An encounter with Tasmania's only freelance butler
Not many are in a position to avail themselves of such an individual these days. But those who are may well engage the services of Simon McInerney, Tasmania’s only freelance butler and one of an elite few in Australia.
Contrary to expectations, the role of butler is not entirely a fiction from a PG Wodehouse novel, nor is it condemned to history. Butlers are alive and well and keeping up with modern times in private houses across the world. This is made clear to me as Simon and I take tea from Royal Albert china in his Launceston home.
The old style of butler service continues in aristocratic houses such as Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, the country seat of a 5,000 acre estate where Simon and his wife Robyn worked early in their careers.
Highclere is owned by the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and is a place steeped in tradition, with housekeeping customs set in stone. During the winter shooting season the family and guests are serviced by up to thirty gun loaders and beaters, as well as indoor staff.
It was Simon’s responsibility to bring together an opulent lunch for guests with full table service, silverware and historic chinaware, while also ensuring that the outdoor teams were catered for at the back of the castle with a hearty cook’s stew. The upkeep of long-held traditions were not to be trifled with, such as when the long-serving gamekeeper stood at the back of the house at the end of the day, and received a cup of tea handed to him through a window.
Oddly, such customs have enabled the castle to survive into the modern era, being one of the features for which the estate is offered for hire, for corporate events and weddings. While it’s important not to get any wedding wrong, says Simon, with the reputation at stake and the hire cost adding a few noughts beyond the price tag of an average nuptial, you definitely can’t make any mistakes with a Highclere wedding.
The famed butler’s discretion was tested to the max by such modern events. In the run-up to one high profile wedding at Highclere, cheque book journalists offered Simon a deposit on a house back in Australia for a ‘tell-all’ story. Staff who give in to such temptation never work in the industry again, he says, with Jeeves-like inscrutability.
Highclere was later used as the location shoot for television series Downton Abbey and whilst the plot didn’t hold much appeal, Simon was briefly entertained by the opportunity to revisit the interiors, recalling how much the furniture was worth and hoping that the television crew had taken care when moving it.
The advent of electricity and modern conveniences since the Downton era has seen off the need for household staff almost entirely. In the nineteenth century, Highclere had a full staff including chambermaids whose responsibility was purely to service fireplaces. In the 1930s, the castle had one of the first internal heating systems in England installed, and now might run on just a handful of a permanent staff.
When Simon and Robyn moved on to a weekend residence in Oxfordshire owned by a high profile couple in the entertainment industry, a new and completely different interpretation of the butler’s role was required. For this household, the pair established the conventions of service, and the role was broader – not merely serving dinner but managing diet preferences, turning a discrete deaf ear to media-worthy stories that cropped up in conversations, figuring out why the email wasn’t working and configuring a state-of-the-art sound system.
The need for discretion and ability to be an easy presence remains a constant, says Simon. It’s important to know how to maintain a human face and a personality, but not join in the conversation, when to leave a room and when to stay in it. There is no space for awkwardness, whether the master or mistress of the house is in their underwear or full business attire.
Now firmly ensconced back in his native Tasmania, Simon sees ample opportunity within the luxury travel sector, providing a seamless travel experience for high profile and net worth individuals who wish to have a secluded ‘below the radar’ visit, and for whom helicopter is the quickest and most convenient form of transport. The butler is the obvious choice of personnel to ensure resorts such as Saffire are liaised with, and travel plans are smoothed at every turn in the road, or air space.
Tasmania’s gourmet food and beverage sector lends itself to this heightened experience and Simon keeps a foot firmly in relevant doors. On Mondays he hosts at Delamere Vineyard’s cellar door in Pipers River, keeping up with the vintages. Often he’ll meet with visiting mainland sommeliers as they select wines for multi-hatted restaurant lists. Simon holds his own in such conversations having worked in European households where the cellars were extraordinary, and tasting a wine before it went to table was an essential part of the job. He is on the Board of award winning Harvest Launceston farmers’ market alongside the region’s premier restaurant owners and artisan food producers. And he presents exquisite morning and afternoon teas for private parties around northern Tasmania.
Finally, he has what is perhaps Australia’s most exclusive ‘fly-in-fly-out’ role, that of butler-on-call at the country residences of Melbourne and Sydney based clients. To them, Tasmania is a rich seam of desirable experiences and Simon takes pleasure in exhorting them to visit, this being the only true way to experience the island state’s produce and pleasures. The butler, it seems, has turned ambassador.
Learn more about Simon McInerney's services at www.simonmcinerney.com
A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2017/2018 edition of Tasmania 40 South magazine.
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Fiona Stocker is an English author and freelance writer living in Tasmania.