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.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone