature's conservatives, he left school at 15 and made his own way in life. "I was once forced to join a union against my wishes and now I don't have much time for them. People are nice enough without having to resort to that. If you are polite and courteous you can get along with people. I will talk to anyone from the doorman to the managing director.They are all human beings after all."

"When you see people under London Bridge you can't do anything about it. And you can't condemn people for having money. Many of them have worked very hard for it."

Mr Roberts believes his previous jobs have prepared him for a life as a major-domo and considers his personality well suited to service. These days butlers are not so much man-servants a la Jeeves, as managers and administrators who may be responsible for 20 or 30 staff.

Discretion is the watchword, he believes, together with honesty. "One butler was asked by his employer to comment on his newly-acquired turquoise jacket and pink trousers and he was given a frank and honest opinion. Now both the man and his wife consult the butler on their choice of clothes before going out."

However one should never to be too familiar. "A butler should never cross the line between friendliness and familiarity. The same goes for the butler and the other household staff."