I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An undergraduate drinking and dining club at Oxford University has future prime ministers among it members. Too bad about loutish, and sometimes criminal, behaviour its upper crust associates engaged in.
The Bullingdon Club was set up for those who enjoyed cricket and hunting, of the chasing and killing foxes and deer type. The Wisden Cricketer reports that while sporting pursuits appeared to be its purpose “it actually used cricket merely as a respectable front for the mischievous, destructive, or self-indulgent tendencies of its members.”
Royalty and nobility made up much of the club’s complement. Edward VII, a renowned philanderer and libertine, was a member, so was his grandson Edward VIII, he of the abdication scandal. There was a sprinkling of other kings and princes from outside Britain.
Further down the blood lines, there were dukes, marquises, lords, and earls. Barons, viscounts, and knights of the realm filled out the list. Commoners were allowed in if they had enough money and the right connections.
Around the end of the 19th century, lavish dining became the preoccupation of the club.
In 1923, the Right Honourable Viscount Long of Wroxall, reminisced in Memories that “The Bullingdon Club dinners were the occasion of a great display of exuberant spirits, accompanied by a considerable consumption of the good things of life, which often made the drive back to Oxford an experience of exceptional nature.”
Images of young, inebriated toffs in Rolls-Royces lurching down narrow roads come to mind. Fast forward to the 21st century and the Bullingdon Club became infamous for even more reckless behaviour.
To be elected to the Bullingdon Club certain prerequisites are needed. A bottomless pit of family money was important so was the education received prior to getting into Oxford University.
The preferred school was Eton College. Founded in 1440, the exclusive private school has fees of about £40,000 ($48,000) a year. The school has provided 20 of the United Kingdom’s 55 prime ministers since Sir Robert Walpole in 1721.
The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is an old Etonian and former Bullingdon member. A few people from less exalted seats of learning have been allowed in, but not a single woman.
Part of the initiation process involves trashing, as explained by The Week it is “the invasion and destruction of their college bedroom by other Bullingdon members.”
Another right of passage, revealed by a club member to an Oxford student newspaper, was allegedly to humiliate a homeless person. The initiate was to find a beggar and then burn a £50 ($60) note in front of them.
There is an official uniform that is only obtainable from one tailor in Oxford. There is a blue tailcoat with a velvet collar and silk lapels. The kit comes with a pale blue bow tie (certainly not of the clip-on persuasion) and a waistcoat. Daddy’s chequebook would have to come out to settle the bill for an estimated £3,500 ($4,250).
Nothing says being out of touch with ordinary folk more than having a suit of clothes costing £3,500 that is used only occasionally for dinner parties.
For many years the Bullingdon Club had a reputation for boisterous behaviour. Word of one particularly raucous dinner party got back Queen Mary in which her son, the Prince of Wales, had been involved. Her Majesty insisted the future King Edward VIII sever his connections with the drunken ruffians.
The rambunctious bacchanalia continued unabated and included future prime ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson as comrades in booze.
Andrew Gimson, author of The Rise of Boris Johnson, told the BBC that “I don’t think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and being paid for in full, very often in cash.
“A night in the cells would be regarded as being par for a Buller man and so would debagging anyone who really attracted the irritation of the Buller men.”
(Note to reader: debagging is a grand upper class tradition in England of removing the trousers of someone).
Both Cameron and Johnson are seen in a 1986 photograph with fellow Bullers in their dress uniforms. Apparently, the Conservative Party, of which both are members, has gone to some length to suppress the image, which only makes it more likely to appear in newspapers.
Can the debauchery be written off as boys-will-be-boys blowing off a bit of steam before taking on positions of leadership? Apologists for the Bullingdon Club and its antics insist it’s just a bit of harmless fun. Critics say it’s typical of the arrogance and sense of entitlement that characterize Britain’s aristocracy.
Falling on Hard Times
In recent years, the Bullingdon Club has gone into a decline. Its image has been tarnished by media reports of the tomfoolery that cost restaurant and pub owners their livelihoods until renovations are completed.
In a more egalitarian society, the offish behaviour of the privileged classes is less tolerated than in previous ages. It doesn’t go down well among people who have faced an uphill struggle through a less advantaged state school system to get a place in an elite university.
The Evening Standard noted that the club’s members were able to get away with their outrageous actions by handing over wads of cash. The unruliness was “Consequence-free, that is, until a photograph was discovered of David Cameron and Boris Johnson in all their finery, with big hair, bad waistcoats and an attitude of such pompous, swaggering conceit that it became indelibly impressed upon Britain’s psyche.”
As one old Etonian told the newspaper, the brand has become “toxic,” so members now keep quiet about their involvement.
- Yale University in the United States has its own elite club. Members of The Skull and Bones Club swear an oath of secrecy about its goings-on, but it’s known that its initiation rituals include lying in a coffin and revealing your entire sexual history. There is, of course, a lot of drinking. Three U.S. presidents have been members including George H.W. Bush, and George W, Bush.
- Laura Wade’s play Posh was first performed in 2010. It is a thinly disguised take on Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. The hit play was turned into the 2014 movie entitled The Riot Club, which revolves around a drunken group of Oxford students in Bullingdon-style clothes.
- “Memories.” Walter Hume Long, 1st Viscount Long, Hutchinson & Co., 1923.
- “Bullingdon Club: the Secrets Behind Oxford University’s Elite Society.” The Week, June 25, 2019.
- “Cameron Student Photo Is Banned.” BBC, March 2, 2007.
- “Buller, Buller, Buller! Just Who Is the Modern Bullingdon Club Boy?” Tom Bearsworth and William Pimlott, The Evening Standard, April 12, 2013.
- “George H.W. Bush: Who Are the Skull and Bones? The Yale Secret Society with Three Presidents Among Its Ranks” Joe Sommerlad, The Independent, May 8, 2018.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Liz Westwood from UK on August 05, 2019:
David Cameron was last heard of writing his memoirs in a very expensive shepherd's hut he had installed in his garden for the purpose. Some might say he has been hiding away, leaving others to clear up the mess caused by the referendum on membership of the EU.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 05, 2019:
Hi Liz. Johnson seems less inclined to bury his behaviour than Cameron was. How is Cameron, the architect of the Brexit fiasco, doing? I'm sure his Bullingdon toff pals will look after him. Sorry, my social democrat leanings are showing up.
Liz Westwood from UK on August 05, 2019:
This hit the headlines when David Cameron was Prime Minister. I had forgotten about the Boris link until I read your article.