10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford's Ugly Secret
10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret

Tim Flight - April 13, 2018

At the oldest English-speaking university in the world, old habits die hard. The University of Oxford is renowned for its stubborn preservation of dogmatically-pointless traditions and rituals: the mayor tapping the medieval city walls at New College to check their soundness every year, the wearing of uncomfortable gowns for formal events such as exams (a recent plebiscite amongst students on this topic was overwhelmingly in favour of the outfit, known as sub-fusc), the annual day-long tortoise race at Corpus Christi College. Any alumnus of Oxford will tell you that partaking of such unusual traditions is tremendous fun.

However, not all traditions at the university are so wholesome or embraced by the modern institution. Long-reputed to be dominated by the upper classes despite its meritocratic entrance system, Oxford is embarrassed by the continuing presence of the Bullingdon Club, a society for only the richest, best-connected, and worst-behaved of students. Despite its former members including prominent politicians and monarchs, the ‘Buller’ has a history of vandalism, violence, vulgar displays of wealth, vehicular manslaughter… and vomiting. Though a society unrecognised by the university, Bullingdon dinners have gone down in Oxford folklore for their scale of destruction and incredible cost.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
The Bullingdon Crest, Oxford, mid-nineteenth century. Wikimedia Commons.

Early History

Though it swiftly changed its focus to general debauchery, the Bullingdon Club was founded in 1780 as a sporting club for noble students. Members hunted and played cricket, as reflected in the seldom-seen badge reproduced above, which depicts a huntsman on horseback alongside a wicket and cricket bat. The name ‘Bullingdon’ comes from the area of Oxford in which they kennelled their hounds and played home cricket matches; ironically, in recent years, a working-class district. Both early activities were exclusive, if uncontroversial: G.V. Cox noted that in 1805 cricket at the university was confined to the Bullingdon Club.

Depending upon the fluctuating fortunes of today’s English cricket team at the time of reading, it may not be unsurprising to note that the Bullingdon Club were not all that good at the sport. Bullingdon Green witnessed some dreadful results. In June 1795, the Buller lost to Marylebone Cricket Club by eight wickets, and in 1796 lost a match by two-hundred runs. To the many non-cricket fans of the world: these were sound thrashings, which would cause great embarrassment to the losing side. Nevertheless, an early member was Thomas Assheton Smith III, a fine amateur batsman and steam-yacht pioneer.

Assheton Smith was an all-round sportsman, and served as master of the famous Quorn Hunt in Leicestershire from 1806-1816, later establishing his own pack of hounds and earning the soubriquet of ‘the British Nimrod’. Records of hunting by the Bullingdon itself are unforthcoming, though the club remains a boisterous advocate of the sport. Hunting in general, and fox-hunting in particular, were popular throughout the university in the nineteenth century, with many students kennelling their own hounds in the city’s suburbs, which was frowned upon by the university which feared that undergraduates would be distracted by the thrill of the chase.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
A trashed student room, New Zealand. Stuff.co.nz

Becoming a Member

Opportunities to join the 10-to-20-strong, male-only, club are rare. To become a member of the Buller, you first have to be forwarded by a current member, who will vouch for your ‘soundness’. This more or less equates to your (preferably aristocratic) lineage, parents’ wealth, schooling, and appetite for debauchery. Current members will meet each year when an opening or two has become available, and debate the merits of each new candidate. However, should a student be lucky enough to be deemed a suitably ‘sound’ chap, they have to undergo an initiation, alike those for fraternities in the United States.

Traditionally, the unsuspecting oblate will return to their room after a day’s classes to find it in a state of utter disarray. Every piece of furniture will be meticulously broken, books torn to shreds, and clothes burned to ashes. Resplendent in the club’s finery (more on which later) will be two Bullingdon members, clutching a large pot of strong English mustard. They will then instruct the bemused chap to consume the entire pot in front of them, preferably without vomiting. If the task is successfully completed, the new member will be invited to a celebratory dinner.

In October 2017, The Cherwell student newspaper obtained a letter of invitation to a potential new Bullingdon member, which speaks of a different ritual. Dating from 2015, the handwritten letter instructs the proposed member to arrive at the Lamb & Flag pub (beloved by J.R.R. Tolkien) at 1.30 pm, dressed in an entirely-yellow outfit with a ‘plush squirrel toy’, diamond, and ‘smutty or left-wing publication’. They must then order five specified drinks, including a pint of champagne, in a predetermined order to be quaffed in front of current members, who will monitor the performance. It is ominously signed ‘The General’.

Details about the initiation ritual are sketchy due to the club’s policy of omertà. Although the last decade’s publicity has forced a loosening of Buller-lips, details are known only through hearsay, to the point that The Cherwell‘s document cannot be checked for authenticity; no members were forthcoming to comment. Other reported initiation rituals include the consumption of five bottles of champagne (making the pint-measure mentioned in the letter seem positively feeble) and the burning of a £50 note in front of a beggar. Vomiting is inevitable, and black trash bags with a hole in the bottom are kindly provided.

The Bullingdon is not alone at Oxford for its unusual initiation rituals. Most notoriously, David Cameron, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (and an ex-Bullingdon member; see below), was accused by a university friend of partaking in bestiality for another society, the Piers Gaveston. Lord Aschroft’s 2015 biography claimed that Cameron ‘put a private part of his anatomy’ into the mouth of a dead pig, an anecdote which Downing Street ‘would not dignify’ with a response. Not to be outdone, the Bullingdon are said to have made the next round of oblates carry out the same alleged deed.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
The Bullingdon in uniform, London. Evening Standard.

Tailors

Once a new member has been selected, recovered from their initiation, and arranged for the repair of their rooms, their next task is to purchase the club’s official outfit. The required items can only be purchased from a single tailor on Oxford’s High Street but, unlike other aspects of the club, the distinctive get-up is both widely-known and feared by landlords and restaurateurs alike. Published club rules from 1850 dictate that ‘the Uniform of the club shall consist of a Blue Tie, Blue Coat, Brass Buttons, Buff Waistcoat, [and] Blue Trousers’, and today’s Buller strictly adheres to these instructions.

The requirement for members to possess great personal wealth is not just outrageous snobbery but a practicality. The full complement of tailcoat, bowtie, and waistcoat costs a staggering £3, 500 ($4, 955 at the time of writing), and will be subject to all manner of food, alcohol, and bodily fluids over its lifetime. The tailor in question, Ede & Ravenscroft, was established in London in 1689, and its Oxford branch supplies academic dress along with its unofficial capacity as the Bullingdon-tailor. The company holds Royal Warrants to provide tailored items to the British Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth herself.

Although Ede & Ravenscroft refuse to discuss their dealings with the club, there is still a photograph from 1925 hanging in the Oxford shop, which shows a bewildering number of influential people in the Bullingdon uniform. The shop also serves as a Bullingdon archive, though again is reticent to discuss this aspect of its business. According to one whistleblower, a room at the back of the shop contains a photographic treasure-trove dating back 80 years, revealing many former members who wish to keep their involvement a secret. The shop removed its pictures of current politicians in Bullingdon gear in 2015.

It may come as a surprise that the Bullingdon, a supposedly-secret society subject to an omertà policy, has a designated outfit (and even a blue-and-white tie for less-official events) that openly reveals its members, but it seems content so long as its indiscretions are not revealed to the public. In the age of social media, the club’s clandestine aspirations are becoming harder to maintain. In February 2018, members of the club were videoed being kicked out of an Oxford University Conservative Association party. Although not wearing the official outfit, the chants of ‘Buller, Buller, Buller’ made this a non-issue.

At the same party, members were accused of sexually harassing and groping female partygoers, culminating in the welcome suspension of one of the accused from the OUCA. Shockingly, although the Trinity Hall Dean fumed that ‘however entitled you may feel about yourselves, there is absolutely no excuse for this behaviour’, a motion to ban Bullingdon members from the OUCA committee was defeated. It is not hard to link the appalling behaviour exhibited by the entitled upper-class members of the Bullingdon to the President’s Club scandal, which occurred almost simultaneously, in which wealthy men subjected waitresses to sexual harassment.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
The White Hart Pub, trashed by the Buller in 2005. Fyfield, Oxfordshire. TripAdvisor.

Dinners

The most important, and most notorious, events in the Buller calendar are dinners. Though food is involved, dinner itself is merely a footnote to the club’s wildest evenings. Attendance in the Bullingdon outfit is, of course, mandatory. Typically, a restaurant is booked under a pseudonym, and the club proceeds to drink the bar dry, in some cases take Class A drugs, and then trash the place. Glass is a favourite material for breaking, along with anything made of china. Despite the devastation, the Buller is renowned for paying its large bill along with any damage immediately, and in cash.

In its near-250-years of existence, the Bullingdon has had many such obnoxious evenings. The worst excesses are well-recorded, but even the more low-key dinners must live long in the memory of shuddering patrons faced with near-demolished premises. Among the most famous incidents took place at Christ Church’s Peckwater Quad which, on two occasions in 1894 and 1927, had the lights and each of its 468 windows smashed by the club. The University responded to the hooliganism by forbidding the club from meeting anywhere within 15-miles of the city. Appropriately, one Bullingdon motto is ‘I like the sound of breaking glass’.

On a balmy summer evening, having paid for all the damage to a restaurant, the ’87 class of the Buller decided to pay a visit to a fellow student. Pelting his window with anything that came to hand, and one even scaling a drainpipe to break in, matters swiftly escalated, and a flowerpot was mistakenly sent through the window pane of a restaurant below the student’s accommodation. The room’s frightened occupant called the police, and the jubilant Buller fled the scene. Some were located by police sniffer dogs, whilst two future politicians escaped altogether. Much more on them, later.

The most recent post-prandial calamity of note came in 2005. Unable to find a restaurant in Oxford willing to host their dinner, the Bullingdon managed to dupe the owner of a fifteenth-century inn in the village of Fyfield. Recounting the incident, the landlord gives an insight into the mode of the club: upon being received at the inn, members were astonishingly polite. Having finished their salmon starter, the Bullingdon proceeded to break everything and viciously fight one another. All in all, 17 bottles of champagne were smashed but, true to form, the Buller immediately settled for everything with the landlord.

Nevertheless, the landlord of the White Hart called the police, and four members, including Alexander Fellowes, Princess Diana’s nephew, spent the night in custody, and were fined £80 ($112 at the time of writing). Reflecting on the bizarre events, the landlord also observed that ‘each time I pulled one of them out of the melee they apologised to me and were extremely polite but then jumped right back in… it seemed like some kind of ritual’. This report makes it clear that vandalism is not merely an inevitable consequence of heavy drinking, but a mandatory part of a Bullingdon dinner.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
William Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress, 1735. Apollo Magazine.

Privilege and Prostitution

Prostitutes are a regular fixture at Bullingdon events. The annual ‘brekker’ (breakfast) is frequently attended by a clutch of prostitutes: ‘We always hire whores’, says Ralph Perry-Robinson, a veteran of the 1987 skirmish. ‘Prostitutes were paid extra by members who wanted to use them’. The main role of the prostitutes is to stand around and encourage the young men to drink themselves into a stupor (NB however the entry on Lord Randolph Churchill below). As with the ritualised restaurant-trashing and brawling discussed above, there a childish desire to behave badly according to conventional standards that underlies the invitation to prostitutes.

Prostitution has a long history in the city of Oxford. Magpie Lane, which runs beside Oriel College, was once known as ‘Grope Cunt Lane’ on account of the many brothels located therein. In the nineteenth century, there were so many prostitutes in Oxford, attracted to the city by the students, that the University’s Vice Chancellor appealed to Parliament to give him more powers for their detention. Prostitutes were incarcerated below the Clarendon Building on Broad Street until 1906, but this had mixed success: demand was so high that as soon as one group were imprisoned, new prostitutes arrived from London.

If the thought of an all-male club hiring prostitutes makes you scent misogyny, you are indubitably correct. Women not involved in the sex industry were openly subject to harassment, and encouraged to commit degrading acts. ‘Women aren’t allowed to formal dinners but at informal gatherings we would make them get down on all fours like a horse, whinny, and bring out hunting horns and whips’, remarks an anonymous ex-member. This inherent sexism, fertilised by the Buller, seems never to leave some alumni: whilst Prime Minister, David Cameron was often rebuked for the lack of women in his cabinet.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
Count Gottfried von Bismarck as a young man. The Eye of Faith.

Death by Buller

Such excess, however conducive to a career in politics or industry (see below), has to come at a cost. Unsurprisingly, given its penchant for intoxication, brawling, and vandalism, the lawless club is associated with several deaths, and not just of its own members. Some have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time during a Bullingdon outing, associated themselves with members of the club, or developing lethal habits whilst a member. The most notorious Bullingdon member in this respect is Count Gottfried von Bismarck (1962-2007), great-great-grandson of the famous German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

At Oxford, von Bismarck developed a reputation even amongst the Bullingdon for inconceivable excess. Clad in lederhosen or women’s clothing, the flamboyantly gay aristocrat was a dangerous man, possessing a seductive glamour and ‘no moral conscience whatsoever’ according to a fellow Bullingdon member. He would take amphetamines throughout the day to aid concentration, and drink heavily every night, frequently throwing lavish dinners at which pig heads (those again!) were served. Like David Cameron, von Bismarck was simultaneously a member of the Piers Gaveston, but Oxford proved insufficient to his taste for decadence, and so he spent weekends partying in London.

In 1986, Olivia Channon, an heiress and daughter of a serving Tory MP, was found dead in von Bismarck’s Christ Church rooms of a heroin overdose. The Count escaped with merely an £80 ($113) fine, and was sent to rehab by his parents. Though he went on to run several German telecommunications companies, his decadent lifestyle continued. In 2006, one particularly wild orgy at von Bismarck’s London flat ended with a man falling 20 metres to his death. Von Bismarck was found dead in 2007, with the highest levels of cocaine in his body that the pathologist had ever seen.

In 1977, another Bullingdon member was directly involved in the deaths of four people. Bartholomew Smith was the son of John Smith, a Conservative politician and wealthy banker, and at 22 was a wildly out of control Bullingdon man. Smith was returning from a club dinner, ‘considerably intoxicated’ according to the prosecution at his trial, and travelling at almost 100 mph in his Maserati, when he lost control of the car. Veering into oncoming traffic, his car collided with another vehicle, killing all four occupants. The driver of the unlucky car was footballer Peter Houseman, returning from a charity event.

In the light of the Bullingdon’s ludicrous evasion of criminal proceedings, perhaps it was Houseman’s public profile as an ex-Chelsea footballer that saw Smith brought to trial. Incredibly, Smith was not breathalysed at the scene of the accident, and so despite the testimony of a doctor who examined him, the defence team successfully argued that there was insufficient proof to convict the defendant of drink-driving. Despite four previous driving convictions, Smith escaped with a ten-year driving ban and a £4, 000 ($5, 639) fine. His irresponsible behaviour – drunk or otherwise – tragically orphaned six children, to say nothing of the deceased.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
King Edward VIII, 1912, portrait by Arthur Stockdale Cope. Wikimedia Commons.

Royal Alumni

For most people, filling their university days with fighting, drinking, and vandalism would not spell a bright future. However, if you have the privilege of being in line to become an unelected head of state, youthful recklessness matters very little. In the list of Bullingdon members we find no fewer than four individuals who went on to become kings. Although the most recent clutch of university-aged princes of Great Britain have avoided Oxford altogether, time was when it was inevitable that their ancestors would be obliged to attend either Oxford or Cambridge as was deemed proper for the upper classes.

Two British monarchs, Edward VII and Edward VIII, were elected as members of the Buller. Edward VII (1841-1910) was the eldest son of Queen Victoria, and matriculated at Christ Church in 1858. As a member of the Bullingdon, he was intimate with Sir Frederick Johnstone and Viscount Henry Chaplin. Johnstone was notorious for philandering throughout his life but, together with Chaplin, he served as a Conservative politician and remained intimate with the eventual King. There were fears that young Edward was being distracted by the pursuit of pleasure, especially hunting, and he was sent to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1861.

More is known about the extent of Edward VIII’s involvement with the Bullingdon. The New York Times reported in June 1913 that Queen Mary had sent a telegram demanding his immediate resignation from the club after he attended a ‘blind’ (an impromptu night out after a fox hunt) despite promising that we would not. Although the paper does not reveal exactly what Edward did on the blind in question beyond that he ‘succumbed to temptation’, it does offer the recent story of Buller men swimming to the Magdalen deer park, stealing a stag, and driving it up the High Street.

Edward VIII is most famous as the only King of Britain to abdicate, but we can trace suspiciously Buller-esque behaviour throughout his life. After proving a lazy student at Magdalen and leaving with no academic qualifications, Edward’s affairs with married women and reckless socialising worried both his father and the prime minister. Though he undertook many foreign commissions for his father, Edward was a white supremacist who wrote openly of his disgust for other races, and a suspected Nazi sympathiser. Succumbing to political pressure, he reigned for less than a year, before scandalously abdicating with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.

The four foreign royals who were members of the Bullingdon are Rama VI of Siam, Frederick IX of Denmark, Prince Leopold Duke of Albany, and Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. There are few records of these royals’ time in the Bullingdon, although Rama’s well-known homosexuality was an embarrassment to his early-twentieth-century subjects, if not to more enlightened modern minds, and Prince Paul had several affairs with high-profile men and was known as a self-indulgent art collector. The haemophiliac Leopold’s fondness for secret societies was also evident in his active Freemasonry, serving Provincial Grand Master of Oxford until his death in 1884.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
Statue of Cecil Rhodes, Oriel College, Oxford. New York Times.

Political Alumni

Although people living in monarchies have no choice in being ruled by ex-Bullingdon heads of state, membership of the club has not harmed the careers of former members entering democratic politics. If anything, membership of the Bullingdon, though not quite as vital as attendance of Eton College (which has produced 19 British Prime Ministers and countless MPs), actually seems to prepare alumni for a career in politics. Indeed, so many political figures have served as members of the Bullingdon that current politicians have been reserved for the next section. Here we will concentrate on notable examples of an older vintage.

The most infamous ex-Buller politician is, without doubt, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). Whilst an Oxford student, Rhodes’s belief in British Imperialism was strengthened by his course of study, and doubtless by his encounters with Bullingdon members, most of whom came from the English aristocracy: Rhodes continued to wear his Bullingdon finery on formal colonial occasions after leaving Oxford. Rhodes would go on to secure a monopoly on diamonds, financed by the ever-powerful Rothschild Group, and to serve as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, during which his policies openly discriminated against black Africans. His statue controversially still stands at Oriel College.

Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-1895), father of Sir Winston Churchill, was also a Bullingdon member. It is clear that Randolph really got into the spirit of the club, for he is known to have become involved in a particularly Buller-esque escapade, when after a dinner he drank so much brandy and champagne that he awoke the next morning with amnesia and a sleeping prostitute. He later suffered from syphilis, but in spite of youthful indiscretions, Lord Churchill went on to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State for India.

John Profumo (1915-2006) also graduated from the Bullingdon to Westminster, and displayed some characteristic Buller-behaviour whilst in office. One former lover became a Nazi spy, and Profumo is known to have written to her whilst serving as an MP. Whilst Secretary of State for War and a member of the Privy Council he began a relationship with 19-year-old Christine Keeler, who was also involved with a Soviet diplomat. His political career ended after he lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with Keeler. The incident became known as the ‘Profumo Affair’, and is a popular subject for dramatisation.

With wealth comes political influence, and so we must also mention the Buller’s connections with the financial world. Two heads of the powerful Rothschild banking family have been members of the club: Jacob, 4th Baron Rothschild, and his son and heir, Nathaniel Philip Rothschild. The latter was accused in 2012 of surreptitiously attempting to arrange a large donation to the Conservative Party from a Russian billionaire (illegal in UK politics). The family has a long history of donating to the Conservatives, the party of choice for Bullingdon alumni. Another banking dynasty, the Barings, also numbers eleven ex-Bullingdon members.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
The Bullingdon Club, Oxford, 1987. Boris Johnson is seated third at the front, David Cameron second from left at rear. Daily Telegraph.

Boris, Dave, and George: The Power of Networking

If you assumed that the Bullingdon’s power had waned since the aforementioned were elected, you’re in for a shock. In 2008, the Bullingdon class of 1987 reunited at the Millbank Tower, Westminster, to raise funds for one of its most illustrious members, Boris Johnson, who at the time was running for Mayor of London. Amongst the assembled group were Sebastian Grigg, chief of UK investment banking at Credit Suisse, along with David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and readying for the 2010 general election. Boris’s mayoral campaign was successful, and David Cameron was elected Prime Minister in 2010.

The intimate network of the Bullingdon remains a force in UK politics, as the 2008 meeting demonstrates. Remember the three members who escaped from the police after vandalising a restaurant in 1987? Two of the young men ensconced in shrubbery were Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Mutual indiscretion clearly forges strong bonds, and it is theorised that the club’s arbitrary criminal acts are to ensure that members can be cajoled and blackmailed by one another. Indeed, when Cameron came to assemble his cabinet, he chose as his chancellor George Osborne, another Bullingdon alumnus, and welcomed Boris too in 2015.

Bullingdon connections got Boris into power, and along with Jonathan Ford, a former member and editor of the Financial Times, he was instrumental in Cameron becoming Tory leader and eventually Prime Minister. If the thought of three Bullingdon men more or less running the country shocks you, it gets worse. Boris has been publically observed to greet other former Bullingdon members with a bellow of ‘Buller, Buller, Buller’ and a laddish embrace and, along with Osborne, is known to have attended Bullingdon events in recent years. Boris is also swift to remind members of their vow of omertà.

Although their Bullingdon past has been fundamental to their rise to power, all three men have tried to distance themselves from the club. Publication of the photo above, and another of the younger Osborne in 1992, was suppressed for as long as possible by the Conservative Party. Cameron’s attempts to play down his involvement with the Bullingdon must be offset with the fact that he prepared for becoming Prime Minister by serving as club president from 1988. Even Boris has publically criticised the club, calling the notorious photo ‘a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness, and twittishness’.

Although Cameron and Osborne have now left politics, there are, at present, two members of the Bullingdon in the Conservative cabinet: Boris, now Foreign Secretary (mind-boggling, given his famous xenophobia), and his younger brother Jo Johnson, the Transport Minister. Jo was in the Bullingdon at the same time as George Osborne, and they remain close friends. Buller-ties, however, are not indissoluble. Boris and Cameron differed on Brexit, with the latter in favour of EU membership, and Boris an outspoken campaigner for the Leave campaign. After the vote, Cameron resigned, leaving Boris to mount an unsuccessful leadership campaign of his own.

10 Interesting Facts about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s Ugly Secret
Jack Whitehall as Paul Pennyfeather in the BBC’s adaptation of Decline and Fall, 2017. The Independent.

Popular Depictions

With all of the shocking facts above in mind, it is no surprise that the Bullingdon has been widely condemned over the years. Indeed, ‘Bullingdon’ has become a by-word for upper class corruption, misbehaviour, and cronyism. The most prolific and, to the author’s taste, best, critic of the Bullingdon Club is the novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966). Waugh was a talented student who won a prestigious scholarship to read history at Hertford College, Oxford. After a promising and studious start at Hertford, Waugh befriended two Old Etonians, Harold Acton and Brian Howard, and swiftly adopted their decadent and alcohol-drenched lifestyle.

So dissolute became his life that Waugh lost the scholarship and left without a degree. However, his experiences helped him to write his wonderful first novel, Decline and Fall, the satirical tale of Paul Pennyfeather, a poor scholar sent down in ludicrous circumstances who ends up embroiled with the upper classes and going to prison for white slavery. The event that leads to his downfall is an encounter with the fictional Bollinger Club, who ‘debag’ him (remove his trousers) in the college quadrangle after a club dinner. Pennyfeather is expelled for gross public indecency, while the aggressors are merely fined.

On the night of the Bollinger dinner, Waugh describes two college fellows cheering every sound of breakage and dreaming of the amount they can fine the offenders. The book was published a year after the famous window-breaking at Christ Church in 1927, and both fictional and actual punishments are equally meagre. Pennyfeather, rather than the Bollinger, is expelled because of his limited wealth: Waugh’s biting depiction suggests that the university’s tacit toleration of the Bullingdon is linked to their families’ prestige and wealth. The novel ends as it begins, with Pennyfeather witnessing another round of trashings after a Bollinger dinner.

Decline and Fall is an exuberant farce, but Waugh discusses the more serious side of the Bullingdon in Brideshead Revisited, which actually mentions the Bullingdon by name. The semi-autobiographical Brideshead tells the tale of the decline of the Flyte family across two decades. In one scene, Anthony Blanche recounts how the Bullingdon tried to ‘put him in Mercury’ in Christ Church’s Tom Quad, which is not so playful as it first sounds. Although not a Buller member, Lord Sebastian Flyte’s decline into alcoholism and seclusion is most à propos depiction of the result of decadence suffered by many former members.

Posh, Laura Wade’s multi-award-nominated play, is the tale of a fictionalised-Buller called ‘The Riot Club’, and takes place on the night of a club dinner at a country pub probably based on the White Hart trashing of 2005. A ham-fisted 2014 film adaptation of the play, The Riot Club, exaggerates the set piece of the landlord being knocked-out by the panicked group to grotesque thuggery, which even critics of the Bullingdon labelled an unfair accusation, since real club members chiefly fight only each other. Waugh’s Decline and Fall was also adapted for screen by the BBC in 2017.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Bullingdon Club Too Lively For Prince of Wales”. The New York Times, 1 June 1913.

“Count Gottfried von Bismarck”. The Telegraph.

Alleyne, Richard. “Oxford hellraisers politely trash a pub”. The Telegraph.

Cox, G.V. Recollections of Oxford. London, Macmillan: 1870.

Hibbert, Christopher. Edward VII: The Last Victorian King. New York: MacMillan, 2007.

Lawford, Emily. “Leaked: Bullingdon Club invitation letter”. Cherwell.

Mount, Harry. “An obituary for the Bullingdon Club, by one of its old boys”. The Spectator.

Mutch, Nick. “Breaking the Bullingdon Club Omertà: Secret Lives of the Men Who Run Britain”. The Daily Beast.

Mutch, Nick. “Bullingdon Club: The secrets of Oxford University’s elite society”. The Week.

Rotberg, Robert I. The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Johnson, Rachel, ed. The Oxford Myth. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Snead, Florence. “‘I’ve got a better castle than you’: Bullingdon Club student suspended from young Tories” I News.

Advertisement