Caroline Knowles takes a look at the life of the modern-day Jeeves.
The World Wealth Report (2021) reveals that the UK’s High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) – those with more than £1m in investable assets aside from their main residence – and its Ultra High Net Worth Individuals – those with more than £20m in investable assets apart from their main residence total just over 0.5m. Most of these millionaires and multi-millionaires are in and around London, with small pockets elsewhere in the UK.
Some commentators have dubbed this moment in plutocratic fortunes as “a second gilded age”, recalling the era of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford, the US captains of industry who made obscene amounts of money. The rich are a tiny proportion of the UK’s population, yet their wealth is extraordinary, and because of it they wield undue influence. The median pre-tax annual wage in London is £34,073. Yet in Kensington and Chelsea, home to some of the city’s richest people, 38% of children live in poverty according to the borough’s own estimates. These stark inequalities, exacerbated by recent soaring living costs, risk serious political unrest. London is a living experiment in the coexistence of wealth and want.
In Kensington and Chelsea, home to some of the city’s richest people, 38% of children live in poverty according to the borough’s own estimates.
Nowhere are these stark inequalities more keenly and more personal felt than in the relationship between the rich and their serving class. The Work Foundation reports that more than 2m people now work in domestic service in the UK – the highest number since the Victorian era. Wealthy homes are extensive, elaborate, and labour-intensive operations, demanding high-level grooming and the kinds of perfection in services that the rich are accustomed to.
The domestic labour force requirements of the rich are enormously varied, but often include cleaners, housekeepers, chefs, butlers, security personnel, tutors, personal assistants, handymen, nannies, and drivers. All have their own stories to tell about what life inside a plutocrat’s households is like, but they share three common features.
Their work must be unobtrusively and invisibly performed, and where they are required to be visible, they must look good. Secondly, they must always say yes to whatever their plutocrat demands, however unreasonable; and thirdly they are required to wait on the pleasures and demands of their plutocrat, irrespective of responsibilities in their own lives.
The fantasy of the butlering agencies is that butlers embody the proper habits of old money and so play an educational role in teaching new money how to be properly rich.
The butler’s stories, collected as I was gathering material for a book: Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, expand on what this service work entails. There are no reliable figures for numbers of butlers in the UK. A 2013 estimate suggested that the UK then had 10,000 butlers, with more working overseas, butlers being a UK export industry predominantly to those parts of the world minting the new rich at the fastest rate: China, Russia, and the Middle East. The fantasy of the butlering agencies is that butlers embody the proper habits of old money and so play an educational role in teaching new money how to be properly rich. The butler’s stories suggest a slightly different reality on the ground.
The butler’s first problem is that he’s not actually allowed to tell his story because he has signed a non-disclosure agreement. In speaking he risks his livelihood. Butlers earn in the region of £35,000 -£45,00 a year depending on whether or not they live in. They can earn more, especially when they are paid into offshore accounts. There are also what are described as “extras” when, (say) there is a lot of travelling and stays in luxurious places.
It is a job with imprecise duties, depending on the type of household and the “Principal’s” (butler speak) wealth and lifestyle. The “classic butler” looks after the silver, serves the meals, and answers the door. But in some households, butlers mop the floor, clean shoes, and walk the dog. Nevertheless, “You never work less than fourteen hours a day”, while live-in butlers can be on call twenty-four hours a day. Butlers co-ordinate the entire domestic enterprise. If it cannot be invisible, domestic work must be unobtrusive and fast. The butler opens the door to a plutocrat’s home and must therefore look as good as the rest of it. Wealth is all about display and the butler knows he looks good in a suit.
The running of the house is complicated by the sudden, sometimes unreasonable, unanticipated demands from the Principal’s family.
Butlers tell me that what makes a good butler is “disposition”, knowing how to behave in wealthy households. “You are invisible. You have to be invisible. You serve, you prepare, you fetch, but that’s it. You don’t talk”.
The running of the house is complicated by the sudden, sometimes unreasonable, unanticipated demands from the Principal’s family. Dinner for two can be expanded to dinner for 15 at an hour’s notice. “If any little thing goes wrong, it’s the end of the world. You wouldn’t believe the size of the reactions. We are talking full-on tantrums here.”
Above all, butlering is about waiting to fetch or do something. This is the real divide in power and authority between the rich and its serving class. One waits to serve at the other’s convenience. “You just wait. You just read,” except: ”You have to be careful because you are there to wait. They want you to wait and stand by”. A book is too obvious – butlers commonly read on a mobile phone.
One tells the story of a Principal who didn’t tell the staff she had gone to bed. They stood in the pantry, waiting all night in case she needed something. A skilled domestic labour force stands by awaiting the plutocrats’ next whim: surely this is a waste of labour power that might otherwise be engaged in more productive or collectively beneficial purposes?