The Bullingdon Club, 1894

After Cambridge’s Footlights, Oxford’s all-male Bullingdon Club is probably the most famous student club going. Cambridge wins the clubs, I think. Bullingdon originated in the Eighteenth Century as a sports club for the elite, focussing on cricket and horse-racing. However, it quickly became more of a dining club, and then a by-word for that kind of upper-class misbehaviour traditionally called “high spirits” – a description that would not be used for any other member of society so keen on smashing up their surroundings. Bullingdon members would traditionally pay for the damage they had done on the spot, which rather brings to mind Oscar’s Wilde’s description of “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Famously, David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were “Buller men”. That famous photograph showing Cameron and Johnson in 1987 has been removed from general use by the copyright holder, but BBC2’s Newsnight commissioned a painting, based on the photograph, in order to get round the ban. Johnson, always a shrewd PR-player, has since dismissed the club as “a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness.” Apparently Johnson still greets his fellow club members with a cry of “Buller, Buller, Buller!” though.

David Dimbleby was also a member in his student days, although he says the loutish behaviour was not the same in his time – “We never broke any windows or got wildly drunk. It was a completely different organisation from what it became when Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne joined. We never did these disgusting, disgraceful things that Boris did.”

The Newsnight painting

The Newsnight painting

Incidentally, the Bullingdon wasn’t the location of David Cameron’s notorious pig-bothering incident, that was the Piers Gaveston Society. The Bullingdon had different initiation ceremonies through the years – one of which was revealed, in 2013, to charmingly consist of burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person.

It should also be noted that The Bullingdon Club is not now an official club of Oxford University, but its existence continues independently nonetheless. The Club’s relationship with the university has been tumultuous to say the least, with particularly large scandals surrounding the behaviour of club members taking place in 1894 and 1927.

In 1894, all the members of the Bullingdon Club in Christchurch were “sent out”, or temporarily expelled. This report calls the activities “mischievous” and that the students considered it a “severe punishment“.

Edinburgh Evening News, 15th May 1894

Edinburgh Evening News, 15th May 1894

The severity of the punishment is much commented on.” But what did they do?

Lincolnshire Echo, 15th May 1894

Lincolnshire Echo, 15th May 1894

Ah, it was only a practical joke. All they did was hold a anniversary Bullingdon dinner, and rounded off the evening in Christchurch College’s Peckwater Quad with a mischievous smashing of nearly 500 windows “with stones, pieces of coal and other missiles.” It doesn’t say so here, but the Buller men also smashed up most of the glass in the lights of the building, as well as damaging many doors and blinds as well.

Cambridge Independent Press, 18th May 1894

Cambridge Independent Press, 18th May 1894

It was an “Emeute at Oxford.” Not a word I’ve come across before, but it’s a refined way of saying a riot. Even worse than that of the previous October, when the walls of Christchurch’s Tom Quad were “bedaubed with paint and the rope of the great Tom was cut.” The 468 smashed window panes gave an “appearance which might be expected to follow the explosion of a bomb.”

Cheltenham Chronicle, 19th May 1894

Cheltenham Chronicle, 19th May 1894

In addition to being sent down, the students had to pay for the damage done, “amounting to about £70″. In modern terms that’s about £8,000, which is surprisingly reasonable for the repair of 468 windows. Unless it was £70 each, but it’s not really clear. I work at a university, and if a group of students had decided to smash hundreds of windows just for a lark, I don’t think we’d consider being “sent down” an unduly harsh punishment. It’s interesting that there’s no mention of the police being involved, either.

Gloucestershire Chronicle, 19th May 1894

Gloucestershire Chronicle, 19th May 1894

The Bullingdon Club continued on after that nonetheless, until Oxford’s Vice Chancellor Lewis Farnell banned them in 1923.

Western Daily Press, 4th May 1923

Western Daily Press, 4th May 1923

It wasn’t to last long. He retired that same year, after having gained the nickname “The Banning Vice-Chancellor”, on account of banning not only the Bullingdon, but also Grand Guignol plays, students from visiting a café, the charity rag regatta, and various lectures including one by Marie Stopes. “His slogan was more work and less frivolity.” 

Aberdeen Journal, 10th October 1923

Aberdeen Journal, 10th October 1923

In 1927, a similar incident to 1894 took place, with “an after-dinner window smashing rag” at Christchurch. “The penalties have not been divulged,” but as a result, the club was banned from meeting within 15 miles of Oxford.

Western Daily Press, 23rd February 1927

Western Daily Press, 23rd February 1927

Plus ca change…….Bullingdon’s usual antics resulted in the suspension of the club for two terms in 1934. This time it involved fireworks and the “ragging” of a senior member of the college.

Gloucestershire Echo, 6th January 1934

Gloucestershire Echo, 6th January 1934

Since then, well, it’s same old same old for the Buller men. In Boris Johnson’s time in the 1980s, his biographer Andrew Gimson wrote 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.”

More recently, in 2005, members did much damage to the White Hart, a 15th Century pub in Oxfordshire, smashing 17 bottles of wine, every piece of crockery in the place and a window. Many Oxfordshire restaurants won’t take their bookings now, unsurprisingly. It’s gone a bit quieter these days because association with the club name has become pretty toxic for the would-be world-dominating undergraduate. But, going on past history, it seems likely they’ll be in the news again before too long.

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