Founded perhaps as early as 1780, the Bullingdon was originally a sporting club, dedicated to cricket and horse-racing, although dinners gradually became its principal activity. Membership of the club is expensive, with tailor-made uniforms, regular gourmet hospitality and a tradition of on-the-spot payment for damage. Its ostentatious display of wealth attracts much controversy, since many ex-members have moved up to high political posts. The university extends no official recognition to the club, and many local restaurants refuse to host its events. But it remains a popular topic with the public, as shown by its regular featuring in fiction and drama, sometimes under its own name, and sometimes easily recognisable under another.
The Bullingdon Club was founded over 200 years ago. Petre Mais claims it was founded in 1780 and was limited to 30 men, and by 1875 it was considered "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 the 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. However, Walter Long attests 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".
Today, the Bullingdon is still 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. In early 2013, it was rumoured that an initiation ritual also involved burning a fifty-pound banknote in front of a tramp, although the Oxford Student and the Daily Mail both later reported that this 'was not substantiated by fact', with the former printing a public apology for printing the rumour on the front page of the newspaper. The club often books private dining rooms under an assumed name, as most restaurateurs are wary of the Club's reputation for causing considerable drunken damage during the course of dinner.
A number of episodes over many decades have become anecdotal evidence of the Club's behaviour. Infamously, on 12 May 1894 and again on 20 February 1927, 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. As a result, the Club was banned from meeting 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."
Dinners in recent years, being relatively low key, have not attracted press attention, though in 2005, following damage to a 15th-century pub in Oxfordshire during a dinner, four members of the party were arrested; the incident was widely reported. 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 those increasingly prominent Conservative Party politicians who are former members of the Bullingdon. These most notably include David Cameron (UK Prime Minister), George Osborne (UK Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Boris Johnson (Mayor of London). Hansard records eight references to the Bullingdon between 2001 and 2008. 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 specially made traditional 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 cost around £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 University
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 have 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 active in Oxford in 2008/9, although not currently registered with the University, and the retiring proctors' oration recited 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". The members therefore received an Anti-Social Behaviour Contract from the Thames Valley Police, threatening the more common ASBO. The proctor concluded in March 2009: "So I am pleased to say that, except perhaps at the highest level of national politics, the Bullingdon Club this year has been quiescent."
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 club based on the Bullingdon and its members forms the basis of Posh, by Laura Wade, a play staged in April 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre, London. Membership of the club while a student is shown as giving admission to a secret and corrupt network of influence in British politics later in life.
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.
In February 2012 Colman's, the company whose mustard is used by the club for its initiation rites, launched a TV advert in the UK featuring a comic minotaur character who is dressed in the Bullingdon Club uniform of teal blue long-tailed frock coat and mustard yellow waistcoat; and whose voice, mannerisms and blonde haircut all parody those of former club member and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
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.
Members of the Club have included:
- Edward VII
- Edward VIII
- Frederick IX of Denmark
- Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany
- Prince Paul of Yugoslavia
- Rama VI, King of Siam
- Michael Ancram
- Timothy Beaumont, Baron Beaumont of Whitley
- Gottfried von Bismarck
- David Dimbleby
- David Bowes-Lyon
- David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
- Raymond Carr
- Henry Chaplin, 1st Viscount Chaplin
- Lord Randolph Churchill
- Alan Clark, MP
- George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
- David Faber, head master of Summer Fields School
- Peter Fleming
- George Gibbs, 1st Baron Wraxall
- Jason Gissing
- William Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough
- Darius Guppy
- Peter Holmes à Court
- Nick Hurd, MP
- Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
- Jo Johnson, MP
- Sir Frederick Johnstone, 8th Baronet
- Sir Ludovic Kennedy
- Walter Long, 1st Viscount Long
- Harry Mount
- Serge Obolensky
- George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer
- Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford
- John Profumo
- John Rankin Rathbone, MP
- Cecil Rhodes
- Sebastian Roberts
- Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery
- Nathaniel Philip Rothschild
- John Scott, 9th Duke of Buccleuch
- Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, 8th Duke of Buccleuch
- Radosław Sikorski, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland
- Thomas Assheton Smith II
- Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer
- Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath
- Felix Yussupov
- Patrick Foster (28 January 2006). "How young Cameron wined and dined with the right sort". The Times (London). Retrieved 2007-12-04. "[Cameron] has previously admitted to being a member of the Bullingdon Club, notorious for the drunken vandalism of its predominantly aristocratic members."
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- Frank Harris, My Life and Loves, 1922-27; p. 483
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