The return of the butler

If you thought the traditional English butler had bowed out and retired to the scullery, think again. The gentleman's gentleman is rapidly becoming a must-have for the world's super-rich – and there simply aren't enough recruits to go round. Eager to fill the breech, John Walsh tilts his head, balances his tray, and steps softly forward...
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It's enough to make Mr Hudson, of Upstairs Downstairs, clutch his newspaper and furrow his brow in the servant's pantry in Eaton Square. Crichton, the omnicompetent manservant of JM Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, would greet the news with a supercilious smirk. One shudders to imagine the rain of contempt that would issue from Edmund Blackadder, whose third TV incarnation was as butler to the Prince of Wales during the Regency. Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, would be delighted: she used to assure unemployed people of "the dignity of service", when urging them to take jobs once considered beneath them.

The news is this: the English butler is back in demand – and the International Guild of Professional Butlers has a crisis on its hands. It reports unprecedented levels of demand, in the UK and abroad, for butlers of the old school – the ones who shimmered in and out of rooms, who dealt imperturbably with rowdy guests and unwelcome tradesmen, who could mix a mean white lady, draw a bath, iron a newspaper, serve the poulet à l'estragon from the left, keep the Château Pétrus '82 at the correct temperature and polish the silverware to an unearthly gleam. That kind of butler.

All over the civilised world, from Gloucestershire to Grand Rapids, Michigan, newly rich families are feeling a desperate need for a dignified English cove in a morning suit to wait on them hand and foot, and run their households. But there just aren't enough to go round. There are two million butlers at large in the world, but "if we doubled the number of butlers, they wouldn't be without work", says Charles MacPherson, vice-chairman of the IGPB. "The new billionaires now want to live like billionaires, and the demand has overwhelmed us."

Of that two million, 5,000 butlers are working in the United Kingdom, in stately homes, private houses and hotels. (There is one at Downing Street, on an estimated salary of £50,000; the average is nearer £30,000.) A century ago, the figure would have been 50,000. Every comfortably off, upper-middle-class home would have had one.

The Second World War, of course, ruined the service economy and made whatever remained of a generation of butlers, footmen, parlourmaids and valets reluctant to return to a life of working for the convenience of others. In the Sixties and Seventies, the image of the manservant became a quaint irrelevance, as outdated as dressing for dinner or travelling by hansom cab. In the last 10 years, however, "buttling" has been reinvented to accommodate many activities: the modern butler can expect to double as cook, chauffeur, gardener, seamstress, sommelier, grocery shopper, wardrobe organiser, child supervisor and (discreet) bouncer.

His other function is to bring a whiff of social propriety to a (frankly) uncultured household. The new wave of billionaires are suckers for someone who can advise them on a thousand details of comme il faut behaviour. "Having made their money in a bit of a hurry, they are keen to have someone to show them how to live as if they had been rolling in the stuff for three generations," writes Kathryn Hughes, the biographer of Mrs Beeton. "What they want is not so much a servant, as a crash course in how to behave like a toff."

Yes, but who decides on the protocols of toffdom? Who'll tell us – and tell future generations of butlers – how people should behave? Most to the point, who teaches butlers how to become butlers, how to become that unique combination of service and social correctness that TS Eliot identified when he wrote: "I have heard the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker/ And in short I was afraid"? There are butler schools in the home counties – Greycoat Academy, the Guild of Professional English Butlers, and the cumbersomely named Ivor Spencer International School for Butler Administrators/Personal Assistants and Estate Managers (Trained British Style) – which take young men on one- and two-week courses, before finding them work, often in the States. Greycoat Academy, which also trains cooks and maids, has a secret weapon in Douglas Jerrod, a veteran butler of 72, who once worked for Lord Beaverbrook as a pantry boy, and later served soup and fish to the Bishop of Coventry, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. Jerrod is, by all accounts, an absolute stickler for correctness, rounding on anyone dumb enough to call pudding "dessert" (dessert being, he says, a separate fruit course, served after pudding) and his graduates go into service all over the world.

How the different schools turn callow youths into the alarming figures whose presence could intimidate Bertie Wooster ("Ice began to form on the butler's upper slopes") is hard to define – the butler's duties have never been codified in a way everyone would accept. Until now, that is.

Last week, the City & Guilds awarding body unveiled its latest award: the City & Guilds Level 2 Diploma for Butlers, the first such formal qualification ever to exist for "those wishing to train or work for a range of organisations such as private houses, quality hotels and overseas employers". Lucky students (who need to be working in service already) will spend a year learning the ropes of guest care, housekeeping, valeting and food servicing, plus the arcana of floristry, shoots and cleaning guns, care of animals and antiques.

The diploma was announced at Buckingham Palace, which is, unsurprisingly, one of the nation's leading employers of butlers. But when it came to deciding the actual syllabus, it became a joint labour between the palace, the Savoy Educational Trust, and the Lanesborough Hotel in London's Hyde Park Corner. At the hotel, I met its head butler – the man whose expertise and experience, more than any other's, has brought the course into being.

Sean Davoren is 49, Irish, well-groomed and the living image of urbanity. He is a butler from Central Casting, a perfectly constructed amalgam of smooth vowels, reassuring presence and stolid propriety. One would not dream of misbehaving in his company. I once attended a wedding in my 20s where, as the pre-lunch reception drinks dragged on, I asked a friend (not entirely seriously) if he thought anyone would miss one of the smoked salmon sandwiches on the table. A butler loomed up and, without deigning to look at me, informed the air around him: "It is the height of bad manners to approach the buffet before the bride and groom." I felt about six inches high. Davoren, I suspect, could have the same effect on you. He has been working to establish the buttling diploma for 10 years, and, as the author of Manner from Heaven, is the guiding light behind it.

"Butlers are a status symbol now, and there aren't enough of them to fill all the vacancies. But they're not well-trained enough. They're needed to do everything – to manage the house, to make sure the children are picked up from school, the fridge is full, the laundry is ready and the chandeliers are cleaned every six months. If you've a house in, say, Belgrave Square, you need someone there who knows how to treat works of art. There's a lot of knowledge in our profession that doesn't come from a five-week course, or even a year-long one. It comes with experience." He considered. "I suppose we're [he shuddered] 'lifestyle managers' now. We manage someone's life for them." He is putting five of his young Lanesborough butlers through the course, which starts this month. Buckingham Palace is sending 15 of theirs. You can sense a certain competition between the two establishments.

Davoren comes from Adair, Co Limerick, and did his hotel and catering diploma in Dublin. At 19, he scored a job at Claridges in Mayfair, and worked for two years as chef d'étage, a floor butler. Thinking that a private household might be the way forward, he did a course with the English School of Butlering and worked for three families: "One was European royalty, then a Middle Eastern client – I didn't last long there. It was too different culturally; I had no life whatsoever, they got up at 4am, and I couldn't cope with it. And, lastly, a young Jewish family with children. They weren't sure what to do with me, so in a way I had to educate them about what I was meant to be doing." Davoren's foray into private family butlering ended when he got married – you can't look after another household's children, it seems, and leave some space for your own.

As I watched Davoren glide about and steer his under-butlers this way and that, communicating with little eyebrow-raisings and light touches on the arm, it seemed right to ask: should a butler should be a bit of an actor?

"I think acting's important. This" – he waved at the handsomely furnished room where we sat – "is a stage, and if you'd like me to perform, then I'll perform for you. If you want me to shut up and say nothing, that's exactly what I'll do. But I never become friends with anybody I work with. I don't find it easy to use Christian names. Americans want to call you by your first name, but I can't do it. I don't want to create an air of friendliness, because you are not my friend. You are my employer. That's why I never want to live-in at a job. I want to be able to take off this uniform and change into Sean, so I can go down to the pub, have a cigarette, get drunk and party. But if I come into work, you'd get my professional side. A butler should be a person who wants to be behind the scenes."

OK, then. Could anyone learn some butlering techniques in an afternoon? Davoren put me through my paces, politely scoffing at my ineptness with trays, forks and spoons, offering encouragement when I got something right. How instinctively one falls into butler mode, holding one's upper body just so, tilting one's chin snootily upwards, and trying on one's tongue the murmured, unaccustomed words: "Shall I draw you a bath, Sir?" "Will you be wearing the blue check or the tweed, Sir?" and the immortal, "Will there be anything more, Sir?"

How to Dress

A morning suit is always worn until 6pm. Standard wear is a frock coat and striped grey trousers, with a mid-grey or dark-grey waistcoat and a pink or lilac tie in a half-Windsor knot. Also, well-polished shoes – a proper, military polish takes an hour and a half. After 6pm, one wears a black dinner suit with white shirt and black bow tie.

How to Carry a Tray

You carry a tray in one hand, so that you have the freedom to open doors with the other, serve drinks and arrange things on a table. You must be able to move the tray up, down and around you, and manoeuvre through doorways. Stand with the hand bent back over your shoulder and spread your fingers, splaying your thumb until you've found the centre weight. Carry the tray slightly above your shoulder, so that they don't bump when you're turning. If you're standing for long periods, move your legs apart, and touch the tray with your other hand every half-hour or so.

How to Prepare the Dining Table

Always use a white tablecloth, ironed beforehand to remove any creases. Make sure to put a cloth underneath to protect the wooden table from spillages.

Never hold a plate with thumb uppermost; hold it from underneath with your fingers. Never touch the tip of a knife or fork with your fingers. The bread plate is always on the left: the most common dining mistake nowadays is people eating their neighbour's bread.

The knife and fork must be laid one thumbnail's length in from the side of the table. The dessert spoon goes across the top of the place setting, and the cheese knife also, as though forming a little house around the plate.

The napkin must go in the centre, usually on a show plate, never to one side. Napkins used to be folded into elaborate bird shapes, but that has become outmoded for hygiene reasons – some of the designs are very hands-on. And remember: napkins are for wiping the mouth and nothing else. Not wiping the brow or (shudder) blowing the nose....

If you're assisting a guest to their chair, do not sweep their legs from under them. As they sit down, push the chair forward in a smooth, flowing movement, using your foot to steer the chair beneath their thighs.

How to Serve Dinner

One must distinguish between silver service and butler service. Butler service means that you hold the tray of food before the guest and let them serve themselves. It's still done in private houses, but decreasingly so, because people worry about portion control. For silver service, one employs a spoon and fork. It's important to master it: clamping the spoon with the lower fingers and the fork with the upper. It's an old skill, like being able to carry two or three plates at once on your arm – and that's not fashionable any more, because plates have become larger.

Food is served from the left and cleared from the right. There's no special reason why, but it's easier to serve from the left if you're right-handed. All beverages are served from the right. You need to know which glasses are for which liquids. The largest glass is usually for water.

The biggest nightmare was spilling gravy down the back of a very nice white jacket. You cannot get into a flap about it. You must deal with the situation immediately. You have to diffuse the situation, and have a calming effect, bring her down to reality. Reassure people you're going to deal with it. Take the lady or gentleman away, go to cloakroom and get attendants to help her. Get the jacket sponged and hairdried, and make it wearable. Remove the afflicted outer garment if possible and get them cleaned up as best you can.

How to Deal With a Drunk

A butler wouldn't wish to embarrass anybody, but does have responsibility to the household. So he would refuse to serve the person any more drinks, because has a responsibility towards them, too, and should not send them out into the street in a condition to fall over or try to drive home. He should take the person aside, and say: "There's a call for you." Get him out the room as graciously as possible and then explain the situation, like so: "I think, sir, you may have had a little too much [sotto voce] to drink. Would you like to sit here for a little while? Can I get you some coffee? May I get you a taxi?" It's as good as asking them to leave, without telling them directly.

How to Interrupt When Someone is in the Middle of a Lengthy Anecdote

Hovering over somebody with a tray of food is quite intimidating for them. The secret is to get them to sit back and make room for the butler to serve the food. Making eye contact is useful in communicating your intentions. But if they ignore you and will not sit back, it's possible to burn their left hand with the hot tray.

How to be a Lady's Butler

It's now quite fashionable for men to become butlers for ladies, a thing unheard-of years ago, when a lady travelled everywhere with her maid. Certain duties remain the same as for gentlemen – laying out the lady's clothes or making sure her bath is the correct temperature. But one must also be adept at sewing on buttons, and doing minor repairs, such as stitching a fallen hem. And polishing shoes. Ladies never polish shoes in their whole lives. You need to know what to do with stiletto heels, where the leather has curled up and you must employ a hot knife to make it go down again.

How to Polish Other Things

An important part of the job is to make sure the silver is sparkling. Do not use Silver Dip, because it corrodes silver if used every week. There is only one way to polish teaspoons, a very old-fashioned way: it's a certain cream, Goddards Silver Foam, which you apply with a toothbrush, getting into all the little nooks and crannies. [According to Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, "Giffen's was the polish ordered by all discerning butlers of the time, and if this product was used correctly, one had no fear of one's silver being second-best to anybody's."]

Davoren's 10th Commandment

"I am not servile to anyone. I want to serve you. I want to look after you. I will give you what you've asked me to do in the best professional way. But I will never be subservient. I do not like people who are subservient."

There are two approaches. If the doorbell is rung by someone expected and/or known to the household, the door is opened as wide as possible, apparently without human agency. As the guest moves into the hallway, the butler's face appears around the door jamb, wreathed in a welcoming smile that's somehow disembodied, like the Cheshire cat's. If the doorbell is rung by an unknown, and not-expected, person, the door is opened only 12 inches, all of which space is filled by the frontal bulk of the butler. The following exchange is then employed:

"Can I help you, Sir?"

"Is his Lordship in? I want to see him."

"Is he expecting you, Sir?"

"Jimmy's an old pal of mine. It'll be a lovely surprise for him."

"I cannot let you in without an appointment, Sir. I'm very sorry."

"Could you just go and tell him Miles 'Frothy' Fothergill is here to see him?"

"I cannot disturb his Lordship unless you have an appointment. Good day to you, Sir."

And that's that.