United Kingdom

How the super rich stay pampered in the pandemic, by the staff catering for their every whim

No one knows the lifestyle impact of the pandemic on the wealthy in Britain better than Lucy Challenger.

If you need someone to serve tea, polish the silver, press table linens and drive you to Harrods, Lucy’s company Polo & Tweed, a recruitment agency for the ultra wealthy, can help.

It has more than 15,000 nannies, chauffeurs, housekeepers and butlers on its books, all of whom are trained in the many kinds of jobs required by the super-rich. But when Covid-19 happened, Lucy’s phone began to ring with very unusual requests.

‘One lady in Chelsea couldn’t change her loo roll,’ she says. ‘To be fair, she did have quite a complex one, not just a slide-off-and-on one.’

Lucy Challenger (pictured) who owns recruitment agency Polo & Tweed, has more than 15,000 nannies, chauffeurs, housekeepers and butlers on her books 

‘How do you wash wool?’ was another question. ‘Can you put different colours in together?’ Another lady didn’t know where the vacuum cleaner was kept, so she ordered a new one from Amazon.

When the country went into lockdown in March, Government guidelines stated only key workers could go into work. That did not include home help — until the rules were relaxed in May.

The rich were suddenly being faced with the task of doing their own cleaning.

Lucy is sympathetic. ‘If you are dealing with a house that has more than 40 bedrooms, for example, or looking after luxury linens, silks and cashmeres, these are specialist skills and, unless you’ve been shown how to do it, you may not know what to do,’ she says. ‘It was new territory for everyone.’

For example, marble should be wiped with a damp cloth, not scrubbed with a scourer, which is what one of Lucy’s clients used to remove the hair dye she’d dropped in her luxury bathroom. ‘The photos we saw. Yeah, I felt very bad for her.’

Much of Polo & Tweed’s work now happens on screens, with Zoom calls and an ‘online learning platform’, which takes clients through basics such as how to make a bed and open a wine bottle.

These are families who are never normally in one place for long, Lucy explains. If they don’t like winter, they fly towards summer. When they tire of the city, they go the country, and vice-versa. They have no idea about what’s in their multi-million-pound kitchen. And suddenly they’re having to hunt for the frying pan.

‘Even basics such as the dishwasher and washing machines, it’s not often the owners would know how to use them,’ says Claire Reddington, 47, a house manager, ‘And it’s all so techie now. It’s not just turn the dial and put it on at 30c. They literally had no idea.’

Lucy revealed lockdown has led to an emphasis on live-in staff to protect families. Pictured: Housekeeper Alexandra Parker-Larkin

Thankfully, says Lucy, Lockdown 2.0 has been different to the first in that domestic staff have been allowed to go to work. However, this does not mean routines for the rich have gone back to what they were before. Covid has gone right to the heart of the homes of the ultra-wealthy, too, changing their entire lifestyles.

First, the emphasis is now on live-in staff, to protect the family, says Lucy. It’s a social order that’s being revived in the time of Covid, a throwback to the world of Downton Abbey when staff were always expected to live in.

The Queen is said to have wanted staff to stay locked in the Sandringham bubble for four weeks over Christmas, away from their families and loved ones.

‘Normally you have a bit of a divide between families and staff, but we’ve had reports of staff being invited to join the families for dinner, or to sit down and have a drink with family. It’s become almost like a world war situation — we’re in this together!’ says Lucy.

One lady didn’t know where the vacuum cleaner was kept, so she ordered a new one 

Except, this is not the case for staff being asked to do twice as much work. ‘Before the pandemic, when bags of shopping arrived, the housekeeper would just unload everything. Now hours are being spent with anti-bacterial sprays, “anti-baccing” everything, outside, before it even gets into the house.

‘A lot of families also did big clear-outs during the first lockdown,’ she continues. ‘Whereas staff would do deep cleaning every couple of months, suddenly it was the whole house. Everything was taken out, all the cupboards were emptied. Big skips were being called to empty all these storage areas.’

With the new emphasis on multi-tasking, nannies who cook, and housekeepers who are trained beauticians are at a premium. ‘They do hair, make-up, waxing, everything, like a glam squad!’ says Lucy. ‘You’re not allowed to have a personal stylist going into your home, but if that person is already working for your family, you are literally sitting pretty for all your Zoom meetings,’ she says.

Erren Nathaniel Gem, 31, (pictured) revealed his last job was three months ago because big parties are on hold and housekeepers are filling in as chefs 

Erren Nathaniel Gem, 31, has paid the price for being a live-out chef. Before the pandemic, he worked regularly for two families, preparing ‘big shebangs’ of up to 70 people. His specialism: Italian and Japanese. But as big parties are on hold and housekeepers are filling in as chefs, work has been scarce. His last job was three months ago. ‘I had to have a Covid test, wear a mask and keep everything a lot cleaner than usual,’ he says.

Some chefs even have to wear full PPE — masks and visors — in communal areas; disposable gloves as well. They are required to change their clothes as soon as they step into the family home in order not to bring in any pathogens.

Christmas is always a busy time for any private chef, but the regulations have made large parties a thing of the past. ‘People are going for more extravagance, but in a smaller fashion,’ says Lucy.

Erren is booked for an event on December 13. ‘The family have houses in London and the countryside as well. So I will go with them to their farm, shoot some birds — pheasants, quails — then cook them. It’s from farm to table.’

Hebe Silva, 50, is happy to live in, but even the rich are now constrained by a lack of space. As a full-time maternity nurse, her job consists entirely of looking after newborns: changing nappies; burping; bathing; waking the baby for a feed every two-and-a-half hours (around half of mothers breast feed) and laundry.

She offered to work full-time for one family. But Covid meant ‘Daddy’ had to work at home and wanted the spare room as his office. ‘Grandmother was in the nursery because she couldn’t go back to her country. They didn’t have space for me to live in.

Hebe Silva, 50, (pictured) who is a maternity nurse, revealed wealthy families prefer staff to be without children or partners 

‘It was very unusual because most of the clients I work for have huge houses, but because of Covid they didn’t have enough space.’

So she worked nights, looking after the baby in ‘Daddy’s’ office which had a desk, sofa bed and a nappy changing table. But after five weeks they ended her contract. ‘They didn’t want me to be on public transport.’

She found another job in July which has just ended, again nights only. She is lucky, she says, in that she is single and lives alone. Families prefer staff to be without children or partners, the very minimum of family ties (and contagion risk), she explains.

‘When I signed the contract in July, part of the agreement was that I wouldn’t attend church, wouldn’t go out with friends, wouldn’t go to restaurants and gatherings.’ There is pressure for live-out staff not to mingle and socialise even on their days off.

Families also want staff to live within walking distance of their homes. ‘But this is not always possible as families live in expensive areas.’ She was lucky. Her last job was a 40-minute walk away.

‘It’s really affecting me because I have a family and I can’t live in, says Louis Francis, 41, a private chef, who lives in Romford, East London, with his wife and their daughter, aged 12.

The contract stipulated that I wouldn’t attend church, that I wouldn’t go out with friends 

He used to work for several private clients in Holland Park and Kensington and now works as a breakfast chef in a restaurant in Victoria. ‘But even that is now in lockdown. Thank God, my wife is a GP. She’s the main breadwinner and we’re surviving,’ he says.

In some ways, life for the rich is unchanged as they have always walled themselves off from the outside world with private planes and limousines with tinted windows. Not being allowed to go to the cinema or gym isn’t a problem when you have already installed both in the dug-out basement of your townhouse.

‘One client even installed a pick’n’mix for their cinema, an entire room with funnels of sweets, a popcorn maker and fizzy drinks, so they can have the full cinema experience,’ says Lucy.

‘But the big impact on everyone is travel,’ she says. ‘The majority of our clients travel extensively and, of course, that has stopped pretty much. Many clients feel frustrated that even if they have a private jet they still have to follow quarantine laws.’

Peter Lowell, 56, (pictured) who is a butler, revealed his income has dramatically decreased because of covid 

Peter Lowell, 56, a house manager/butler, used to work for several foreign-based families when they visited their properties in London. But families aren’t travelling as they used to.

His clients are in Europe, Russia, China and the Middle East. Peter’s work has more than halved. ‘My income this year has dramatically decreased because of Covid.’ He used to collect clients from the airport, cook (grilled sea bass with beurre noisette for one client in particular), clean, serve — anything from tea and coffee, to cocktails — valet their clothes and schedule dinners.

One gentleman would always try to get to the Savoy Grill, even if he was on a short stay.

Now his work is mainly supervisory — to check on the skeleton staff still living in his clients’ empty homes. There always needs to be someone in the house, he explains, ‘because of the value of paintings and things inside’.

So even if the family are in lockdown elsewhere, their other homes need people in them. It’s cheaper to have a housekeeper than have your art stolen. 

‘One gentleman has five amazing chandeliers,’ says Peter. ‘And I’ve been there when those chandeliers are cleaned. He doesn’t want anything to happen to them.’

To clean a chandelier, you have to take it apart, spray mild detergent on a damp cloth and gently polish each and every crystal droplet. Reassembly requires white gloves. The whole thing takes hours. ‘They get cleaned every three months,’ he says.

Housekeepers who are trained beauticians are at a premium. They do hair, make-up, waxing, everything, like a glam squad 

He is also on stand-by for advice. ‘The gentleman from China phoned and said: “Peter, how do I tell my housekeeper how to iron my shirt?” His housekeeper doesn’t have that much experience of ironing double-cuff shirts. So I did a Zoom video with her to show her how to do it.’

Zoran Ostojic, 51, a chauffeur used to work for a family of Middle Eastern royals when they visited their properties in London and Surrey. ‘The family is huge — uncles, nephews, children and every household has a couple of cars,’ he says. ‘Rolls-Royces, Range Rovers, Ferraris, Bugattis. I was lucky to be in the garage where they were all parked.’

He used to chauffeur the family on personal and state visits — to Buckingham Palace, Westminster, and so on. But his most memorable journeys were to a bakery in Notting Hill. ‘I used to go to The Hummingbird Bakery to pick up six muffins and take them from London to Newmarket. It’s the jet set who can afford this, but at the moment none of these things is happening.’ He thinks families are now getting Ocado deliveries like the rest of us.

Zoran Ostojic, 51, (pictured) who is a chauffeur, revealed he's on furlough because the family he worked for reduced their staff during lockdown 

For the past five years he has been chauffeur to one with homes in Park Lane, Hampstead and Delhi. ‘They have two cars, both S-Class Mercedes. The family went into complete lockdown in their Hampstead home. The only person they kept on is the housekeeper. My boss decided to drive himself. I’m on furlough,’ he says.

Claire Reddington suspects her former client, a businessman, is adapting well to lockdown.

(She was made redundant just before the pandemic struck. ‘They were spending less time in London, and more time in the U.S. and their country estate and did not need someone on my salary in a house that had no one in it.’)

‘He was one of the most understated human beings, says Claire. ‘He loved soup, flowers from Waitrose, and an occasional dinner at the Ritz. His wife, however, was more demanding.

‘When he was on his own we could have part-time housekeepers.’ But when the lady was in residence they needed a full staff on duty to cater for her needs.

‘She was always so active, always popping out seeing people. She’d change her clothes three times a day, from gym-wear to day-wear and then she always went out in the evening. So we’d have to rehang her clothes, turn her washing around within 24 hours, and wash her make-up brushes every time she used them.’

He was happy to have his bed sheets changed every two days; she wanted them changed every day. ‘And they are the biggest beds known to man and the mattresses are so heavy. Even Mo Farah would break out in a sweat.’

But Covid has been a time of reassessment and reflection. One client in the Middle East, where he is currently based, has decided to renovate all his homes.

‘He is too scared to travel, even though he has a private jet and is spending millions and millions, basically, just redoing all his properties,’ says Lucy, ‘I think he has at least four in the UK, and then across Europe, Switzerland and in Riyadh and Jeddah.’

Polo & Tweed has also been catering for people moving out of London for a more wholesome life in the Home Counties.

‘There’s a sense of wanting to live off grid,’ she says. This doesn’t mean sowing a few seeds in the corner of the garden. There are no limits to what money and a gardener can make happen. ‘I was sent photos by a client and she had what looked like a Kew Gardens greenhouse, as well as landscaped rows of vegetables, an orchard, and an ancient orchard next to that. I don’t even know what an ancient orchard is, but it looked incredible.’

It will keep them self-sufficient for years. While the rest of us are counting the days until a vaccine, the super-rich are looking at being able to pull down the hatches, making very sure they are never caught out having to switch on their own dishwasher or clean their own marble again.

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