Goodwood House head butler David Edney tells us how his role differs from famous depictions

Goodwood House head butler David Edney (Photo by Jim Holden)

Goodwood House head butler David Edney (Photo by Jim Holden) - Credit: Jim Holden

If you have been to a black-tie event at Goodwood House, chances are it was presided over by head butler David Edney. David tells Sussex Life how today’s butlers differ from their famous literary and television depictions and how the Duke of Richmond never ceases to surprise him

Photo by Jim Holden

Photo by Jim Holden - Credit: Jim Holden

Is it any coincidence that we became so fascinated by the figure of the butler in film, literature and television just as their species was threatened with extinction?

In the 1920s mystery writer SS Van Dine wrote a set of rules for embryonic crime writers, one of them being that it was bad form to pin a murder on domestic staff – so ‘the butler did it’ was a cliché even then. But our appetite for manservants rattled on undiminished. PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves may have technically been a valet or “gentleman’s gentleman” but his duties certainly included buttling, while Beach, from the same writer’s Blandings Castle series, plays a pivotal role in many of the stories.

We have sighed over Kazuo Ishiguro’s emotionally constipated butler Stevens in The Remains of the Dayand had our cockles warmed by the later life romance between Downton Abbey’s Carson and housekeeper Mrs Hughes.

But what is life actually like for a modern day butler? Clearly, there is still a career to be had – the fascinating website was advertising 13 permanent positions at the time of writing. And while their duties may have changed somewhat, butlers still play a key role in the running of some large households, including the Goodwood Estate near Chichester. David Edney is head butler, responsible on a day-to-day basis for the operations in the house on the ground floor: that includes overseeing in the region of 125 events a year, ranging from dinners for 100 people and weddings to the Qatar Goodwood Festival Regency Ball and the Festival of Speed dinner for 1,650 people.

Photo by Jim Holden

Photo by Jim Holden - Credit: Jim Holden

David had worked in hotels and restaurants as a youngster but his first brush with silver service came when he was 21, and working on the QE2. From there he became a maitre’d on smaller boats, which enabled him to travel the world, before he joined Goodwood 21 years ago. At the time there were only about 100 staff, compared with 650 today. Since then, the Duke of Richmond has brought The Kennels, the motor circuit and the hotel – which had been a Marriott – under the auspices of the estate.

While David has undergone some vocational training in the field – and even spent a week at Buckingham Palace a few years ago shadowing staff – most of his expertise comes from experience and he takes his responsibilities in training younger members of staff very seriously. He trains all of the seasonal staff, culminating in a walk of the house, where they will be introduced to the Duke and Duchess – initially in portrait form: “It’s very important that they see them because they could be serving them a glass of champagne,” says David. “They also ask how do I address them and what should I say? We tell them they can say Sir or Ma’am or the correct address for the title is Your Grace.”

David set up a skills exchange programme to experience how service worked in other, similar environments: “I was fortunate enough to do a week’s work placement at Buckingham Palace. Whilst there, I experienced lunches, dinners, cocktail parties and served afternoon tea for several thousand people in the castle grounds, while working over the course of the week with the different yeoman of each area, including wine cellar, silver, glass and plate. I arranged for our team to visit the British Pullman, The Royal Yacht Squadron, Buckingham Palace, Highclere, Blenheim, Stansted House, Petworth House and Cowdray House. In return their teams came to us.”

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He says that there are some universal qualities required in the job: “You need to be a people person and presentation is very important. A good butler knows what a guest needs before they know it. “Just by walking from one end of the house to another you should be taking in lots of little details. For example if there is a chair underneath a painting it needs to be absolutely central. If there’s a clock on the mantelpiece it needs to be in the middle and of course it must be perfectly on time.

Photo by Jim Holden

Photo by Jim Holden - Credit: Jim Holden

“If you didn’t know these things you might walk through the house without even noticing but it’s all about little details like that. You should also do these things without being asked – it should come naturally and once you have that feeling you’re getting there.”

The Duke of Richmond has been a strong formative influence on him. “His passion for Goodwood and his attention to detail rubs off on everybody. It’s certainly rubbed off on me – he has been my biggest inspiration and I have learnt a lot from him. His late father was a fantastic fellow too and was instrumental in getting the estate back up and running.”

The Duke also has his own personal butler, Monty: “a really phenomenal butler – I like being in his presence because I always learn something.”

David thinks that people have certain perceptions of the way a country estate is run, partly because of programmes such as Downton Abbey, but he notes the various changes in the role since that period. “In those days the butler would have had a large team of staff, some of whom would never even have seen the family because they’d have been working below stairs. The head butler would have been entirely responsible for running the household, for managing the staff and making sure both front and back of house were running efficiently. He would have had under-butlers and footmen. Today, however, the butler will wear all of those hats and also act as a chauffeur, he might even have to cook in the chef’s absence, he’ll act as a valet, lay the table and polish the silver. The modern butler is a very different animal. Of course, times have changed as well for the person you’re working for...”

Naturally a butler needs a good working knowledge of the history of the estate, which in Goodwood’s case includes mastering the details of an extraordinary art collection including three Stubbs works painted at the estate. “One story enjoyed was about the second Duke, who was a disciplinarian for his staff being on time. He was always up at the crack of dawn and he’d been walking across the front of the house carrying a hay bale when he saw his staff coming in to work. It was just coming up to daylight so he congratulated them. Actually they were just coming back from the theatre!”

Although David doesn’t relate any similar shenanigans from his tenure, Goodwood still plays host to some riotous spectacles. Asked about his career highlights, he mentions a dinner for the Festival of Speed attended by one Dougie Lampkin, motorcyclist. “We’d just served dessert and Dougie rode into the house, came up on the table and sped down the table, the full length of the ballroom. He smashed all the decanters, went off the end and then rode up to the Minstrels’ Gallery. What the guests didn’t know was the decanters and glasses all along the table were all made of sugar, and it had all been choreographed.”

Whatever would Jeeves have to say?!


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