Whatever daily practical household challenges you might face, they pale compared to those encountered by Stanley Ager, who for nearly thirty years served as Butler to the second and third Lords St. Levan. His skills were hard-earned: He entered home-keeping service at the age of 14. In The Butler's Guide to Running the Home and Other Graces, the man called "the quintessential British servant" and his wife Fiona St. Aubyn (who served as Head Parlor Maid) provide a charming manual that can benefit even those of us who do not oversee dozens of mansion servants. The practical skills dispensed include cleaning and polishing furniture and utensils; setting a pleasing table and serving an impeccable meal; cleaning and maintaining clothes and footwear; and folding and packing for a trip. A road map to easy elegance.
The Butler's Guide to Running the Home and Other Gracesby Stanley Ager, Fiona St. Aubyn
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Perched on an island off the shores of Cornwall, England, the soaring castle of St. Michael’s Mount has been home to the St. Aubyn family since 1647. For nearly thirty years, Stanley Ager, one of the most esteemed butlers of the twentieth century, ensured that St. Michael’s Mount was an impeccable place to live and a gracious and welcoming one for guests to visit.
Revered by everyone from royalty to the estate staff, Stanley Ager considered it his calling to run a home gracefully and efficiently. Several of the men whom he trained at St. Michael’s Mount went on to serve in the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace and at British embassies throughout the world. But you don’t need a manor to benefit from Ager’s wisdom on homekeeping. This carefully detailed, charmingly illustrated, eminently useful volume offers important insights and techniques, including how to:
Wipe a glass—or a chandelier—until it sparkles *** Fold napkins precisely—in six different ways *** Polish furniture—or silver—to a mirror finish *** Lay a beautiful table and serve a meal impeccably *** Brush, buff, and maintain any manner of clothes and footwear *** Fold and pack for a trip—for business or pleasure *** Select and pour wine *** Stage “impromptu” romantic picnics *** And, among other graces, open a door soundlessly, roll an umbrella perfectly, and iron a newspaper
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In 1975 I retired, after fifty-three years in service. Barbara and I moved out of our house on St. Michael’s Mount, where we had lived for thirty years, and into one in Marazion, the village opposite the castle. We left the Mount on a Friday and had a housewarming party on the Sunday. It had taken us exactly two days to establish ourselves so completely that we didn’t have to look for anything. Our friends were amazed. “It feels as though you’ve been here all your life!” they said. But it was simply a question of experience; we were used to moving house from having been in service. At the start of the London season, the staff were sent up in the afternoon to have the house ready for the family in the evening. We’d arrive to find the house in dust sheets, but by the time the family arrived for dinner, you would never know that anyone had been away.
At first I didn’t feel right being out of uniform and in casual clothes in the morning; otherwise, I was content to retire. After all, I have traveled the world, lived in some magnificent houses and been lucky with my employers. But I still miss the staff. They fought amongst themselves and always caused me far more trouble than the Lord and Lady—yet I miss them most of all.
I was fourteen when I entered service in 1922. I began as hallboy—the lowest servant of all—in Lord Coventry’s household at Croome Court. On my first day it seemed like a house full of servants; there were some forty people of all ages working there. Everyone was friendly except the housekeeper—she didn’t want anything to do with new boys. But she treated her youngest girls just the same way I was treated by the butler, and most butlers were courteous people.
I chose to work for Lord Coventry because he raced in partnership with his daughter, Lady Barbara Smith, and I have always been interested in horse racing. I come from Newmarket, a town north of London that is the home of British horse racing. My father was a head stableman and my brother an apprentice jockey. At one time I thought more about going into racing than about going into service, but after my parents died, entering service seemed the best way of supporting myself.
At the beginning I did most of my work in the servants’ quarters at the back of the house. I didn’t go to the front where the family lived, except for the dining room, until I had worked at Croome Court for six months. When I did, the flowers in the reception rooms struck me first of all. I can still remember the smell of the carnations. I had never seen carnations in such quantity before, and they were all colors—even yellow, and I haven’t seen many yellow ones since. I was awed by the general opulence—the silver candlesticks and inkstands on the writing desks, the tapestries on the walls and the thick rugs, which were quite different from the stone tiles I was used to walking on.
It was not until I worked at the front of the house that I saw the family to speak to. The only time I saw them before that was at prayers, which were held in the dining room at nine o’clock after we laid the table for breakfast. At the end the lady of the house always said, “God make my servants dutiful.” Then the family left the room and we rushed like mad to get breakfast on the table.
At fourteen, I wasn’t considered young to start work. A lad was usually hallboy until he was fifteen and a half, then he became steward’s room boy or third footman. The hallboy and steward’s room boy learnt their trade by waiting on members of staff, and the hallboy looked after the butler’s clothes. Only the grander houses had a steward’s room boy, and few of them had as many as forty servants. Most houses had between twelve and fifteen staff members.
How quickly a lad was promoted depended on his ability rather than on his age. Most third and second footmen were very young footmen. Their duties included serving at table, cleaning silver and caring for clothes. The first footman was usually in his mid-twenties and acted as an assistant to the butler. Very few footmen became butlers until they were in their thirties. Before that a footman might valet the gentleman of the house. Then when he became butler, his most important duty was to see that the house ran smoothly.
Most young servants moved to a different house after about a year or so to gain promotion and to experience how various houses were run. A servant who was looking for another job became very snobbish about the family; we wanted someone who had several houses so we could travel round the country. Two houses weren’t really enough. And they had to go to London in the London season—if they didn’t have a house in London, we wouldn’t look at that job either. We wanted London because of the lovely parties and because in town we could get out more and spend all the money we had saved in the country. This wasn’t very much, as salaries were small—from fifteen to twenty pounds a year, which the hallboy received, to a butler’s ninety pounds a year.
I left Lord Coventry to work for Lady Barbara Smith as steward’s room boy. I stayed there a year before becoming third footman to the Pikes. The first guest I looked after for the Pikes was television pioneer John Logie Baird. He arrived with two scruffy suitcases and preferred a cheap brand of cigarettes to some excellent cigars after dinner. I didn’t think my tip would amount to much. But when he left, he gave me five pounds—more than double my month’s wages.
Next I was second footman to Sir Bryan Godfrey-Faussett, who was at one time equerry to King George V. Then in 1926 I went to Lord Dunsany, a well-known author and playwright. He lived at Dunsany Castle, County Meath, Ireland, and his country house in England was Dunstall Priory in Kent. I began as second footman and valet to his eldest son. After a couple of years, when I was only nineteen, I was promoted to first footman and valet to Lord Dunsany.
I remember a time when H. G. Wells came to stay and the tablecloth accidentally caught fire. H. G. Wells was up in an instant and out of the window. The butler appeared and simply put the fire out with a damp cloth. I don’t know whether this had anything to do with it, but I never saw H. G. Wells at Dunsany again.
I was at Dunsany for four years in all before leaving in 1930 to become full-time valet to the second Lord St. Levan. He lived in St. Michael’s Mount, a castle just off the southern coast of England, in Cornwall. The Mount is about a quarter of a mile from the mainland. It can be reached by causeway eight hours out of twenty-four, but at high tide the sea is fifteen feet deep in the center of the causeway and the Mount becomes an island.
I took the job because I had never been to Cornwall and the second lord said he traveled. I went all round the world with him. Wherever he wanted to go, he just went. If it was cold when we returned to England, we’d pop off again. I made all the arrangements, bought the tickets and more or less made the world smooth for him and his party.
A valet was almost always a bachelor because so much of his time was spent traveling with his employer. So in 1933 after I married Barbara, who was parlormaid at the castle, I left the Mount for my first butlering job. I was twenty-six. For two years I worked for Mr. Dunkels, who was head of the Diamond Corporation, and Barbara worked as head parlormaid (the female equivalent of a butler) in another household.
I left in 1935 to become butler to Colonel Trotter, who lived at Charterhall, Berwickshire, Scotland. The house was a halfway stop for Princess Alice, who frequently stayed with us on her way to visit the Queen at Balmoral. Barbara and I were given a cottage on the estate. Our two daughters, Jill and Brenda, were born there, and we lived there for twelve years. During that time the war came, and I went into the army.
Soon after I returned at the end of the war, Colonel Trotter died. While I was mulling over my future, I received a letter from the third Lord St. Levan, who had succeeded his uncle at the Mount. He wrote asking me to come back as his butler. I said I’d come back for three months, which turned into nearly thirty years!
In my day we knew exactly what we had to do and what our roles were. The person who presided over the entire house was the lady of the house. Her three principals were the butler, the housekeeper and the cook: if there were arrangements to be discussed, she would see us in that order. The butler oversaw the pantry staff (the footmen, steward’s room boy and hallboy), the housekeeper oversaw the housemaids and the stillroom maids (the women who made the preserves and cakes—a room was set aside for this) and the cook or chef oversaw the kitchen and the kitchen maids.
The housekeeper looked after the household linen. She was responsible for the staff quarters, whereas the butler was in charge of the front of the house. Normally butler, housekeeper and cook worked closely together, but if any of the three disliked each other, there was trouble. And some housekeepers could be quite nasty. They were lonely people and nearly always spinsters, although they were always called “Mrs.” as a mark of respect. Cooks were also addressed in this manner. A cook was usually very bad-tempered; if she wasn’t struggling against a clock, she was struggling against an oven. A cook seldom stayed at a house as long as the housekeeper, and if she did she was likely to be rather a tyrant. Nine times out of ten a butler or housekeeper stayed at the same house for years—perhaps thirty or forty years.
Next in line to the butler and housekeeper were the valet and lady’s maid. Up until the second war any gentleman of any consequence had a valet, and every lady had a lady’s maid. The sons were looked after by the footmen and the daughters by the younger lady’s maid, who was also the head housemaid. Footmen also looked after gentlemen guests who traveled without their valet, and housemaids looked after visiting ladies who traveled without their maid.
The head housemaid was directly beneath the lady’s maid in rank, and she was equal to the first footman. The second housemaid was equal to the second footman and the third housemaid equal to the third footman. There might be seven housemaids in all, and the younger housemaids were equal to the steward’s room boy and the hallboy. On the kitchen side of the house, the first kitchen maid was directly beneath the cook and equal to the first footman; the second and third kitchen maid were equal to the second and third footman. The scullery maid, who prepared the vegetables for cooking and washed the pots and the pans, was on a par with the hallboy.
As a rule, the large houses had footmen and a butler to oversee them, and the smaller houses had parlormaids and a head parlormaid. Parlormaids and footmen were never mixed, as they did the same work—the second parlormaid ranked with the first footman and the third parlormaid with the second footman. Most head parlormaids only had two parlormaids under them. The drawback to parlormaids was that they weren’t able to do the same heavy work as footmen. A man would have to come in daily to carry coal or lift heavy leaves from the dining room table.
Our uniforms were provided by the family. A hallboy wore a dark gray flecked suit, which we called a salt and pepper but was officially described as a morning suit. Every male member of staff had one of these in his cupboard.
In addition to his salt and pepper the steward’s room boy had a dark blue coat similar to a bellhop’s jacket, which he wore with black box-cloth trousers. A footman wore a salt and pepper when he was working at the back of the house, for instance cleaning silver. Whenever he was waiting on the family he wore livery. A valet usually only wore a salt and pepper. Until the mid-1920s a butler wore a gray morning tailcoat with a cutaway front over a pair of gray striped trousers. After that time, a butler would wear a black evening tailcoat all day long. In the evening he changed from the gray trousers into a pair of black trousers with a fine silk line running down the side.
When I was a footman, the senior staff stood very much on their dignity, and the rest of the staff were acutely aware of their status within the house. No one could help out anyone else. We didn’t help the kitchen people, however busy they were, and we certainly wouldn’t help a housemaid.
The first, second and third housemaids were responsible for the appearance of the drawing room, and they made sure the curtains, chair covers, ornaments and flowers were in good order. They also saw that nothing needed dusting and that the furniture was kept well polished. The younger housemaids did the hard physical work of cleaning grates and laying fires.
As with housemaids, what a footman did depended on his rank. Generally, our first job in the morning was to wake the gentlemen and see that their clothes were brushed and laid out ready for them to wear. Later on we saw that the gentlemen’s evening clothes were left clean and ready for them to step into for dinner. We laid the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleared it afterwards. We served lunch and dinner. We laid the table for tea at four thirty in the afternoon and served drinks at six o’clock in the evening. Throughout most of the day—unless it was our morning for cleaning silver—we received guests, answered the telephone and waited on the family at the front of the house.
When dinner was over, we tidied the gentlemen’s rooms and removed their clothes to brush them. At about ten thirty or eleven o’clock, there was the grog tray to take into the drawing room. And we weren’t free until the family and their guests had gone to bed. If we were unlucky and they were playing a long game of billiards or cards, this might mean four in the morning. On really busy nights we didn’t go to bed at all, as our day started again at six.
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Meet the Author
Stanley Ager entered service as a hallboy at the age of fourteen and eventually became head butler at St. Michael’s Mount, where he remained for nearly thirty of his fifty-three years in service. The Butler’s Guide was written after he and his wife, Barbara, retired nearby to Marazion, Cornwall. They are buried on St. Michael’s Mount.
Fiona St. Aubyn is also the author of A Portrait of Georgian London and wrote ClothesCarewith James Wagenvoord. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in creative writing and lives in Hampshire with her family. Fiona St. Aubyn is a granddaughter of the late third Lord St. Levan and his wife the Dowager Lady St. Levan, and her brother now lives at St. Michael’s Mount. She knew Stanley Ager all her life.
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Though slightly dated, this book is a delight to read with a throwback to an era that's forever gone. Wonderfully illustrated, the author tells both the good and bad sides of being a butler in roughly the first half of the last century. Highly recommended.