Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Decline and Fall – as well as the BBC’s new TV adaptation – opens with a pair of Oxford dons at Scone College listening happily to the Bollinger Club systematically tearing up a nearby room for pleasure.
As Mr Sniggs the Junior Dean and Mr Postlethwaite the Domestic Bursar hear the “confused roaring and breaking of glass”, they snigger gleefully about the amount of money they’ll be able to “fine” these privileged students and all the nice port they’ll be able to afford.
The Bollinger Club is, of course, a barely-concealed version of the real-life Bullingdon Club.
But just how similar are they – and does the Bullingdon Club still exist? Is this the sort of thing George Osborne, David Cameron and Boris Johnson got up to when they joined the club back in their Oxford days?
The opening chapter of Decline and Fall gives us more information about Bollinger members, and they don’t sound like very nice people at all. “There is tradition behind the Bollinger,” Waugh explains. “It numbers reigning kings amongst its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles.”
When it comes to the real Bullingdon Club, there are no recorded instances of foxes being battered to death with bottles – but the secret society has a long history of bad behaviour.
The Bullingdon Club was founded in 1780 and was initially dedicated to hunting and cricket (the name probably comes from a cricket pitch in south-east Oxford, Bullingdon Green). Its privileged members soon moved away from sport and put all their effort into heavy drinking and destruction.
In 1894, members smashed all 468 windows in a quad at Christ Church College. Organisers must have run out of new ideas for destructive stunts by 1927, because the club did it again – resulting in a ban from meeting within 15 miles of Oxford. It is currently not registered as an official club at the university.
A rare 19th century photograph of the Bullingdon Club, including Archibald Philip Primrose who later became Prime Minister (Getty)
Decline and Fall was published the following year, with the fictional Bollinger Club taking the place of the glass-shattering reality. The Bullingdon Club pops up again in Brideshead Revisited (1945) when drunken members try to push Anthony Blanche into a college fountain.
Like the Bollinger Club, the Bullingdon Club “numbers reigning kings amongst its past members” – including Edward VIII, who begged his parents to let him join when he was still Prince of Wales. They were not keen because of the society’s poor reputation, but reluctantly let him sign up as long as he didn’t take part in a “Bullingdon blind” – that is, an evening of drink and song. Of course he broke the rules, and of course Queen Mary got cross and made him quit. Other royal members are reported to have included Frederick IX of Denmark, Rama VI King of Siam, and Prince Paul of Yugoslavia.
The real-life Bullingdon Club is a secret society, but with their misdeeds the privileged members have been unable to keep everything under wraps. The all-male club developed a habit of “trashing” (vandalising) restaurants and student rooms, but then ostentatiously paying for the damage on the spot and in cash as a show of wealth.
In December 2004, for example, students claiming to be Bullingdon Club members smashed 17 bottles of wine, “every piece of crockery” and a window at the White Hart pub in Oxfordshire, resulting in four arrests. Interestingly, the dinner has been organised by Alexander Fellowes, nephew to Diana Princess of Wales and son of Baron Fellowes.
Alexander Fellowes in 2013 (Getty)
The club gained new notoriety after Cameron came to power. Johnson and Cameron declared themselves to be pretty embarrassed when a photo surfaced of them posing in a old group shot, wearing the distinctive outfit of the Bullingdon Club.
That outfit, which costs a reported £3,500, consists of tailcoats in dark navy blue, a matching velvet collar offset with ivory silk lapel revers, brass monogrammed buttons, a mustard-coloured waistcoat, and a sky-blue bow tie.
The then-Prime Minister was doubly embarrassed when an unconfirmed anecdote surfaced about him placing a “private part of his anatomy” into the mouth of a dead pig as part of an initiation ceremony (who can ever forget Pig-gate?). However, this was not said to be as part of a Bullingdon Club event, but rather for another secret drinking club the Piers Gaveston Society.
The Bullingdon Club does still exist, but word on the streets of Oxford is that it’s suffering a recruitment crisis. You have to be obscenely wealthy and well-connected to join, but its recent PR problems make membership look like a poisoned chalice. The Spectator suggested this year that it was down to its last two members – and it’s very hard to destroy very much when there’s only two of you.
Three-part comedy drama Decline and Fall will air on Fridays at 9pm on BBC1, with the first episode on 31st March