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Are you being served? The return of the British butler

Traditional manservants are very much in demand – but not by the landed gentry

The word "butler" normally conjures up a portly, tail-coated manservant carrying a silver tray and turning a blind eye to his lordship's indiscretions. It is a measure of how times have changed that today's butler is just as likely to be a female polyglot armed with impeccable manners and an MBA.

Demand for butlers is booming. as emerging-economy plutocrats and the super-wealthy from the powerhouses of China or Russia scrabble to acquire the trappings of "old money" – from works of art to the quintessentially British domestic, omniscient yet discrete, formal yet resourceful.

Recruiting agencies in London specialising in training and placing butlers have reported a dramatic spike in calls from foreign clients seeking a classically-trained, high-end factotum. Courses for the would-be Jeeves, covering everything from napery to wine cellaring, have year-long waiting lists.

One leading agency, Bespoke Bureau, has supplied 345 butlers this year – double the figure for the whole of 2011 and a quadrupling of demand since 2010. About 80 per cent of its butlers are placed abroad, half of them to China. As a result, the modern elite domestic must be capable of juggling the demands of a globe-trotting millionaire with homes in several countries while also knowing how to decant port.

Anthony Seddon-Holland, a former British Army officer turned third-generation butler who runs the British Butlers Guild, said: "It is undoubtedly a very different job from the one that my father and grandfather did. The skill set for the modern butler is much broader – it ranges from the traditional role of laying out the clothes in the morning to something much more managerial. The Hollywood cliche of the British butler was always erroneous but it remains powerful. It's an elite job that is very much in demand."

While Britain's landed gentry may no longer be the main employers, it is indeed the quasi-aristocratic allure of a worldly employee, possessed of the mystical power of knowing where exactly to place the bouillon spoon as well as fix a broken internet connection and discuss global politics without causing offence, that is driving demand.

One of Mr Seddon-Holland's Middle Eastern clients recently requested a butler whose CV needed to include five languages and an MBA, as well as being a woman. He was asked to supply a shortlist of six candidates. Sara Vestin Rahmani, director of the Bespoke Bureau, said: "Clients want someone who encapsulates the British values of tradition, discretion and loyalty. They are wanted to bring some old-world charm and sophistication to the ostentation. Certainly it is a growing trend – once one person gets a butler, others in their circle want one. Supply is being outstripped by demand."

In such circumstances, a good butler does not come cheap. Those at the very top can command £150,000 a year plus bonus and living expenses, while £100,000 is increasingly the benchmark for Russian billionaires and Brazilian commodity barons seeking to add a bit of aristocratic restraint to their households. Perhaps mindful of the problems caused by butlers who neglect the traditional omertà – as evidenced by the recent case of the Pope's butler leaking Vatican documents – confidentiality agreements are also increasingly imposed.

Such documents would doubtless have turned Mr Carson, the majestically repressed head butler of Downton Abbey, a shade of puce. But according to Mr Seddon-Holland they are a sign of British butlers conforming to the modern world.

He said: "It would be unthinkable for a butler to betray his employer's confidence. I was once offered a huge sum of money by a British newspaper to 'out' a member of a foreign royal family. I didn't consider it for a second. But these agreements are part of what employers require and we must accept them with grace. It is part of being a butler."

Case study: 'I love the work; it's like running a small business'

With her blonde hair and Swedish upbringing, Lena Olsson is pretty far removed from the traditional image of a British butler. But for the last 10 months, this is precisely the role she has been performing for a Chinese financier in Beijing.

After starting her career as a housekeeper in London, she re-trained as a butler last year and was snapped up by her present employer seeking a high-end valet schooled in the arts of old-world charm.

She said: "I love the work. The hours can be long and it's like running a small business – I manage a staff of 10. Tradition and etiquette are very respected. China is in many ways more hierarchical than Britain."

Lena, 32, spends her time ensuring the life of her employer runs smoothly, whether it be helping staff with a dinner, running an errand in the car or ensuring suitcases are packed correctly for a journey abroad.