The Bullingdon Club is a private dining club for Oxford University students. It is noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals, and mischievous behaviour, including vandalism of restaurants and students' rooms. The club is known to select its members not only on the grounds of wealth and willingness to partake but also by means of education; with undergraduates from colleges such as Christ Church and Magdalen who formerly were pupils at fee paying "public" schools such as Eton, Harrow, Radley, and Westminster making up most of its membership.
The Bullingdon was originally a sporting club, dedicated to cricket and horse-racing, although club dinners gradually became its principal activity. Membership is expensive, with tailor-made uniforms, regular gourmet hospitality, and a tradition of on-the-spot payment for damage. The club has attracted controversy, as some members have gone on to become leading figures within Britain's political establishment. These include the former Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Bullingdon is regularly featured in fiction and drama, sometimes under its own name, and sometimes easily recognisable under another (as in the 2014 film The Riot Club).
The Bullingdon Club was founded more than 200 years ago. Petre Mais claims it was founded in 1780 and was limited to 30 men, and Viscount Long, who was a member in 1875, described it as "an old Oxford institution, with many good traditions". Originally it was a hunting and cricket club, and Thomas Assheton Smith II is recorded as having batted for the Bullingdon against Marylebone Cricket Club in 1796. In 1805 cricket at Oxford University "was confined to the old Bullingdon Club, which was expensive and exclusive". This foundational sporting purpose is attested to in the Club's symbol.
The Wisden Cricketer reports that the Bullingdon is "ostensibly one of the two original Oxford University cricket teams but it actually used cricket merely as a respectable front for the mischievous, destructive or self-indulgent tendencies of its members". By the late 19th century, the present emphasis on dining within the Club began to emerge. Long attested that in 1875 "Bullingdon Club [cricket] matches were also of frequent occurrence, and many a good game was played there with visiting clubs. 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". A report of 1876 relates that "cricket there was secondary to the dinners, and the men were chiefly of an expensive class". The New York Times told its readers in 1913 that "The Bullingdon represents the acme of exclusiveness at Oxford; it is the club of the sons of nobility, the sons of great wealth; its membership represents the 'young bloods' of the university". The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is known to have taken part in initiation ceremonies for the club. These included such tasks as burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person in Oxford.
Today, the Bullingdon is primarily a dining club, although a vestige of the Club's sporting links survives in its support of an annual point to point race. The Club President, known as the "General", presents the winner's cup, and the Club members meet at the race for a champagne breakfast. The Club also meets for an annual Club dinner. Guests may be invited to either of these events. There may also be smaller dinners during the year to mark the initiation of new members or in celebration of other occasions. The club often books private dining rooms under an assumed name, as most restaurateurs are cautious of the Club's reputation as being the cause of considerable drunken damage during the course of their dinners.
In 2007, a photograph of the Bullingdon Club taken in 1987 was discovered – making British headlines because two of the posing members, Boris Johnson and David Cameron, both of whom had gone on to careers in politics and were, at the time, Mayor of London and Leader of the Conservative party respectively. The copyright owners have since declined to grant permission to use the picture.
In recent years, following negative media attention and the Club's apparent depiction in the play Posh and its film adaptation The Riot Club, membership has been supposed to have dwindled: in 2016 it was claimed there were only between four and six members left, all of them postgraduates, with no new undergraduate members joining the previous year; although many consider it more likely that the club has simply resorted to more covert operation in recent times. Many Oxford students cited an unwillingness to be associated with "ostentatious wealth celebration". In June 2017, members of the Club attempting to shoot their annual Club Photo on the steps of Christ Church were escorted out by college porters for not securing permission for the shoot. Nearby non-member students heckled the club as they left, with one even playing "Yakety Sax" (the theme song for The Benny Hill Show).
The club has always been noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, and boisterous rituals, including the vandalisation of restaurants, public houses, and college rooms, complemented by a tradition of on-the-spot payment for damage. Its ostentatious display of wealth attracts controversy, since some ex-members have subsequently achieved high political stations, most notably the former British Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A number of episodes over many decades have provided anecdotal evidence of the Club's behaviour. Infamously on 12 May 1894, after dinner, Bullingdon members smashed almost all the glass of the lights and 468 windows in Peckwater Quad of Christ Church, along with the blinds and doors of the building, and again on 20 February 1927. As a result of such events, the Club was banned from convening within 15 miles of Oxford.
While still Prince of Wales, Edward VIII had a certain amount of difficulty in getting his parents' permission to join the Bullingdon on account of the Club's reputation. He eventually obtained it only on the understanding that he never join in what was then known as a "Bullingdon blind", a euphemistic phrase for an evening of drink and song. On hearing of his eventual attendance at one such evening, Queen Mary sent him a telegram requesting that he remove his name from the Club.
Andrew Gimson, biographer of Boris Johnson, reported about the club in the 1980s: "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."
In December 2005, Bullingdon Club members smashed 17 bottles of wine, "every piece of crockery," and a window at the 15th century White Hart pub in Fyfield near Oxford. The dinner was organised by The Honourable Alexander Fellowes, son of Baron Fellowes and nephew to Diana, Princess of Wales; four members of the party were arrested. A further dinner was reported in 2010 after damage to a country house.
In the last few years, the Bullingdon has been mentioned in the debates of the House of Commons in order to draw attention to excessive behaviour across the British class spectrum, and to embarrass prominent Conservative Party politicians who are former members of the Bullingdon. Johnson has since tried to distance himself from the club, calling it "a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness."
The Club's colours are sky blue and ivory. Members dress for their annual Club dinner in bespoke tailored tailcoats in dark navy blue, with a matching velvet collar, offset with ivory silk lapel revers, brass monogrammed buttons, a mustard waistcoat, and a sky blue bow tie. There is also a Club tie, which is sky blue striped with ivory. These are all provided by the Oxford branch of court tailors Ede and Ravenscroft. In 2007 the full uniform was estimated to cost £3,500. Traditionally when they played cricket, members "were identified by a ribbon of blue and white on their straw hats, and by stripes of the same colours down their flannel trousers".
Relationship with the UniversityEdit
The Bullingdon is not currently registered with the University of Oxford, but members are drawn from among the members of the University. On several occasions in the past, when the club was registered, the University proctors suspended it on account of the rowdiness of members' activities, including suspensions in 1927 and 1956. John Betjeman wrote in 1938 that "quite often the Club is suspended for some years after each meeting". While under suspension, the club has been known to meet in relative secrecy.
The club was known to be active in Oxford in 2008/9, although not registered with the University. In his retirement speech as proctor, Professor of Geology Donald Fraser noted an incident which, not being on University premises, was outside their jurisdiction: "some students had taken habitually to the drunken braying of ‘We are the Bullingdon’ at 3 a.m. from a house not far from the Phoenix Cinema. But the transcript of what they called the wife of the neighbour who went to ask them to be quiet was written in language that is not usually printed".
In October 2018, the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA) announced that members of the Bullingdon Club would be banned from holding office within the Association. OUCA president, Ben Etty, outspokenly stated that the Club's "values and activities had no place in the modern Conservative Party'". This decision was overturned several weeks later "on a constitutional technicality", although Etty was confident that "that ban will be re-proposed very soon". The ban was later re-implemented on appeal to OUCA's Senior Member and remains in effect.
Photographs of club membersEdit
A number of the Club's annual photographs have emerged over the years, with each giving insight into its past members.
A photograph taken in 1987 depicting David Cameron and Boris Johnson among other members of the club, including Jonathan Ford of the Financial Times, is the best-known example. In an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr, David Cameron said that the photograph was an embarrassment. BBC Two's Newsnight commissioned a painting to recreate the photograph because the photographers who own the copyright objected to its being published on commercial grounds.
A photograph taken in 1988, also depicting British Prime Minister David Cameron, this time as Club President and standing in the centre of the group, later emerged. It was found by the student newspaper, VERSA, amongst over a dozen other photographs of the club dated between 1950 and 2010 hanging on the wall of the tailor that is believed to have made the members’ suits, and led to a number of other past members being identified. Gillman and Soame, the photographers who own the copyright to the image, withdrew permission for it to be reproduced. VERSA, which discovered the photographs, commissioned sketches to reproduce the scenes depicted in them.
A photograph of the club taken in 1992 depicted George Osborne, Nathaniel Philip Rothschild, David Cameron's cousin Harry Mount and Ocado founder Jason Gissing. In the Mail on Sunday, Peter Hitchens claimed that the photograph had been doctored, and that it appeared that people had been removed from it.
In 2013, a new photograph emerged of club members flying by private jet to a hunting expedition in South Africa. The photograph is believed to have been taken the previous year. Pictured in the photograph are Hon. Michael Marks, Cassius Nicholas Green, Timothy Aldersly, Charles Clegg, Alick Dru and Hon. George Farmer – the son of the former treasurer of the Conservative Party, Michael Farmer, Baron Farmer.
David Cameron's and Boris Johnson's period in the Bullingdon Club was examined in the UK Channel 4 docu-drama When Boris Met Dave, broadcast on 7 October 2009 on More 4. An Observer Magazine article in October 2011 reviewed George Osborne's membership of the club.
The Bullingdon is satirised as 'the Bollinger Club' (Bollinger being a notable brand of champagne) in Evelyn Waugh's novel Decline and Fall (1928), where it has a pivotal role in the plot: the mild-mannered hero is blamed for the Bollinger Club's destructive rampage through his college and is sent down. Tom Driberg claimed that the description of the Bollinger Club was a "mild account of the night of any Bullingdon Club dinner in Christ Church. Such a profusion of glass I never saw until the height of the Blitz. On such nights, any undergraduate who was believed to have 'artistic' talents was an automatic target."
Waugh mentions the Bullingdon by name in Brideshead Revisited. In talking to Charles Ryder, Anthony Blanche relates that the Bullingdon attempted to "put him in Mercury" in Tom Quad one evening, Mercury being a large fountain in the centre of the Quad. Blanche describes the members in their tails as looking "like a lot of most disorderly footmen", and goes on to say: "Do you know, I went round to call on Sebastian next day? I thought the tale of my evening's adventures might amuse him." This could indicate that Sebastian was not a member of the Bullingdon, although in the 1981 TV adaptation, Lord Sebastian Flyte vomits through the window of Charles Ryder's college room while wearing the famous Bullingdon tails. The 2008 film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited likewise clothes Flyte in the Club tails during this scene, as his fellow revellers chant "Buller, Buller, Buller!" behind him.
A fictional Oxford dining society inspired by clubs like the Bullingdon forms the basis of the play Posh by Laura Wade, staged in April 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre, London. Membership of the club while still a student is exaggeratedly depicted in the play as giving said student admission to a secret and corrupt network of influence within the Tory Party later in life. The play was later adapted into the 2014 film The Riot Club.
The TV series Trinity, set in a "Trinity College" in a fictional English city, featured an elite "Dandelion Club" whose members wore yellow waistcoats like those of the Bullingdon Club and behaved in a similar manner.
Past members of the club include:
- Edward VII of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
- Edward VIII of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas
- Rama VI, King of Siam
- Frederick VII of Denmark
- Frederick IX of Denmark
- Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany
- Prince Paul of Yugoslavia
- Arthur Valerian Wellesley, 8th Duke of Wellington
- Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, 8th Duke of Buccleuch
- John Scott, 9th Duke of Buccleuch
- Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch
- George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
- Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Douro
- Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath
- Edward Windsor, Lord Downpatrick
- Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer
- Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford
- Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery
- David Ogilvy, 13th Earl of Airlie
- Charles Douglas-Home, 12th Earl of Home, Lord Lieutenant of Lanarkshire (1890–1915) and Lord Lieutenant of Berwickshire (1879–1880)
- Henry Chaplin, 1st Viscount Chaplin
- Walter Long, 1st Viscount Long
- Timothy Beaumont, Baron Beaumont of Whitley
- George Gibbs, 1st Baron Wraxall
- William Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough
- Christopher James, 5th Baron Northbourne
- Maharaja Gaj Singh Ji of Jodhpur
- Peter Palumbo, Baron Palumbo
- Count Gottfried von Bismarck
- Shivraj Singh of Jodhpur
- Prince Felix Yussupov
- Prince Serge Obolensky
- Boris Johnson, Prime Minister (2019–present), Foreign Secretary (2016–2018) and Mayor of London (2008–2016)
- Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary (2018–2019), Health Secretary (2012–2018) and Culture Secretary (2010–2012)
- David Cameron, Prime Minister (2010–2016)
- Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (1890–1896)
- Michael Ancram, Chairman of the Conservative Party (1998–2001)
- Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Foreign Secretary (1905–1916)
- Lord Halifax, Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1933–1959), Ambassador to the United States (1940–1946) Foreign Secretary (1938–1940), Leader of the House of Lords (1935–1938, 1940), Secretary of State for War (1935) and 20th Viceroy of India (1926–1931)
- George Osborne, First Secretary of State (2015–2016) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (2010–2016)
- Lord Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1886)
- John Profumo, CBE, Secretary of State for War (1960–1963)
- Radosław Sikorski, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland (2007–2014)
- Alan Clark, Minister for Defence Procurement (1989–1992)
- Thomas Agar-Robartes, MP (1906, 1908–1915)
- Nick Hurd, Government Minister (2010–2019)
- Jo Johnson, Government Minister (2014–2019) and Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit (2013–2015)
- Tim Rathbone, MP (1974–1997)
- Thomas Assheton Smith the Younger, High Sheriff of Wiltshire (1838) and MP (1821–1831, 1832–1837)
- Sir Ewen Fergusson, British Ambassador to France (1987–1992) and British Ambassador to South Africa (1982–1984)
- Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth, 1st Baronet, MP (1924–1929, 1945–1970)
- Sir Frederick Johnstone, 8th Baronet, MP (1874–1885)
- Sir Philip Sassoon, 3rd Baronet, MP (1912–1939)
- Nathaniel Philip Rothschild, Chairman of JNR Limited
- Sebastian James, former CEO of Dixons Carphone, current CEO of Boots UK
- Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco
- Jason Gissing, cofounder of Ocado.
- Darius Guppy, Businessman
- Peter Holmes à Court, Businessman
- David Bowes-Lyon, president of the Royal Horticultural Society, uncle of Elizabeth II
- Raymond Carr, historian.
- Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, barrister
- David Dimbleby, journalist
- Sir Ludovic Kennedy, journalist
- Harry Mount, Daily Mail journalist
- David Faber, head master of Summer Fields School
- Peter Fleming, writer and brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
- Sebastian Roberts, Senior Army Representative at the Royal College of Defence Studies.
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I received help from Thames Valley Police on two occasions. My first case (in my first week in office) was the Bullingdon Club — I think the Clerk to the Proctors gave it to me as a test. I received a report that some students had taken habitually to the drunken braying of ‘We are the Bullingdon’ at 3 a.m. from a house not far from the Phoenix Cinema. But the transcript of what they called the wife of the neighbour who went to ask them to be quiet was written in language that is not usually printed. Their college was identified, but the Bullingdon Club turns out not to be a registered University society. Nor was the abuse uttered on University premises. So after conferring with the Proctors’ Officers, I thought that an ASBO might concentrate the minds of those concerned. I referred the matter to the Police who did mention the word ASBO before awarding the members of the Club an ABC — an Anti Social Behaviour Contract that would magically and automatically turn into an ASBO if provoked within six months. So I am pleased to say that, except perhaps at the highest level of national politics, the Bullingdon Club this year has been quiescent.25 March 2009
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