For almost half a century, Edwin Lee, butler-steward to Lord Astor, had an unassailable grip on the reins at Cliveden. It was felt by those in service that, to have been trained up by this redoubtable figure, who regularly oversaw balls attended by up to 600 guests, was ‘a reference in itself’. A grateful Lady Astor dubbed him ‘Lord Lee of Cliveden’, but her forceful personality sorely tested his patience. On one occasion, he actually threatened to resign- horrified, the lady of the house replied: ‘In that case, Lee, tell me where you’re going, because I’m coming with you.’ A surprising number of modern householders will understand exactly how Lady Astor felt. It’s believed that there are more butlers in Mayfair today than there were in the 1930s and an estimated 2,000 are currently working around the country. Further afield, British butlers are the ultimate status symbol in Russia, India and China.

Many commentators were convinced that the role would simply fade away in the 1960s, together with the House of Lords and public schools, but they were wrong-television programmes such as Upstairs, Downstairs and, latterly, Downton Abbey have given the appeal of this all-seeing, all-knowing figure a tremendous boost. Originally, the butler was the household’s wine-and-ale steward, with total command of the ‘buttery’, where the barrels were kept. In later years, his role evolved to encompass laying the table, serving the meal and directing a troupe of liveried footmen, as well as cleaning the silver, glass and fine china.

So central, in fact, became the butler’s position that the boundaries between his life in service and his private life were often blurred, as he found himself being called on during his time off to bail out his hapless employers. Butlers, as any Wodehouse aficionado knows, need to be experts in the art of bacon-saving-barely a chapter goes past without Jeeves (a valet, strictly speaking, but able to ‘buttle with the best of them’ if required) having to free Bertie Wooster from some kind of social, legal or romantic entanglement.

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In the latter half of the 20th century, the butler was often held onto long after the more traditional resident staff had evaporated. As a result, modern holders of the position have adapted to become combined valets, housekeepers, chauffeurs and secretaries as well, if needed. ‘If you can afford a butler, they really are indispensable -they will be computer literate, drive your cars and manage multiple households at the same time,’ emphasizes Jane Urquhart of Jane Urquhart Limited (020-7371 9175; www.janeurquhart.com), who places butlers all over the world. There are, however, limits. ‘The one thing you can’t expect a butler to do is buttle and cook at the same time-that just doesn’t work.’ What is it that gives British butlers the edge over their equivalents who have been trained in other countries?

‘I think it’s the fact that we care about doing things correctly, with a certain grace,’ explains Colin Gaunt, butler for the American ambassador and tutor at the Butler-Valet School, Oxfordshire (01993 881087; www.butler-valetschool.co.uk). His career, which has encompassed spells at Woburn Abbey and Blenheim Palace, began a quarter of a century ago at Buckingham Palace, where he spent four years learning the ropes as an under-butler in the silver pantry. ‘I think it’s probably the best place to be trained in traditional service-those skills can then be tweaked slightly to suit the location.’

Although modern butlers are more likely to carry BlackBerrys than silver salvers, Mr Gaunt believes that the role’s essentials remain unchanged. ‘Today, as always, a butler must be selfless, discreet and prepared for hard work. It is demanding-you must be on the ball all the time-but it’s also very enjoyable.’ Matthew Hayward has worked at both Skibo Castle in Sutherland and Claridge’s in London, a hotel founded by a butler retiring from private service on the tips he had received. ‘A good butler should always be prepared for the unexpected,’ he advises.

He admits to having had to run some extraordinary errands over the years and, although he’s much too discreet to go into details, he admits that ‘requests for very rare mineral waters can be… interesting’. Mr Hayward and his colleagues followed a very different career path to their Edwardian counterparts, who would join a household at 12 years old and gradually work their way up. However, they boast the same invaluable skill set-how to wait at table, how to converse fluently about the drinks being served and, most importantly of all, how to put guests at their ease. ‘In Britain, we have a great tradition to draw on, and we’ve adapted it to the needs of the modern world,’ observes Tim Jackson, who spent 16 years with the Royal Household. ‘When you see the Guards on parade, you can’t help but think “We do this sort of thing so well”. So it is with butlers.’ Like Mr Gaunt, Mr Jackson learnt his trade at Buckingham Palace. He was, for many years, senior underbutler to the royal wine cellars, and then spent five years as the deputy sergeant footman, helping to manage a team of under-butlers.

Talking to him, one realises that the concept of ‘risk management’ was actually invented by butlers. ‘The essence of a butler’s role is the careful organising of everything from the service of wine to laying tables and planning the logistics of travel-not only for one person, but for an entire household,’ he explains. ‘It’s all about knowing what’s needed. A good butler will ensure things run like clockwork.’ However, historically, some less scrupulous butlers haven’t been averse to having a little fun at their employers’ expense, as proved by an anecdote involving Edwardian political hostess Mrs Ronnie Greville. She suspected her butler of having had a go at the sherry before serving in the dining room, and wrote him a hasty note: ‘You are drunk. Leave the room at once.’ The butler received the note with a small bow, placed it on a tray, walked round the table and presented it to one of the guests, Tory MP Austen Chamberlain.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant’ is published by John Murray (£9.99)

Legendary butlers

* Sebastian Beach, he of the expressive eyebrows and booming baritone, rules the roost in P. G. Wodehouse’s tales of life at Blandings
* Crichton, Lord Loam’s butler in The Admirable Crichton by J. M. Barrie, comes to the fore when the family is
shipwrecked on an island
* Capt Haddock inherits the uncomplaining Nestor along with Marlinspike Hall in Hergé’s ‘Tintin’ books
* Vita Sackville-West’s Vigeon embodies all that Edwardian England held most dear in The Edwardians
* In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, the buttoned-up Stevens (played in the film adaptation by Anthony Hopkins), who has devoted his life to service at Darlington Hall, muses on missed opportunities
* Carson (Jim Carter), Downton Abbey’s indispensable butler, is a stickler for doing things the old way

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