Much Obliged, Ms Jeeves
Butlering is a job for the boys, right? Wrong! Victoria Murden meets the ladies who have infiltrated a very English – and traditionally male – profession
Hudson, the rock of Upstairs, Downstairs; Hobson, the modest valet who kept wayward Arthur in his place, and PG Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves, have a lot to answer for.
For years they’ve been held as the prototype for the quintessential British butler – eloquent, all-seeing, infinitely resourceful and distinctly male. But the masculine world of butlering has been infiltrated, and in most hotels and private households you are now as likely to be served by a female butler as a male.
I met three of these pioneering women, and found there is much more to being a modern-day butler than just polishing silverware and faultless manners.
SOPHIE EDWARDS, BUTLER AT CLARIDGE’S
‘People are sometimes surprised when I introduce myself as their butler. I’m 27 and they often expect an older gentleman, but the job has changed and I think women give it a different edge.
A lot of the guests, especially men, think we shouldn’t do any heavy lifting (one of the girls is pregnant and it’s difficult because no one wants her to do anything), but we have to be hands-on and show we’re not afraid to get dirty.
Being a butler wasn’t exactly a childhood dream – when I finished school my aim was to go to university. I ended up doing behavioural science and in the summer break I worked at the private club where Madonna got married.
I would meet guests by their cars, take them to their room and organise everything for them. Then my brother suggested we move to London – a big thing, as I’m from the very north coast of Scotland, with the closest neighbours 10 miles away.
‘A friend of mine worked at Claridge’s hotel and said how wonderful it was. So when a butler job came up, I jumped at the chance and five interviews later – yes, five – here I am.
‘There are special schools for butlering, but it’s very male-orientated and anyone will tell you that the only time they really learnt anything at hotel school was when they were actually in a hotel.
For example, the range of guests is so different. There are some businessmen who ask us to go into their room when they’re asleep, put sweetener in their coffee and literally hand it to them with the paper. Some people don’t want us to touch anything. I’ve learnt to be invisible since working here.
‘But I am also treated like a friend – I’ll get kisses and cuddles from guests who leave more clothes here than I would have in my lifetime, so it’s just like a home from home. We have a lot of celebrity guests. It’s great because you see the other side of that industry – I’ll be on the bus home, reading a feature in Vogue about someone like Angela Jolie or one of the Sex and the City girls, and then the next day I’ll be serving them a cup of tea in their pyjamas.
‘I love watching dramas such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs because working here is just like that. Claridge’s is like a small town really. We are very close and I think that is what’s so special about hotels – there’s always some sort of drama going on somewhere and it certainly makes life more exciting.’
MARCIA LONG, BUTLER FOR PRIVATE HOUSEHOLDS ACROSS THE WORLD
‘You definitely need a thick skin to be a butler – it’s not a profession for the faint of heart! I once arrived at a house and three of the toilets and the kitchen sink were clogged. My employers were hosting a lunch and they refused to cancel it. One employer really stands out; she was a screamer and would constantly shout at me, but I put up with her for about a year because I really liked her husband. I do generally find that as a female butler, women bosses are the difficult ones.
‘I originally went to college and studied economics, but I always loved cooking, so I went to cooking school for two years. My first job after that was working for a private family who gave me free rein in the kitchen. It was very creative and there was also a personal-assistant element to the role that came easily to me.
‘Over the years I haven’t ever trained as a butler but when I worked in someone’s home and they asked me to pick up some dry-cleaning or manage the housekeeping for them, so I quickly learnt the skills. Then a very prominent lady hired me to run her households in Washington and New York City and she knew exactly how she wanted everything. It was a very difficult position for someone in her early 30s, but I really enjoyed the challenge.
‘It is still unusual to be a female butler, although it is more common in America. Sometimes it’s difficult to find work in Europe – they’re more comfortable with the male stereotype and I have to remind employers of the benefis of a female perspective. People also imagine that being married will be a problem, as butlering isn’t exactly a nine-to-five job, but my husband often works away for six months at a time, so it works for me.
Butler positions do involve long days and hard work, but with the right employer it can be fantastic and I’ve been lucky enough to do everything from designing and building a 20,000-bottle vintage wine cellar to managing residence staffing. ‘I think there’s a good role for females in the butlering world.’
Marcia Long is a member of www.butlerforyou.com
AGNES RETI, ASSISTANT HEAD BUTLER AT THE LANESBOROUGH
‘Female butlers are a relatively new phenomenon, but there is a real demand for us. Middle Eastern ladies must have a woman to serve them, so at The Lanesborough we have three female Eastern European butlers. I think we’re tidier, have more patience and we are much better at multi-tasking.
‘Our uniform has been adapted from the male uniform, and we have to wear a skirt. I would prefer to wear trousers as we are required to do a lot of lifting – for example, returning guests leave some of their luggage in our storage areas and we have to take them to the rooms before they arrive – but it does look smart.
‘These days, butlering has definitely become more modernised. Our BlackBerry phones are permanently attached to us so guests are able to contact us 24 hours a day, and we use lots of gadgets to support our work. I don’t know how they did it before. And this is the only hotel where all 95 rooms have butler service, so we can be really busy, but it’s always a team effort and I love the fact that no day is ever the same.
‘Last Christmas is a perfect example. One of our guests asked the butler team to organise a real reindeer to arrive at the hotel, pulling a red sledge loaded with presents for his children, and with two elves on board. ‘At the other end of the spectrum we recently had a guest from the Middle East who came to London to give birth. She was in hospital for three days and we had to make her room there look nice, so we changed the curtains, added cushions and lots of bits to make it personal and cosy for her. I spent all day running from the hospital and back to the hotel with armfuls of soft furnishings, trying to make her more comfortable. But it’s all in a day’s work.’