More servants than the Crawleys of Downton Abbey

By Paul Little

Although modern-day servants might not live under our roofs, Paul Little argues some households employ more help than the owners of Downton Abbey.
The average person today has more servants than the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. Photo / Supplied
The average person today has more servants than the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand has never been home to much of a servant class - it is, after all, where DIY went to die - but ­hiring others to do chores, gardening, shopping, looking after your kids and buying clothes is increasingly becoming the norm.

The average person today has more servants available to do things they could do perfectly well for themselves than the Crawleys of Downton Abbey, according to a story in the International Business Times, which surveyed the global growth of the on-demand ­economy.

Thank - or blame - technology, particularly smart-phone technology and apps, which can connect people who have something to fetch or carry with people to do the fetching and carrying almost instantaneously, and at a low price.

One of the best established on-demand services is online ­supermarket shopping, which Countdown has now been providing for 20 years.

In Downton Abbey terms, Tony Petrie, the company's national ­online manager, is your contemporary Mrs Carson, the housekeeper who - among other duties - kept the larder at Downton stocked on the advice of the cook, Mrs ­Patmore.

The main change Petrie has noticed is that the online ­customer base has grown to include just about everyone, because the ­technology has become almost universally available.

And if you wonder why you see staff wearing T-shirts explaining that they are shopping for online customers pushing trolleys along the aisles, that's because the company wants to emphasise that online shopping is just as much a human experience as getting in the car and going to the store.

"We do a lot in training the team to make sure if they wouldn't buy it they don't pick it," says Petrie.

"They are taking the place of a human so they have to think like one." So if it's in the store it can be bought online, and at the same price including specials.

Cecilia Robinson, My Food Bag fills the role of Mrs Patmore, the cook. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Cecilia Robinson, My Food Bag fills the role of Mrs Patmore, the cook. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Cecilia Robinson is ­founder and group ­co-CEO of My Food Bag - better known to you as Mrs Patmore the cook.

My Food Bag has quickly established itself in a niche that few ­realised existed, providing home-delivered menus and the ingredients with which to prepare them for the time-poor.
The trick here is coming up with meals that will appeal to a broad range of people.

"The recipe creation process in incredibly complex," says ­Robinson.

"It's done through extensive planning but also through listening to customers and their feedback following their meals. You don't have wildly polarising meals - so no liver. We've got the ability for customers to tell us about their ­reaction every single week, and the eight of us in the leadership team review every meal every week."

As a supplement to My Food Bag, the modern day Daisy Mason, ­assistant cook at Downton, has her closest equivalent in Paul Duncan, who, like Daisy, is sometimes ­allowed into the kitchen.

His Anise Catering is the com­pany that comes to your house and throws your dinner party for you.

He'd had enough of working in fancy restaurants, instead launching his service about two years ago on treatme.co.nz.

"I did a deal for a five-course degustation in your own home and it sold out," says ­Duncan.

"It was all word of mouth from there."

A large part of his business is "birthdays and wedding anniversaries, and special family events.

"I also get a lot of parents with young children who haven't been able to go out since the baby ­arrived. It saves them money - by the time they have gone out and paid for their meal, a baby sitter and taxis, it's cheaper."

And if you'd care for some wine with that, Debbie Sutton and Yvonne Lorkin of Wine Friend can help.

They are the online Mr ­Carson, butler in charge of the Downton Abbey cellar.

"Unlike other wine clubs or online retailers," says Sutton, "where if you and your neighbour sign up you get the same, we personalise every case to your individual taste."

Newbies fill out an eight-­question survey to narrow their tastes down before the first order. "We curate the first selection then we refine it according to the feedback."

To her surprise, the service, which was launched last October, has a lot of winemakers on the list. "I thought they were checking us out, but they are really engaged ­because they tend to live in rural ­areas, where there may not be a good wine shop."

After all that food and wine you might need the services of a house maid, like Gwen Harding to clean up the worst of the mess, which is where on-demand darlings the Morning After Maids, Cat Ashurst and Rebecca Foley, come in - ­literally.

Morning After Maids Cat Ashurst and Rebecca Foley match Downton's Gwen Harding. Photo / Nick Reed
Morning After Maids Cat Ashurst and Rebecca Foley match Downton's Gwen Harding. Photo / Nick Reed

They only do weekends, and only clean up after parties. But they'll bring you hangover food and coffee.

They have taken on two more maids recently.

They weren't thinking point of difference, when they began, ­merely building on what they knew.

"We've both got dogs and everyone loves our little dogs so we ­decided to take them with us. That turned into them being the ­Morning After Mascots."

Still, party aftermath has to be pretty yucky, right?

"Food that has gone gross just wigs me out," says Ashurst. "So Becs deals with that.
"Some people won't be able to deal with blood or spew. That's when you team everyone up with the right personality so everyone can do the job."

Ashurst is clearly a non-­judgmental people person.

"The weekend before last we had a fabulous guy, covered head to toe in something. We couldn't work out what it was, but it was all over his very expensive suit.
"He kept dancing and was singing to us."

In the Downton hierarchy there are people who spend more time upstairs than downstairs, one of whom is Miss O'Brien the senior ­lady's maid whose local equivalent is Yvette Hopkins, the Bespoke Dresser.

Yvonne Lorkin and Debbie Sutton of Wine Friend know their wines like Mr Carson. Photo / Supplied
Yvonne Lorkin and Debbie Sutton of Wine Friend know their wines like Mr Carson. Photo / Supplied

She'd be unlikely to use such a shopworn phrase, but ­Hopkins is all about dressing for success.

Some personal stylists are ­attached to shopping malls, which severely limits their choices, but Hopkins is independent and has a background of many years in high-end fashion that has left her with an unbeatable range of contacts.

Her customers "can go into private dressing rooms at Louis ­Vuitton or have a VIP experience at Gucci.

"I have a really tight list of suppliers who I've vetted that regularly get mystery shopped to make sure their service meets my standard."

How far will she go for a client? To Europe, if necessary.

"There was a bit of a let-down with a courier on one occasion and rather than having a piece missing from an ensemble for a wedding I booked a flight and hand-delivered a jacket to the bride."

But if you just want a jacket picked up from home and dropped off at work, Urban Sherpa is the app for you, filling the role of Downton's first footman Thomas Barrow.

Founder Brian Dewil explains: "Essentially we respond to people's requests to purchase on their ­behalf or to pick up purchased goods."

Since the service was launched in June last year, more people are using it for every-day errands.

"We've had people say, 'Here's the key to my house. Go into my bedroom, open the wardrobe, get the third jacket on the left, then lock the house behind you and bring it back'."

It's not just about laziness or ­forgetfulness. "There have been people who couldn't leave the house because of problems with ­diarrhoea who needed medication.

"We've had people stranded in Starship many times. I used it myself when I was in hospital two weeks ago with appendicitis. I came out of surgery and was ­hungry so I got Urban Sherpa to bring me takeaways."

It would seem a natural fit for drivers working for Uber, the on-demand taxi service, but not so, according to Dewil.

"There's a big difference between the Uber driver and the on-­demand delivery driver. The first one is used to sitting in the car, going from A to B, not having to park.

"The Urban Sherpa driver is dealing with parking, restaurant ­customers, tight timelines. Uber drivers see it as too hard work."

As well as the services above, you can employ people in New Zealand to choose and hang your Christmas decorations, come to your home to give you a work-out, wash, dry, iron and fold your ­laundry and do your knitting.

Among other things.

That the work is done on demand is the key factor in the growth of many of these businesses.

The people doing the work aren't employed. Unlike Mrs Patmore and the other Downton staff, who at least had a roof over their heads and three inferior meals a day, the modern servant class have no ­security of tenure.

Bill Newson, the equivalent to Downton chauffeur Tom Branson.
Bill Newson, the equivalent to Downton chauffeur Tom Branson.

Bill Newson is national ­secretary of E Tu, the ­umbrella union representing a wide range of workers.

Think of him as Tom Branson - the former chauffeur and Irish socialist in Downton Abbey. He has a downbeat take on the on-­demand economy.

"What's happening is a huge shift from what we call high-value jobs for working people to more ­insecure, low-values jobs where the risk of employment is transferred basically from the employer to the employee," says Newson.

Although the official unemployment figure is 130,000, there are another 340,000 people in part-time work and registered as looking for more work to make a living income.

"In the meantime, they can pick up a few hours providing ­labour for the on-demand economy.

"You often hear it touted that the modern young workforce is liberated from the yoke of a life spent in one job and will have 15 careers," says Newson.

"The brutal reality is they'd love to have the security of a single well-paid job. So they can get things we take for granted like a mortgage or a hire purchase agreement.

"The freedom to move around is the freedom to take the crumbs that are thrown to them."

- Herald on Sunday

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