Until recently, the idea of entering into service with a wealthy family was a hangover from the Victorian era – a reminder of the inequality that characterised the British empire. Today, however, through television shows such as Downton Abbey, the idea of domestic service is taking on a new romance and respectability.
This is anathema to John Buttfield, a butler for more than 20 years and now a tutor at the British Butler Academy in London. He says he loathes these characterisations. “I can’t even watch Downton Abbey,” he grimaces.
At first, Buttfield had intended to join the military, before deciding on a different route. “I saw being a butler as an opportunity to challenge myself,” he says. “It’s a way to earn a good living without necessarily being academically skilled.”
Buttfield links his choice of career with his desire to join the army. “The best butlers usually come from military backgrounds,” he says. “Many of the things that constitute great service are already instilled in the armed forces: discipline, good timekeeping, looking smart, obeying orders, the respect for a hierarchy – it’s all there if they’ve served in the army or navy.”
Though all these attributes remain vital to providing good service to the wealthy, the gentleman’s gentleman has had to move with the times. “The role of the butler has changed immeasurably in recent years,” says Tracy Jewitt, marketing manager of domestic service recruitment agency Greycoat Lumleys. “The modern butler is more likely to be on a BlackBerry than ironing The Sunday Times for the breakfast tray.”
In 1930, there were more than 30,000 people working as domestic servants in the UK. These days the figure is down to 5,000, most of whom work for rich foreign clients.
“A British person that had a whole household of staff can’t afford to do so any more. These days 80 per cent of our clients are Russian, Chinese or Middle Eastern,” says Sara Vestin Rahmani, founder of the British Butler Academy.
So does that mean a British butler brings an element of class to a household, particularly to those deemed by the more snobbish remnants of the aristocracy as nouveau riche? “The British butler is seen as the ultimate in accessories,” says Nick Bonell, an experienced butler who relocated to Shanghai in April 2013. “The Chinese super rich have all the trappings money can buy. The homes, private jets, works of art, supercars and now the British butler are vital as symbols of ultimate wealth.”
This is a view shared by Vestin Rahmani, who has also founded schools in China. “There used to be a wonderful tradition of finesse in their imperial past,” she says, “something that has been lost under communism and that many rich Chinese would like to see restored.”
With an increasing number of Chinese doing business internationally – China is forecast to have 1.4m individuals worth more than $1m by 2015 – a good domestic servant can help greatly in making a good first impression. Bonell adds that in China, “the British butler can educate the principal in etiquette and protocol issues in order to avoid embarrassment in a given social situation”.
Such an international client base brings many new demands but not necessarily the need for butlers to learn a new language. Indeed, according to Vestin Rahmani, “for Russians, the ability of a butler to speak Russian is seen as a negative, as clients prefer to hide their conversations from servants” – an idiosyncrasy with which any reader of Anna Karenina will be familiar.
Loyalty to one’s employer remains important – at least to an extent. Buttfield views the relationship between a butler and his master as “a personal thing, a marriage of sorts”, but, like any marriage, he stresses it must be reciprocal.
“Fifteen years ago,” he says, “I worked for a gentleman, a multibillionaire Russian. The work was good, but one day I found that all my communications had been wiretapped. I resigned immediately.”
In the Middle East, where demand for well-trained butlers is highest, rich clients will pay well to ensure loyalty. According to Manal Ramadan, who hopes to set up a school to train butlers in Dubai, finding quality staff in the emirate is unbelievably difficult.
“The majority of the people working in domestic service in Dubai are not very well trained; many are just taken off the street with little idea how to perform the role. Many rich people are prepared to pay significantly more for well-trained servants. They particularly identify with servants trained in ‘the British way’.
“The history of Britain, with its traditions and its royal family, is very appealing in Dubai, where people also believe in the idea of royalty.”
Get alerts on Special Report when a new story is published