Tuesday, 25 June 2013


Downton Abbey may attract record TV audiences, but we’re also employing more domestic staff than we have for decades, discovers Carolyn Hart

Written by Carolyn Hart
Virginia Woolf knew the value of a good upstairs downstairs drama. She wrote about her cook, Nellie, for example, ‘I should seize with greed upon the portrait of Nelly [sic] & make a story – perhaps make the whole story revolve around that.’

And so it remains today. Nearly a century later, we still can’t get enough of it. From Downton Abbey to Upstairs Downstairs, we love tales of butlers, cooks, stately homes and social hierarchy.

Perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that there are now more domestic staff in Britain than there have been for decades. Astonishingly, a recent survey revealed that there are currently more servants working in London’s upmarket Mayfair neighbourhood than there were two centuries earlier. In fact, they are now employed by 90 per cent of the 4,500 people who own houses there, and 80 per cent of those who own flats. (In 1790, Mayfair’s 1,500 residents employed just 48 servants.)

The modern industry is, of course, rather different from the days of the Dowager Duchess of Grantham. While The Work Foundation figures show that 10 per cent of UK households now employ at least one person to help them around the home – these workers are either part-time au pairs, nannies and cleaners in middle-class households, or the butlers and live-in staff of a new generation of oligarchs.

So what’s it like to be a member of domestic staff? One of the most amusing accounts of a life ‘in service’ can be found in Monica Dickens’s book One Pair Of Hands. Bored, and short of money, Dickens – the great granddaughter of Charles – embarks on a series of sometimes disastrous, but always hilarious, jobs as cook general for the ragged remnants of the upper classes.

She wrote it in 1939, but the life she describes – cooking in someone else’s inadequate kitchen; soothing the ruffled feathers of an over-protective dog-owner; mediating between quarrelling newly weds confronted by their first dinner party, and inadvertently bumping into friends while handing round canapés at a cocktail party – will resonate strongly with today’s part-time domestics.

And plenty of us have been, indeed quite likely still are, part of this growing sector. Our fraught modern existence, especially that of the haveit- all mother, has created a seemingly infinite need for domestic help.

John Giles-Larkin, a former chef to the Queen Mother who now works as a freelance butler, agrees – although his experiences were often rather different from those of Downton Abbey’s Mr Carson. (On one occasion, for example, he found himself being pelted with snowballs by his footballer boss.)


‘One must be willing to run up a ladder to change a light bulb, nip to Waitrose for some groceries,’ he tells me. ‘Or jump in the Bentley to chauffeur the principle to an engagement…’ Occasionally, being a butler in these relaxed days also means fooling around with the children to keep them ‘out of the way’.

So what makes a good modern butler? ‘Impeccable attention to detail and a massive sense of pride,’ Giles-Larkin thinks. ‘It’s that overwhelming sense of pride when a gentleman walks into the drawing room dressed immaculately, and you think to yourself, “I did that”.

‘Before he asks, you are standing in front of him with his whisky and water, and you receive that “I am impressed” smile. And then, when dinner is announced, you hear the gasps of wonder from the guests when they see the roaring fire crackling at the head of the room, the flickering candlelight reflected off the silver, and the flowers neatly arranged.

‘Butling is not for everyone,’ he concludes, ‘but for those of us who do it, a life of service is one of great respect, dedication and commitment.’

Giles-Larkin is the reinterpretation of the old-school butler for the modern world. But Ella Swift represents a whole new generation of ‘servants’. She acts as a live-in tutor in exchange for bed and board. She is typical of a new breed of highly educated, but currently jobless, 20-something women who has found a lifeline as a part-time domestic worker.

Lissa, meanwhile, keeps herself and a daughter afloat by cleaning five or six houses a week, politely and professionally dealing with moulting dog hairs, working mothers exhausted by the daily commute and rooms turned upside down by the resident children.

And it’s not just the owners of stately homes who are employing staff. ‘One house I clean,’ Lissa explains, ‘is small, only three bedrooms and a garden. But the owner employs a part-time gardener, a dog-walker, a tutor, a handyman and a bloke to deliver wood for the fire in winter.’

Staff, it seems, are for everyone. 

Find hundreds of great positions in The Lady Appointments category in our Classifieds section. If you are looking to hire staff, The Lady now offers a full recruitment service. Call 020-7379 4717.

Snowball fights with an England football captain

‘Working in service can be great fun,’ recalls freelance butler John Giles-Larkin.

‘One year, my boss’s son asked me to play in the snow, so I donned my Barbour jacket and Hunter wellies and went outside – to be greeted by my boss, roaring round the corner on his quad bike, towing his son on a sledge.

‘He told me to jump into the sledge, and it was great fun skimming around the estate – until he suddenly spun round and flipped me out of the sledge.

‘Clearing the snow from my nostrils, I thought, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” So I threw one snowball, which seemed to fly in slow motion through the air until it hit my boss square on the cheek, knocking him off the quad. He took it very well – and I certainly giggled myself. After all, it’s not every day you get to hurl a snowball at a former England football captain.’

Are you, or do you employ, domestic staff? Send your stories to the usual address or via email to

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