Today's modern day butlers are an age away from the quintessential Carson character we’ve all seen on the television series, Downton Abbey. In that era the butler had to personify all the virtues demanded of the head of a large household, ensuring staff were performing their duties, supervising the general functions of a large house right up to ordering the fine wines.
I wanted to find out what it's really like to work in this somewhat closed world of working in service.
Robin Willis is Butler to an old establish family on the large estate in the county of Suffolk in the UK. Robin has worked for the family for the last eight years and doesn't see himself moving on for a good few more years.
Robin meets me at the service entrance to the grand house; he's much younger than I expected, a youngish 45-year-old, not sure why but I had expectations of a much older man.
He leads me into the house huge country kitchen which is used by both the staff and the family. It has an airy & bright, homely feel about the place, and is immaculately laid out, everything in its rightful position.
'I'm also qualified as a chef', he says with a slight sense of pride, 'And I sometimes cook for them when they ask, but not on a regular basis'.
'I've always worked in the hospitality profession since leaving catering college. After living and working aboard, I had to decide what it was that I wanted to do. I’ve worked in hotels, pubs, clubs and restaurants, but I didn’t want to get back into that situation again. I came across the job as a butler which I found fascinating. It looked like a good next step to take, so I decided to research it some more and discovered that I had a lot of the skills already through hospitality. I then enrolled in an intensive ten-day course at the Ditchley Park valet school in Oxfordshire; it's not cheap, but it's worth it, you do get your money back'.
After passing the course, Robin secured his first job in Grantham in Lincolnshire before moving on to my current position.
I asked Robin about the role of a butler.
'Well, the job is not for everyone, you have to be a certain kind of person to take on this role. I think you need to have a fair amount of patient. You need to be a well-organised person, and you need to be self-motivated, able to work on your own. You've also need to be a good listener; knowing when to keep quiet is also important, you have to be that person in the background. I wouldn't say you have to be a quiet person; I'm not someone who can easily be walked over, but you have to be that particular reliable person in the background',
I ask if this applies to all households?
'well, It all comes down to new money and old money. New money expect a lot more from you, where has old money they don't. They feel as though they require you, but they don't really need you. It's a status thing for new money people; they expect so much more, so it's much harder to work for new money(families)because of that reason'.
The job is a 24-7 live-in one , even though Robin has set working hours, he has to open up the house in the morning, take the dogs for walks if the owners are not here, and make sure the house is secuely lock up at night.
'The job is a long term commitment, but it's also just a job, it's not as it was in the Downtown era, that was your life back then, they were your family. If you enjoy it, and you like your employer, and they like you, which I hope they do, then It depends on how long you stay in the job, just like any other job'.
'As far has I'm concerned they're my employers; I would hope they like me, but they're not my friends. I think a lot of people could find that hard to differentiate, working so closely with them, but that's how I look at it'.
Does the family have any set traditions as to how things are done at the House?
'The family like things done in a certain way, they've had a butler here for many decades, so you fit in with how things are run, you know why, and also what things need to be done and in the correct way. I'm here to do a job, and it's nice to be told that you're doing a good job, which the family do from time to time'.
I ask Robin about his feelings on the subject of social media, does he get involved in Facebook for instance?
'I do have a Facebook page, but I rarely use it, I'm not one for putting my life on show. I also have to be very careful about what I say; employers use Facebook nowadays to check on their staff or prospective employees. As a butler, you definitely wouldn't put anything about your job on Facebook'.
So surely your social life must be effected by your work here?
'My job does affect my social life; I only have one day off a week, one weekend off a month, and you never really know if you're working on an evening or not. Yes, it's hard to plan things ahead, and even when the family are away your still expected to get on with the duties and the jobs that need doing'.
The summer and Christmas periods are the busiest times of the year, the summer parties, and the Christmas drinks can get very busy.
I asked Robin if he watches other butlers on Tv with a more critical eye?
'Of course, whenever there's a film or programme featuring a butler I'm pretty much engrossed in seeing how they react to work, but to be honest, the Tv butlers are a world away from how it is nowadays'.
So what would you advise others who might be thinking of working in this job as a butler?
'Downtown Abbey was a great series, but people shouldn't be confused with the role of a butler. You wouldn't be so close to the family unless you grew up with the family or had worked with them for many years'.
'You really have to be a master of all trades; it's not just looking after house staff members, and making sure the owners are ok. You have to be a driver, take care of any problems around the house, make sure things are delivered on time, etc'. Robin fixes his tie, making sure it's straight under his perfectly fitted jacket.
'You also have to remember your place, you're here to do a job and work and not be their friend, and to be professional. You can have a joke and laugh with them unless you're working with someone or a family who doesn't want that, otherwise, it can get very messy, in my opinion'.
I follow Robin through into the large house kitchen, 'My role would change if the family were a lot younger, the role of the butler does change and what's expected of you and also what you're required to do. You could be a PA, the house manager; or it could be that you become the estate administrator, it's all changing now. For me, it's what I know and what I love, but you have to be that particular type of person to enjoy the job'.