The last of England’s grand butlers, 1971

<span>Will that be all Sir?: ‘Howes abetted his employer by serving an entire meal backwards.’</span><span>Photograph: Chris Smith</span>
Will that be all Sir?: ‘Howes abetted his employer by serving an entire meal backwards.’Photograph: Chris Smith

In 1971, the Observer bade farewell not just to Edward Howes – the second-last ‘genuinely grand’ butler in England – but to a whole way of life.

Howes entered service in 1928 aged 15 as a ‘hall boy’ in Eaton Square. It was another time in many ways: manservants had to be at least 6ft tall and were forbidden to wear glasses, shoes were polished with a bone, and clothes were folded, never hung. ‘Coat hangers are recent,’ he said.

Explaining how he came to work for Sir Michael Duff, aged 21, Howes used the language of quasi-possession. ‘I was Sir Michael’s first servant of his own… Lady Juliet… decided I would do for her son.’

The two seem to have rubbed along happily for the intervening decades. ‘He’s been a good friend,’ Howes said of his employer. Sir Michael was ‘very wealthy and very eligible and we went to stay at every great house in England’. There were ‘glittering parties’ and high-profile encounters (the Prince of Wales ‘always had too much cuff showing’). Howes was promoted to butler at 27, married at 33 and settled in a ‘solid house, of style and size’ in the grounds of Duff’s North Wales mansion, Vaynol, until the war.

After war work in a factory, it was back to business as usual for Howes, albeit with a skeleton staff. If ‘outside, the old social order was peeling’, inside, the fun wasn’t quite over. Howes abetted his employer by serving an entire meal backwards (‘liqueurs to start, soup to finish’) to tease the local gentry and welcomed the royal family to Vaynol on a short-notice visit: ‘the greatest thrill of his working life’.

Of course, Howes served at his own retirement party. Having replied to his employer’s toast (‘his emotion was admirably regulated just enough to show’), he gave ‘Two signals: one to the footmen to resume table service, the other, invisible but equally obvious, to the guests to return to the natural order of things’.