The amount of money Britons spend on domestic help has doubled over the past decade, according to government figures - making it the fastest-growing category of consumer spending.
In 1985, Britons spent the equivalent of pounds 1.45bn in today's money on all kinds of home help. Last year, this grew to pounds 3.89bn. According to the Office for National Statistics' Family Expenditure Survey, 1995-96, Britons spend 15.3 per cent of average weekly expenditure on household services. After the telephone bill, the next biggest expenditure (2.7 per cent) goes on domestic help and child care.
And it is not the aristocracy who are filling their houses with staff. It's the aspiring middle classes, especially working couples who are too busy to do the domestic chores and can afford to pay people to do them.
A series of social changes is propelling the trend, the much-documented rise in income inequality in Britain being the most obvious: more people are rich and can afford servants, and more people are poor and willing to serve. In 1979 the average earnings of the lowest-paid tenth of the labour force was 43 per cent of the earnings of the top tenth. Today it is 30 per cent.
Other contributory factors are the steady increase in women who are working - more than half of women with a child under 10 now work; the mobility of the European labour market; and unemployment among young people.
We are not necessarily talking butlers here. Employers start with a nanny and progress to a cleaner, a gardener, a cook/ housekeeper, then a chauffeur.
Massey's Agency, a London supplier of butlers, valets, footmen, chauffeurs, cooks, maids, and nannies, has watched demand increase by 50 per cent over the past two years. Richard Hewitt, the agency's director, says that "any type of family with a high disposable income" is knocking on his door. "Cook/housekeepers are the most popular - and not necessarily with people with children. Generally speaking, the women are working. They [the cook/housekeeper] cook the family's meals and, if it's a smallish household, do all the cleaning and laundry. If it's a larger, formal house they supervise the daily cleaners who do the heavy housework. Nine times out of 10 these families also have country houses, so they are equipping those as well."
One London lawyer with a nanny and a cleaner admitted that "making the whole machine work" means she arrives in the office frazzled on Monday morning. "The co-ordination is an absolute nightmare," she said. "It's also the emotional support. All the talk to the nanny. Having to remember to leave cash out. Sunday night is write notes night. When I had two au pairs I used to have to do a timetable."
Some say employing domestic staff is in itself a full-time job, as it once was. Another weary employer said: "It's a law of diminishing returns unless you have a pretty structured staff with a housekeeper in control of them. I spend so long running around them. Employing a nanny who will only do certain chores is like employing a cook and finding you have to think up the menus and do the shopping."
In some cases, however, domestic staff are so relied upon that they can hold their employers to ransom. Take Jane Brown, (33, paid pounds 150 for a four-day week) who has nannied for eight different households in the past 15 years. "The people in Brighton call us the Nanny Mafia," she said confidently. "We're a hit squad. If you abuse a nanny everyone immediately knows about that family and won't go to the job. I've blacklisted a couple of families in my time. Oh yeah, blacklisted."
But the new trend is not necessarily an employee's dream, as Catherine O'Donnell, a senior researcher at the Low Pay Unit (LPU), was quick to point out: "The low-paid workers have been doing progressively worse."
The latest edition of the LPU's New Review, published last week, analyses the Government's official New Earnings Survey. Cleaning is listed among the country's 10 worst-paid jobs along with check-out operator, shelf- filler and laundry worker. The average gross weekly earnings of the lowest paid tenth of women working full time as a cleaner/ domestic has dropped from pounds 103.20 last year to pounds 98.50 now.
"The new figures provide a picture of growing inequality in Britain as the lowest paid fall further and further behind," said Ms O'Donnell. "The gap between top and bottom workers becomes wider each year."
The LPU also highlights how it is "a man's world". The average hourly wage for a female cleaner/domestic is pounds 4.10, compared with pounds 4.52 for men.
Rich employers don't necessarily pay well. Take the Windsors. The most senior servants earn about pounds 12,500 a year, compared with up to pounds 40,000 elsewhere. One agency source remarked: "The rumour is that it's regarded as a privilege to work in a royal household and it looks extremely good on your CV when you leave, so they don't have to pay much."