Royal wedding: what the butler saw
Telegraph Expat talks to a former Royal footman, now running a
‘school for butlers’ in New York, to get his opinion on the royal wedding.
Had it been any other day then I would have been mildly irritated by the fact that my long-distance phone interviewee, former Royal footman Christopher Ely, was distracted by his television. But the fact that he was watching the royal wedding and giving a running commentary on such things as the bride’s dress (“very feminine, simple train, appropriate. Diana’s was bling, but that was the eighties”) and the couple’s “just married” drive around Buckingham Palace in the Prince of Wales’s blue Aston Martin (“bit cheesy, but what a beautiful car”) made it forgiveable— and even insightful.
After all, here is a man who started working for the Royal family on his 18th birthday and knows better than most the royal way of doing things. In fact, three decades of private service working not only for the Royal family but also for the late, great American socialite Brooke Astor, a sheik and a Hollywood movie director, has inspired Ely to start his very own Manhattan-based school to teach our genteel English mores to 21st century wannabe-butlers. Based at the International Culinary Centre, his Estate Management Studies course aims to provide household staff with the expertise necessary to manage modern-day residences. “It’s not a stuffy butler school where we dress you up as penguins but rather somewhere that turns out professionals with real skills, where you learn how to take care of things and do things properly. “I remember serving the royal family at Balmoral and at the end of service picking up a china fruit bowl from the table with just one hand. “It had been hand-painted by Sir Edwin Landseer, one of Queen Victoria’s favourite animal painters, and it broke in my hand. “I was dreading telling the yeoman of the glass pantry that I had broken it, particularly as he was a fiery Scotsman, but he simply said ‘You’ve never been shown how to handle china, have you?’ I hadn’t, so he showed me. And that’s how I train.”
The initial, technique-based training courses include Essentials of Household Cleaning and Organisation, Culinary Essentials for Household Staff, and Laundry Essentials for Household Staff. The courses cover everything from making the perfect bed to clothing maintenance and organising dinner parties. Chris Ely’s own training started after the well-connected principal of Thanet Technical College in Kent, where he studied hotel and restaurant management, put him forward for a footman’s position at Buckingham Palace.
Not long after being shown to his windowless bedroom on the footman’s floor and being handed his various uniforms, he found himself serving the Queen and her guests their dinner, meeting and greeting, sorting the mail and setting up the evening drinks service for the household. “I remember the Queen seemed to rather like mangoes, as well as profiteroles. To be honest the food at Buckingham Palace in the eighties was rather staid, always the same old stuff. It was well before the time of celebrity chefs and new wave cuisine.”
With the wedding ceremony via his television set in New York triggering memories of his four-year Royal service, he recounted the Buckingham Palace preparations for Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding and gave me an anecdote reflecting Diana’s
influence in awakening the royals to the sensitivities of the general public.
“Before their wedding, presents and deliveries were constantly arriving at the side entrance to Buckingham Palace. This door was forever called the Trade’s Entrance, but the couple insisted it be changed to Side Door as not to get up people’s noses,” he said.
It was this very Side Door that Ely remembers crawling towards after being run over by a speeding BMW as he crossed Buckingham Palace Road; although with typical British stoicism, he made it to that evening’s cocktail party service. His schedule, as the Royal calendar dictated, took him to all of the family’s residences and yachts, during which time he got to know the family and their homes relatively well. “I used to help out with dinner at Kensington Palace and got to know Diana. I really liked her. She was very natural, very
friendly. “I remember one night both she and Princess Grace of Monaco were together in the 1844 room at Buckingham Palace, both with their beautiful translucent white skin. They looked incredible.
“I also liked Princess Anne. She got a bad press but I found her straightforward. You asked her a question and you got an answer, there was never any fussing with her. “She was also the most hardworking out of all of them, with the most engagements. She did her duty and kept her end up.” As for the houses, his favourite was Buckingham Palace because of its location in the heart of London, while his least favourite was Sandringham. He said: “Norfolk in winter was never the best place to be. The family went there to kill animals but for us there wasn’t a lot to do and the house wasn’t the most comfortable to work in.
“The funniest thing I ever saw at Sandringham was when one of the pages was carrying a flaming Christmas pudding to the table. “He was tall and lanky with skinny arms. The flames were getting out of control and nearly engulfing him so he tried to keep it at arm’s length but was struggling because of the weight. “You should have seen the face of the Queen Mother as she tried to dodge out of the way when she realised he was heading
towards her.” Edinburgh Castle he liked because it was steeped in history and the schedule, staying only for one week, was easy. The four week stay at Balmoral was quite long enough, he said, with little to do off-duty except drink.
“As for serving on a Royal yacht, that was always hilarious. You’d all be zig-zagging along the deck carrying trays of whatever, trying to move in motion with the boat,” he said.
Ely is quick to defend a career in service and in doing so highlights an interesting cultural difference between the UK and US. “If any one ever asked the Queen how many servants she had she would always reply: ‘I don’t have servants I have staff ’.
“I always respected her for that. She wouldn’t be able to do her job without us and if you think about it, we are all subservient to someone, unless of course you are on top of the pile.
“That’s the problem with America—no one wants to be in a subservient position, and rich people get embarrassed about having staff. “In the UK there is a class system and we are comfortable with it, whereas in the US the professional line can get muddied, especially in private houses where staff start to think ‘these people are my friends’ but they are not.
“This is one of the things I try to teach.” Ironically it is partly this blurring of the class lines, with the now-Duke of Cambridge marrying a commoner, which has made the royal wedding so popular in the country Ely now calls home. “People here think that it could happen to them, that’s what makes it so special,” he said.
© 2018 Christopher Ely. All rights reserved.