The Bullingdon Club is an exclusive all-male dining club for Oxford University undergraduates, though it is not officially recognised by that institution. It is noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising («trashing») of restaurants and students’ rooms. Many local outlets refuse to host these events.
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 damages. The club has attracted controversy, as some members have gone on to become part of Britain’s political establishment. These include the former Prime Minister David Cameron, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, former Mayor of London, current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Nick Hurd, current Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Services.
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 over 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 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. 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».
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. 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.
In 2007 a photograph of the Bullingdon Club taken in 1987 was discovered — it made the headlines because two of the posing members, Boris Johnson and David Cameron, 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. More recently, a photograph of the club during a safari has appeared in the press.
The club has always been noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets and boisterous rituals, such as vandalising (‘trashing’) of restaurants 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 posts, most notably the former British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and the Foreign Secretary 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, 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.»
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 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 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».
Photographs of club members
A number of photographs of club members have emerged over the years which give insights into the members.
A photograph taken in 1987 depicting David Cameron and Boris Johnson together amongst other members of the club, including Jonathan Ford of the Financial Times, is perhaps the most well-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 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 members 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 in 2011 or 2012. Pictured in the photograph are Hon. Michael Marks, Cassius Nicholas Green, Timothy Aldersly, Charles Clegg, Alick Dru and Hon. George Farmer – the son of senior treasurer of the Conservative Party, Michael 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 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 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: