BRITAIN meets The Savoy’s Head Butler

As calm as Lord Grantham’s Carson and as unflappable as Bruce Wayne’s Alfred, Sean Davoren’s role at the world-famous Savoy hotel amalgamates a very formal British tradition with more than a touch of modern-day luxury

The Savoy London
Sean Davoren, Head Butler at The Savoy in London taken in The Royal Suite. Photo © The Savoy

What could be more quintessentially British than having a butler to take care of your every need – serve tea into pretty bone-china tableware, draw you a rose-scented bath, dress you in a dinner suit or evening gown… (well, maybe not the latter)? Even so, butler service is all about British quality and tradition, sprinkled with modern pampering and luxury. So, it came as no surprise when, as part of the most ambitious hotel restoration in British history, another iconic British institution – The Savoy hotel in London – reinstated their butler service.

More than 120 years after it originally opened its doors and one year after that famous £220-million restoration, we met Sean Davoren Head Butler at The Savoy, to talk about the role of the modern-day butler.

Imagine the dry yet adorable Carson in the hugely successful Downton Abbey, the witty yet chary Jeeves in Jeeves and Wooster, or the humourless but unswervingly loyal Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs. These remarkable characters came to mind when we met Sean, but he is quick to dispel these stereotypes. However, before we talk about the life of a modern-day Carson to the world’s rich and famous, we just had to ask Sean what he thought about Downton Abbey?” His response was a delightful eruption of affection: “I love it!”.

Love it he might, but relate to the lives of the characters he does not. “The role of the butler has not changed per se, the level of service remains the same, but modern attitudes have – of course – changed,” he explains. “A butler in modern-day Britain would not necessarily stay with one family for their entire working life. Today’s families and guests require a level of independence, which we butlers must know how to accommodate. For example, butlers no longer ‘dress’ their employer, but we would lay an outfit on the bed in readiness for an important event.” Another major difference is that the role is now open to and popular with women.

The Savoy Hotel London
An early image of The Savoy hotel. Photo © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy

As Sean explains the changes, a female member of his 26-strong butlering team – Jocelyn – pours tea into a perfectly positioned cup (handle at 45 degrees to the guest), with military precision. “The role used to be entirely male dominated. Now it is fashionable for a lady to have a male butler and a gentleman to have female butler.” More generally, the role of the butler is growing in popularity and the profession is attracting more and more young people from all over the world, although many of the The Savoy’s butlers are, in fact, English.

The origins of the role date back to the 16th and 17th centuries (the word ‘butler’ derives from the ancient French and ultimately Latin word ‘bouteleur’ meaning cup bearer). But it was during the 19th century, particularly the Victorian era, that the number of domestic servants increased, greatly, and the role of the butler evolved from the the ‘cup bearer’ into a senior member of the household staff and management role.

One thing that remains largely unchanged is the uniform. Explains Sean: “I’m wearing a traditional uniform with a modern twist. Generally, a butler would have worn a morning suit – a black coat and grey waistcoat with striped trousers and black shoes until 6pm. The cut and style of my suit is very similar to that original design. But the traditional butler would change into a dinner suit at 6pm, whereas our specially tailored suits with these gold pin-stripes are worn throughout the day and evening.” Sean looks immaculate, but we can’t help but notice that a button of his waistcoat is undone.

“The last button of the butler’s waistcoat is always left open” explains Sean. This trend was set by Prince Albert – who was so very overweight that he could not fasten the last button of his waistcoat, so he wore it open. And, as a consequence, it became fashionable and has become part of a butler’s uniform.

When The Savoy first opened in 1889, it was the height of modernity and the first hotel to have electric lights, lifts and en-suite bathrooms. As the hotel now celebrates its first full year following that impressive restoration, it’s clear that the reinstated butler service is today’s equivalent to modernity – a wonderful nostalgic return and a taste of traditional Britain.

Today’s butler service is a fine balance of reserved British tradition mixed with the modern desire to be pampered in style.

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