As Britain's rich get richer, supply of butlers dries up

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During the Edwardian heyday of the gentleman's servant, the number of butlers never exceeded the number of masters. But a nouveau riche assault on Britain's once rigid class structure has led to something of a crisis in the supply and demand of household man-servants.

The Guild of Professional Butlers is now reporting an explosion in the numbers of super-rich households who want to be waited on hand and foot.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, "butling" was an antiquated and dying profession, but today there simply are not enough butlers to go round, said Charles MacPherson, the vice-chairman of the International Guild of Professional Butlers. "If we doubled the number of butlers, they wouldn't be without work," he added.

There were signs earlier this year that all was not well in the recruitment of butlers when Tony Blair resorted to advertising for one to look after his Downing Street residence at a salary of £50,000.

It may not be the sort of crisis that will make his cabinet colleagues' hearts bleed but for those who are having to get by without one it can be still be a source of great social embarrassment.

The aloof and dignified presence of a butler at the door used to signify to the caller that the occupants of the house belonged to a certain English class.

Today his presence is much more likely to mean that there is a heli-pad on the roof and a heated swimming pool in the cellar.

Jane Urqhart, the principal of the Greycoat Academy which trains butlers, said that demand for "good butlers" was soaring.

"What's happened is that there has been a growth among those people with a lot of money who want to emulate the old traditions, such as having a butler. So they buy the manor house but they also want to hire someone from the days when the house was staffed by a butler. After all, when the door is opened and there is someone standing there to take your coat and serve you a drink from a silver tray you know that you have arrived."

She adds: "Today a butler doesn't just serve the food, he will also cook the food, organise your personal wardrobe, drive you around, take care of your diary and of course be a soul discretion."

The Butler name derives from the old French word bouteillier, meaning the cup-bearer or the one in charge of the bottles.

By the middle of the 19th century, the butler reached his full flowering as head of the male domestic servants, in larger households sometimes having a whole suite of rooms dedicated to his various functions.

Today the butler has been reinvented as a kind of Swiss-Army- knife, all-purpose household manager, often the sole permanent servant, as much required to organise his master's travel arrangements and supervise redecorating the house as he is to serve the wine at formal dinners.

Ivor Spencer, 81, a butler with service in 14 of the grandest houses in England, runs a butler-training school and agency. He says that one can still expect certain standards from a butler and as if to prove it has devoted a page of his website to the simple declaration: "I am delighted to say that I did not train Paul Burrell" - referring to the former butler of Diana, Princess of Wales and his controversial memoirs.

Running a sizeable house can command a salary starting at £40,000, and rising to £100,000.

"It's a challenging career," says Mr Spencer. "Sometimes you control a budget bigger than a small business's. One of our butlers is running a palace in Bahrain with 135 staff."

But Mr Spencer warns: "You must never do it just for the money. You must put the family before your own family."