The New Downstairs: House Managers
House managers can be critical to the smooth running of their employer's life, home and staff. Emma Jacobs looks at how these domestic professionals support the wealthy.
Filmed by Steve Ager, Nicola Stansfield, Petros Gioumpasis. Additional material: Getty. Graphics and animations by Russell Birkett. Edited by Nick Swinglehurst and Seb Morton-Clark. Produced by Nalini Sivathasan and Seb Morton-Clark.
The costume drama Downton Abbey showed a time when the English elite could afford hordes of staff. Upstairs were the Crawley family, and downstairs cooks, butlers, and scullery maids. The show told a familiar story of the decline of such professions in the wake of the First World War, or so we thought. In my job at the Financial Times, I occasionally get to glimpse into the working lives of the global elite, and I kept coming across domestic staff in those familiar, yet now somewhat altered roles.
House managers dealing with globetrotting families, Michelin chefs cooking up five-star meals or baked beans, and 1,000 pound an hour tutors helping four-year-olds get a leg up in life. I wanted to know how those traditional roles had shifted. What are the demands of people using these services today, and what is the relationship between them and their staff?
The 1911 census showed 1.5 million people were employed in the domestic professions in England and Wales. The biggest houses operated like small hotels with teams of workers looking after every aspect of the home for the day-to-day comfort of its owners. Today, the number is a fraction of what it once was.
The latest figures for the UK as a whole show around only 97,000 are employed in private households. But the domestic roles of today now include some very well-paid careers that highly skilled and highly qualified professionals aspire to break into. And a rise in travel, technology, and changes in social attitudes have meant that running a household, or multiple households, can be an extremely demanding job.
Any time of the day, you may be asked to go on a plane.
You would get the madame coming back from holiday sort of thing, wanting to greet you with a muah, muah. No.
When it's not being used as the set for Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in southwest England is used by the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, Lady Carnarvon. Day-to-day life is very different from the one depicted in the drama.
The dynamics have lessened a little bit, which I think was a result of the social change during the Second World War, when we were all in the bomb shelters together.
Changes in society, underpinned by technology and the expansion of opportunities, particularly for women, also mean that domestic service isn't quite the institution it once was. But the rise of a globetrotting elite, coupled with the ever-increasing demands on people's time, has meant that the niche market for professional domestic staff has been surprisingly resilient.
The Lady magazine, based in London, has run advertisements for household staff for over 130 years. Four years ago, it recognised there was still a demand, and so decided to start its own agency specialising in finding domestic professionals for its clients at home and abroad. The agency is specialised in finding, among other things, butlers, bodyguards, and housekeepers for its clients.
Arguably one of the most important jobs in the domestic profession is that of the house manager. It's a relatively fluid role, ostensibly there to oversee the running of the house and other staff where necessary.
When The Lady was first started in 1885, the role of house manager didn't really exist as such. The head of the house was the butler, but there would be multiple people within the household, everything from housemaids to housekeepers. Now those roles have compressed. In the bigger estates, the house managers or estate manager will be the main coordinator for all of the roles.
In smaller households, the house manager may be head cook and bottle washer. They are the confidant of the householder. They work very closely with them. They need to be as adept with an Excel spreadsheet as they are with the bottle opener.
Luis Coelho is the house manager at a Highclere Castle. He oversees private events, but also manages the commercial use of the estate.
Well, the biggest challenge in this type of house is actually maintaining it and having money coming in to keep it going. We are now much more business orientated. Before, the house manager or the butler used to be just working for the family with not making money. Now we need to do both.
It's important not to get too fixated on the big country house, though. This reconstruction at London's Geffrye Museum was far more typical of the surroundings that domestic stuff would've been used to.
People tend to see big country houses as the norm and where you see the majority of domestic servants. That's comparatively rare. So it's easy to forget that actually the middle classes have always been the biggest employer of domestic servants. More often you would have maid of all work working alongside the mistress of a middle-class household, or perhaps a maid of all work and a cook. They are the vast majority of the domestic workforce for most of history.
It can be a strange, peripatetic life for the modern-day house manager, who may be paid anything between 35,000 pounds and 120,000 pounds, depending on experience, the number of properties they're overseeing, and the amount of travel required. They might be asked to turn their hand to a range of tasks, requiring flexibility and perhaps allowing the employer to cut back on headcount.
Unlike previous generations, many come with degrees and professional qualifications. Languages, IT literacy, even nutritional expertise would all be an advantage. Some will also have backgrounds in the hospitality industry.
You're doing a lot of the executive work as house manager. If any of the departments have a problem, it's you that's going to sort it out. And if monsieur or madame have a problem, it's you they're calling. And technically you've got to be able to do every one of your team member's jobs as well as they can.
Claudia Pfeiffer is a house manager to an ultra-high net worth family in London. Originally from Germany, she's done two degrees and worked in five-star hotels and restaurants.
My hotel background, my hospitality background, catering background was very, a great part. It was a massive part for me getting into the private sector, working my way up to become from a private PA a house manager.
She says that house managers must be flexible and robust, and discretion is essential.
Any time of the day, you may be asked to go on a plane, may it be commercial or private, to travel to certain destinations of properties of the principles to ensure everything of their arrival and their guests will be in place. You do have staff most of the time at those places, where you would communicate. And you need to be able to manage them and delegate work to them that everything is done perfectly. You need to take over responsibilities, and you need to be very trustworthy.
I never would feel my principles are equal, no. I am the house manager, so my principle is my main priority. This is the main person.
While Claudia is very clear about her position in the house, Helen Robinson from The Lady says that sometimes it's the clients who need to be trained in dealing with domestic staff.
Some people, particularly with the new money, they haven't been in the position of having household staff previously, and may be uncomfortable with telling people what they actually need. Therefore, getting the chemistry right between householder and staff is absolutely key.
One person who knows about such chemistry is Tim Jackson. He's been a butler and house manager for over 30 years, including a stint at Buckingham Palace. And he's picked up a few tricks along the way.
The fact that you've got the tissue paper in the sleeve means that it's not going to crease up.
When he had a child, he discovered it was a struggle to balance the long hours of working in a private household with his family life. Today, he trains aspiring butlers. He, like Helen, believes that new clients can prove problematic for staff.
Old money, they have very strict lines over which you shall not cross. Newer money, or people that are only now recently acquiring butlers, housekeepers, and what have you, they tend to be much more open and friendly. You would get the madame coming back from holiday sort of thing wanting to greet you with a muah, muah. No. That, for me, is no. You don't do that sort of thing. That is over-stepping the mark, for me.
The difficulties of navigating the boundary between workers and employers within a private household are something the Victorians and their predecessors would have recognised.
Privacy is such a huge thing. You hear a lot about domestic workers having to sign extremely restrictive non-disclosure agreements. But the person who's coming into the home is also giving up a lot of their privacy because their home is now where they work. It's somebody else's house. So it's quite a fraught relationship.
Although Downton Abbey showed a clear delineation between upstairs and downstairs, Lady Carnarvon denies such a separation still exists.
I don't ever refer to any of the staff here as household staff. I think household stuff today implies a division, implies an attitude towards people who I am working with. And they are no lesser people than I have. We've just got different roles.
The relationship may be less formal than it once was, and some house managers might prefer a bit of occupational distance. Yet the emergence of the modern house manager and the roster of their new responsibilities shows just how international and complex the lives of the ultra wealthy can be.