Are we still being served?

The traditional butler is enjoying a 21st century resurgence in popularity.

Once upon a time, the number of people you employed to run your household and manage your affairs spoke volumes about your financial situation. Having a capable butler to corral the staff was considered mandatory by the well-to-do.

Those days are long gone, but what of the dour, reliable manservant in the 21st century? Does he still exist, and what are his career prospects?

Whatever happens in the house, stays in the house

Though rarer to find these days, butlers haven't dropped entirely out of view, mostly thanks to popular literature. That most quintessential of English butlers, Jeeves, was the subject of many novels and short stories by P.G.Wodehouse. More lately, period TV pieces such as Downton Abbey, featuring the uptight gentleman's butler, Autoon (played by Jim Carter), have put the role of the butler firmly back on the radar.

Such has been the popularity of Downton Abbey that those in the trade refer to the recent renaissance of the butler as the 'Downton Abbey factor'.

“We've certainly seen an increase in the demand for butler services over recent years,” says Pamela Spruce, from the Australian Butler School and Australian Butler Services. “How much of that is due to Downton Abbey is impossible to say. What I do know is that nowadays our clients are choosing a butler to do the work that might previously have been outsourced to a variety of people.”

Spruce, a former advertising and marketing guru, established the school and its recruitment arm in 1997. The school is located at Fountaindale Manor in the NSW Southern Highlands township of Robertson. Spruce says it is one of only a handful of butler schools worldwide.

Trainee butlers live in residence for the four weeks. During this time they learn everything from valeting and housekeeping skills to house presentation, food and beverage service, household budgeting and financial management and communication.

“These days a butler's role is very much hands-on, they have to be multi-skilled,” Spruce says.

She says the reason that modern butlers are no longer in a simply supervisory position (like Autoon in Downton Abbey) is that we no longer have grand households of 20 to 30 staff to do all the work. “Those staff only got paid about a pound a month and worked almost every day. Labour laws have changed. It would no longer be affordable.”


On graduating, a butler can expect to earn around $65,000 a year, plus super. More experienced butlers can earn between $80,000 to $100,000. Spruce says not all of the people who employ butlers are in the BRW Top 200. “Many of our clients are busy working professionals with a family,” she says.

Spruce estimates there would be more than 100 butlers currently working in Australia, with most in Sydney and Melbourne. Ten per cent of her graduates are female and the ratio is increasing, with many finding work in palaces in the Middle East.

One requirement that hasn't changed over the years, however, is the butler's need for absolute discretion. “Whatever happens in the house, stays in the house,” Spruce says.

She is not keen to share anecdotes about "what the butler saw" because it “wouldn't be proper”. She does, however, recall an incident where one of her butlers was working in a hotel in Manhattan and was asked by a tall, leggy model to bring some champagne to the room. “When he arrived she was naked in the bathroom. She was tall and he was short, so he came face to face with it.”

Whether butler Symon Kerslake has ever been "face to face with it", he's not letting on. Kerslake, 47, has been a butler for 14 years and trained at Spruce's school after a varied career in the hospitality industry.

“I've always wanted to be a butler, I quite liked Upstairs Downstairs,” he says. “I think being a butler was in my blood, I took to it like a duck to water.

“To be a butler you need to be a certain sort of person. You need to be able to stand back, pull away and know your place. Sometimes the family will ask you sit down and have dinner with them, but usually I don't, because you have to draw a line somewhere and if you get too familiar it can lead to problems.”

When it comes to perks of the job, Kerslake says there are plenty, such as the chance to travel with the client to exotic locations, or maintain and drive fancy cars from Porsches to Ferraris.

“But you also have to remember these are not your cars, so you can't go off joyriding in them,” he says.

And when he worked as a butler for the British High Commission, he would often have to taste the wine. “But not a whole glass, you can't go helping yourself, especially with the alcohol.”

Surprisingly, Kerslake says he never gets jealous being surrounded by such opulence. “It's lovely to work in a fabulous environment around beautiful art and antiques, but I don't covet it. I'm quite happy with my own life."

Currently Kerslake works for "a well-known Melbourne business family" where he says his role includes looking after the cars and the swimming pool, cleaning windows, maintaining the house and appliances, organising contractors, cooking, polishing the silver and measuring the dining table to make sure it's correctly laid.

His usual uniform is a business suit, although in warmer weather he wears shorts, or chinos with a polo shirt to work.

We doubt Mr Autoon would approve.