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

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.