Super-rich vie for £100,000 butlers trained by the Palace

The wealthy want to be treated like royalty, which is why only a graduate from a new NVQ course for butlers will do

Paul Bignell
Sunday 30 September 2007 00:00 BST

They have their private jets, luxury yachts and an island or two in the Caribbean. But for the plutocrat with everything, this season's ultimate accessory is much harder to acquire – a top-flight British butler with skills honed and polished by the royal household.

The art of "butling" is enjoying an unprecedented renaissance. Not since the days of the landed gentry have butlers been such hot property, providing the ultimate bling in the Beckham household as well as offering media-shy dotcom millionaires and Russian oligarchs that extra bit of personal service.

The 21st-century butler has, however, been given a radical makeover that has included being renamed as a "household manager". Today's butlers are not only expected to pour champagne, dust antique furnishings and open doors for guests, but they also have to be able to deal with new technology.

The flipside of the butler boom is that soaring demand for their services has resulted in a serious shortage. With only around 5,000 butlers working in the UK, the Guild of Butlers reckons that that number could double and they still wouldn't lack for work.

An assortment of wealthy private-equity executives, hedge-fund dealers, entrepreneurs and celebrities, with personal fortunes to match their desire for the ultimate personal assistant, are fuelling the trend.

In response to the rocketing demand, City & Guilds is launching Britain's first accredited qualification for butlers in conjunction with Buckingham Palace. Graduates can look forward to a starting salary of around £30,000, although for the best that wage will rise rapidly to £100,000 or more.

Ivor Spencer, from the International School for Butler Administrators, who recently sent one of his butlers to Prince Charles's official residence at Clarence House, said: "In the old days, butlers didn't get paid very much and they didn't have much to do.

"Today, we call them a butler, administrator, personal assistant or estate manager. Some clients have a bigger budget than some small businesses. Russian and Chinese millionaires have come to London and other parts of the country and they've no time. They like our butlers because of our heritage."

But it's not just Britain where demand is strong for a new generation of Jeeveses and Hudsons. Many British-trained butlers head to New York, Dubai and the Caribbean, where salaries start at £100,000.

Mr Spencer said: "We recently sent someone to the Middle East. He's running a palace with 153 staff. Next week we're sending someone to Kazakhstan – to a billionaire client. They're looking for quality. I've got people in America earning more than £100,000 a year, running two or three homes. The job perks include accommodation, food, health care and a car."

A butler has to anticipate his master's every whim. The American rapper Sean "Puffy" Coombs would make his butler, Farnsworth Bentley, follow him around during hot spells with a parasol to shade him. One whim Farnsworth failed to predict saw him having to jump straight back on a plane to New York from the Côte d'Azur after failing to pack the rap star's favourite ties.

Although various aspects of the job have changed, one crucial tenet remains, that of discretion.

Mr Spencer stressed its importance. He said: "We do private banking in Switzerland for our employers. We know everything that's going on – and they like it that way."

He says that Paul Burrell, Princess Diana's former butler, remains persona non grata in "butling" circles. Mr Spencer said: "I've been offered lots of money by several tabloid newspapers to tell my story but I would never do that. What happened with Paul Burrell was despicable."

By royal appointment

So what does it take to be a top-class butler? Paul Bignell underwent rigorous training provided by one of London's most experienced butlers at the Lanesborough Hotel near Hyde Park Corner. Sean Davoren, the hotel's head butler, gave a job description: "Butlers have to like people," he said. "You have to be a person who likes to work behind the scene and is discreet."

And to have the utmost patience: after tiring of five minutes' polishing of a pair of shoes, I was told I would have to do this for another hour and 55 minutes to bring out a proper shine. The same rigorous attention to detail was applied to suit-folding, shirt-ironing and folding down a bed.

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