Breaking the Bullingdon Club Omertà: Secret Lives of the Men Who Run Britain
Vandalism, blood, and hookers. A Daily Beast investigation exposes the best-kept secrets of Britain’s most powerful men; the hidden archive; the club’s latest outbreak of destruction; new heavyweight members named and Prime Minister David Cameron’s hushed-up past.
OXFORD — The tablecloth was drenched in red wine and blood; broken plates littered the floor and a young man in a $5,000 suit lay unconscious.
Strewn across the Tudor room at the luxury Manor hotel in north Oxfordshire was proof that Oxford University’s notorious Bullingdon Club is still raising hell in 2015, despite claims that their excesses had been checked by negative publicity and mortified former members. “They walked in here as if they were the Royal Family”, John Wood, one of the waiters that served them, told The Daily Beast. “One half were drinking themselves silly, the other half smashing up the crockery.”
The 15 students were served 24 bottles of red wine, 24 bottles of white wine, and plenty of champagne. The damage they inflicted ran into hundreds of dollars.
After three years as a student at Oxford, this was my first glimpse of the Bullingdon in action as part of an unprecedented investigation into the drinking society’s past and present, which is based on discoveries from the archives and interviews with recent and former club members.
Three of the most powerful men in Britain today—the prime minister, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and the mayor of London—were all members, joining an illustrious list of alumni that includes ambassadors, countless CEOs, titans of the financial industry, and four kings. Because the members swear a code of silence, or “omertà,” when initiated, the club has been shrouded in mystery until now.
The night at the Manor began at around half past nine on a cold night in February, a beaten up minibus arrived at the hotel in Weston on the Green, north Oxfordshire. They swaggered out, tipsy from the Dom Pérignon they’d enjoyed on the ride. They’d been picked up from a secret location on Walton Street in the Oxford suburb of Jericho wearing their outfits from Oxford tailor Ede and Ravenscroft.
A set of club rules from 1850, found in a small blue booklet with gold embossed letters and yellowed with age, describes the very same outfit they wear to this day. “The Uniform of the club,” it says, “shall consist of a Blue Tie, Blue Coat, Brass Buttons, Buff Waistcoat, Blue Trousers.”
Oxford establishments won’t have them. The Kings Arms, a popular student pub, banned them from entering the building when the Bullingdon boys started a fire in one of the rooms and smashed an antique mirror in 2006. That was just a friendly drink. Their organized events—known as “blinds”—have been banished from the city for more than 100 years. They were ordered not to hold any meetings within 15 miles of central Oxford in 1894 after smashing all 534 windows in Peckwater, a quad in Christ Church, the grandest of Oxford’s colleges.
Among this year’s vintage were the sons of some of Britain’s wealthiest and best-connected men. Based on the club’s history, one of them could well be ruling Britain within the next few decades.
The Manor is an old English country establishment, built in the 11th century as a monastery, before being gifted by Elizabeth I to Sir Henry Norreys in the 16th century. It is now a luxurious hotel with swimming pools and a tennis court. The living room has heavy armchairs and the Polo Times and Four Shires magazines decorate the table while a fire crackles in the background. Under a false name, the club reserved an oak paneled room with emerald colored walls dominated by a massive mahogany table in the center. The room is a good distance from the main dining hall so that the other guests won’t notice a commotion.
As tradition dictates, the plates soon start flying. “A bunch of pissed up toffs, that’s all they were,” said the waiter. “One of the group cut his hand open, another passed out on the floor. Not that much worse than you’d get from another group of young lads their age.” The damage is relatively affordable this time, around five hundred dollars, on top of the food and drinks, they settled the check in cash. By 11 p.m., the minibus is just around the corner to drive them back into Oxford to continue the night.
Thirty years earlier a group of young men in exactly the same outfits, stumbled out into the early hours of a summer’s day. One of them, Ralph Perry-Robinson, would later describe how they decided to play a prank on another student. They started throwing whatever they could find at his window, while one scaled a drainpipe to try and break in. But one of the group fumbled a pot plant, which crashed through the window of a restaurant below. The terrified student called the police and the group scampered off across nearby Magdalen Bridge to hide in the botanical gardens.
Three of them, including a young David Cameron, now prime minister, and Boris Johnson, the current mayor of London and one of the favorites to replace Cameron who will stand down before 2020, made their getaway down nearby Queens Lane. The others were tracked down by sniffer dogs and spent a night in the cells of Cowley police station. The tale was recorded in a book of essays published the following year, The Oxford Myth (1988). The story’s author Sebastian Shakespeare, now a journalist at the Daily Mail said Ralph Perry-Robinson no longer takes calls about the club. “Ralph got into terrible trouble with his contemporaries for blabbing to me in that book,” Shakespeare said. “It’s not the done thing. Whenever I remind Mayor Boris about his time in the club, he whispers ‘Omertà, Omertà’ under his breath.”
Cameron would later deny being there that night. He was ambushed by a BBC interviewer who drew uncomfortable parallels between his old club and the actions of disaffected young people during the London riots, for whom Cameron was demanding tough justice. He claimed he had gone to bed early that night, which two sources there on the day claim was “rubbish.” “There is no question Cameron witnessed destruction of property,” one former member told The Daily Beast.
Andrew Gimson, Johnsons’ biographer, told me, “The Bullingdon boys wanted to take greater risks. They thought of themselves as elite, proud of its money and its connections.”
It is obvious why Cameron, who also attended Eton—Britain’s most elite boarding school, wants to disassociate himself from such behavior while his government preaches austerity and national belt-tightening. His claim when he came to power was that cuts to public expenditure would affect the whole of society equally. Despite economic analysis to the contrary, you can still buy a Conservative poster that claims, “We’re all in this together.”
The allegation made against the club is that it shows there is one rule for the rich and another for everyone else.
Two young students, who said they were members of the Bullingdon, reinforced the point on the day Cameron was elected prime minister in 2010. Dressed in suits, ties, and top hats while drinking champagne they unfurled a poster on an Oxfordshire polling booth featuring a photo of Cameron that read “BRITONS, KNOW YOUR PLACE. VOTE ETON-VOTE TORY.”
The people duly obeyed; and Cameron is now in his fifth year as prime minister.
The Bullingdon has been an influential social institution for much longer than previously thought. It was founded as a cricket club in 1780. The first written records show that it never took this seriously. A match register from June 1795 shows the club being thrashed by eight wickets by Marylebone Cricket Club, which established the sport of cricket less than a decade earlier. The following year they lost by 200 runs. By 1846, the register records simply that “Bullingdon gave up the match.”
By then the club had already gained a reputation that caused a University proctor to describe it as “a curse and disgrace to a place of Christian education.” The club’s archival records and photographs are meticulously preserved in the records of former members. A membership roll from the 19th century survives and contains a number of individuals, who have not previously been named as members. They include Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary who was passed over for prime minister by Winston Churchill in 1940; Edward Grey, foreign secretary during World War I; King Frederick VII of Denmark, and Lord Dunglass, father of future prime minister Alec Douglas-Home. Over a 50-year period, the club produced a prime minister, a chancellor of the Exchequer, three foreign secretaries, five First Lords of the Admiralty, around 50 members of parliament and over 100 peers of the realm. Dukes of Norfolk, Northumberland, Westminster, Roxburgh, and Buccleah all appear, sitting next to more familiar names such as King Edward VIII; Douglas Haig, Commander of the Allied Forces in World War I; Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill; and imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
The club’s receipts from this period give some idea of how little their lifestyles have changed. For a single dinner in 1868, the accounts show £56, around $8,000 in today’s money, paid to Henry Purdue and Co. Wine and Spirit Merchants for two cases of champagne, £28 pounds to William Hodgkin for the hire of 10 acres of land, and £33 for travel by horse and carriage around Oxford. After the night, £49 and 18 shillings to J Rickets Carpenter for “repairs executed at the most reasonable terms.” Annual receipts for the year come to a staggering £3000, equivalent to around $350,000 in modern money. The first surviving photo of the club, from 1861 features a young Prince of Wales in the center. Another picture from 1867 shows club president Archibald Primrose, later the 5th Earl of Rosebery and prime minister of the United Kingdom, standing in the center with arms folded and a smirk on his face. One hundred and twenty years later, another future prime minister, David Cameron, would take his place.
On the wall of the tailor Ede and Ravenscroft is a blurred photo of the club from 1925. It features members including Lord Longford, Labour leader of the House of Lords, Hugh Lucas-Tooth, then the youngest ever MP at 21, and Roger Lumley, the Grandmaster of the British Freemasons. It was these men who Evelyn Waugh satirized in Decline and Fall as the “Bollinger Club.” He called them “epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands.”
Mike Bignell, an amateur historian who was a member of the Gridiron Club in the 1970s and knew the Bullingdon members well, points out one figure from the 1976 photo. “I knew him at college. He ended up getting kicked out of Christ Church for doing no work. But before that, he missed a tutorial and gave the excuse that he was having lunch with the Queen. Thinking they had him, his tutors phoned up Buckingham Palace, only to find that he was telling them truth.”
The real treasure at Ede and Ravenscroft lies at the back of the shop, behind a low door in the wall. This is the Bullingdon Club’s secret photo archive, which stretches back 80 years, showing dozens of images of young men posing in tie and tailcoat on the stone steps of Christ Church’s Canterbury Quad including many of hitherto unknown members. One photo, from 1951, shows the former provost of Eton and ambassador to the United States, Anthony Acland, as well as the former governor of the Bank of England, Robin Leigh Pemberton. This includes the original copy of a notorious image from 1987, which show a sultry looking Cameron and Johnson posing with eight other young men. The shot was originally printed in James Hanning and Francis Elliot’s 2007 biography of Cameron, but the photography company, Gilman and Soame, quickly prohibited the dissemination—alleging copyright infringement. Many suspect that the Conservative Party had a hand in this. Gilman and Soame had no problem allowing the publication of a photo they own of then Labour leader Ed Miliband in white tie academic dress, which was widely published just before the last election.
Another photo on the wall of the tailor shows an equally notorious image of Chancellor George Osborne, while another previously unpublished photo from 1988 shows David Cameron occupying the position of club president, chest puffed out and a sneering smile on his face. But you can now no longer view these photos. After their existence became known, the tailor told me that it was now a “staff only bathroom.” When I asked whether the photo of the PM in the back had anything to do with this, he winced slightly and replied: “Well, yes and no.”
One of the Bullingdon boys from that era, let’s call him James, agreed to meet me for lunch. He greets me in a gruff antipodean accent in a café down the road from Buckingham Palace. With a slightly open shirt, and a scraggly beard, he says he doesn’t want to be named because “honestly, I regret it deeply.” He believes he is the only member in over 20 years to not have come from a private school.
Over a meal of smoked salmon and black coffee, James tells me about a club dinner in 1986 where the club hired a boat on which they drank 1895 Armagnac as well as innumerable bottles of champagne. He now has serious misgivings about the club, but described this night, also attended by the “witty, charming, and already ferociously ambitious young Boris Johnson” as one of the most spectacular of his life.
The selection process he describes is simple enough. A candidate must be proposed and seconded, but if he is not a “sound enough fellow” he can be black balled.
The initiation rites, which Johnson and Cameron participated in, have become the stuff of legend. One member told me how current members will still “trash” the room of the person they will initiate, spraying the walls with champagne, tearing photographs, and cutting up mattresses. Radek Sikorski, an Oxford classmate of Johnson in the ’80s, and later foreign minister of Poland, told Gimson how he endured the ritual. At the end of it, he shook Johnson’s hand and was told “Congratulations man, you have been chosen.” Despite claims that these rituals were a thing of the past, one member who joined recently returned to find his room trashed and a set of directions to place a certain part of his body into the mouth of a dead pig, inspired by Cameron’s alleged indiscretions.
The number of members varies between around 10 to 20 and includes a president, treasurer, and secretary. They hold three or four major events per year, including the summer dinner and the buller brekker.
The “brekker” is the most licentious event of the year. At the time of Cameron and Johnson’s membership, Perry-Robinson described one of their breakfast events in 1986: “We always hire whores… prostitutes were paid extra by members who wanted to use them.” But, he admitted, “there is not really much point in hiring a prostitute if you consume two bottles of champagne” and “if you have 12 friends standing around, it takes quite an effort of will to go for it.”
After these events is when the notorious room smashing occurs. An old article found in the archives of the Oxford Student newspaper has one member recalling how they took pleasure in inviting a string band to a party before proceeding to destroy all their instruments, including a priceless Stradivarius violin. Another member, at a party at L’Ortolan in Berkshire, ate his wine glass along with his Michelin starred meal. A current member described similar scenes, except that last year’s celebrations took place in a hotel in Amsterdam.
Several of those in the Bullingdon this year agreed to speak off the record. Already, they were worried about the effect of the Bullingdon on their reputations. “Is [the story] a name and shame?” one of them asked me. The most damaging recent allegation claimed that a club member burned a £50 note in front of a tramp. “Can you make clear that this isn’t true… that kind of thing would never happen,” one recent member tells me. While the Bullingdon members have an obvious reason to want to clear their names, I couldn’t find any evidence that this ever took place, and the original article on the Huffington Post has since been retracted and replaced with a note saying it was an “unfounded allegation.”
James has had longer to reflect on the nature of his regrets. “Everyone does stupid stuff when they are young,” he tells me, “but the Bullingdon was different.” He remembered having fond memories of several fellow members, but believed that the destruction was organized and run by a core of members, including Darius Guppy and Gottfried von Bismarck, who he called as a “complete sociopath. One of the scariest people I’ve ever met, with no moral conscience whatsoever.” Bismarck was known in Oxford for dinners in which pig heads were served and became internationally notorious after Olivia Channon, the daughter of a Conservative minister at the time, died after ingesting a lethal cocktail of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin in his Christ Church room.
James recalled one incident where a fellow club member had surreptitiously urinated in a jug of port in a college bar, before calling over a waitress asking why it “tasted off.” “She returned a few minutes later and snarled ‘you people are the most disgusting people I’ve ever met, get out of here now.’ I saw the look of disgust on her face, as well as the smug grin on his, and decided that I’d had enough. I never wanted anyone to look at me like that again. So I got out.”
James tells me about a culture of “institutionalized bad behavior where you are rewarded for getting drunk and doing as much damage as possible.” In almost every case, they suffer no lasting consequences. The Bullingdon trash pubs, start fights, and drink themselves into a coma, before paying everyone off with wads of cash. In 1913, The New York Times reported that after a particularly destructive night, the members were called in front of a proctor and “it was believed they were to be sent down [expelled]… to the surprise of Oxford, the proctor only imposed a fine of £5 each.” This is a recurring theme in the club’s history. In 2001, Tony Clark, a Labour MP told Parliament about “a bunch of drunken toffs who caused mayhem… leaving a marquee covered in broken crockery, splintered tables, and the bodies of Buller men wearing tweed suits” which included Tom Lawson, son of former Chancellor Nigel Lawson. Despite the fact that 30 policemen arrived to deal with the party “they let the rich kids off with a caution.”
In 2004, landlord Ian Rodgers told BBC Radio 4 how a group of Oxford students, which included Princess Diana’s nephew Alexander Fellowes, had trashed his pub during a meal. “I called the police and told them that I wanted them all prosecuted. But when I called the next day, they had let them all go with a fine.” A Bullingdon member who was there described Rodgers as having “no sense of humor.”
In 2011, the Daily Mail reported that the Bullingdon President Nick Green had allegedly assaulted his ex-girlfriend’s new lover so ferociously that he was taken to hospital. Green declined to give an interview. He said: “Nothing good can come from talking about the Bullingdon.” He was not asked about the alleged assault by The Daily Beast, although the Daily Mail reported at the time that his lawyers had declined to comment. He was never arrested or charged.
Perhaps, the most shocking event occurred in 1977. Bartholomew Smith, son of a former Conservative MP, who was pictured next to the future Dukes of Norfolk, Northumberland, and Buccleah caused a three-car pile up while driving his Maserati. An expert witness at his trial claimed that he had been driving at “maniacal” speed and was “considerably intoxicated” after a club dinner. He killed four people, including Chelsea footballer Peter Houseman and his wife. Despite being convicted of dangerous driving causing death and having four previous driving convictions, he got off with a driving ban and a fine.
In 1909, Winston Churchill summed the situation up with characteristic bombast. Lord Winterton, a former member, was opposing clemency for young offenders leaving Churchill to surmise: “7000 lads of the poorer classes are sent to gaol every year for offenses which, if the noble Lord had committed them at college, he would not have been subjected to the slightest degree of inconvenience.”
When Cameron demanded “tough justice” for young criminals after the London riots more than a century later, Churchill was no longer on hand to point out the hypocrisy.
While the club’s political connections are well known, its association with the worlds of banking and international business are even more striking. The Baring banking family has a long association with the club. The first Baring on record is Thomas Baring, Earl of Northbrook, from a register in 1846. He later went on to be Viceroy of India and First Lord of the Admiralty. Mark Francis Baring, son of the former Chair of BP, Lord Ashburton, is the most recent, and can be seen in the 1980 photo. The club records count nine other members of the family. The heads of the Rothschild banking family, Jacob and his son Nathaniel, were both members. For all Winston Churchill’s admonitions about the club’s hypocrisy, his grandson Rupert Soames, now CEO of outsourcing giant Serco, which recently won millions of pounds in government contracts, was also a member, although there is no suggestion that those contracts were not awarded through the correct channels. The amount of wealth and power concentrated in former club members is staggering, with Jacob Rothschild alone estimated to be worth more than $7 billion.
Membership of the Bullingdon gives access to an incomparable alumni network. You can find photos of Boris Johnson posing with recent president Nick Green in 2013, or George Osborne attending a Bullingdon Club event in 1997, while already working for Prime Minister John Major. Thirty years after running from the police together, Jonathan Ford would contribute to a Financial Times editorial endorsing his old Buller friend Cameron in the 2015 general election, after saying Labour were “too preoccupied with inequality.” Although in April 2010, shortly after Ford had joined the FT as Chief Leader writer, the newspaper published an exclusive interview with a member of Cameron’s old club who gave a markedly different view on why Cameron should become prime minister. “We always thought we were going to be running the country,” he said. “We talked of who would be the one to lead the Conservative Party when the time came.”
After Cameron became the chosen one, he appointed his friend from the Buller, George Osborne as his Chancellor—Britain’s second most powerful position. Cameron also welcomed Boris Johnson into the Cabinet in the summer. They had been among six members of the ’87 club who reportedly gathered for a reunion in 2008 to fundraise for Johnson’s earlier successful campaign to be mayor of London. Fellow member Sebastian James, CEO of Dixons Carphone, a tech company worth over £3.8billion, was appointed to head a Government panel overseeing state school spending.
Not every Bullingdon story ends so happily. Von Bismarck was found dead at the age of 44 in his $7.5 million London flat. The post-mortem concluded that he had the highest level of cocaine in his system the coroner had ever seen, along with Hepatitis B and C, liver cirrhosis, and HIV. Darius Guppy ended up in jail for fraud. Another member, Henry Percy, later the Duke of Northumberland, died after an amphetamine overdose in 1995. “That’s why Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is such a great novel about Oxford. It’s not really about the grandeur. It’s about the disillusionment. Sebastian Flyte ends up drinking himself to oblivion,” said James.
One well-placed Oxford student told me that the club has had a recruiting problem for some time. Because of the huge publicity surrounding the club, the kind of people who want to join are those who want the publicity; an attribute, which in itself, should preclude one from being “sound” enough to be a member. There are other, more respectable societies now, such as the Gridiron, the Stoics or the Frat, which have the Bullingdon parties without the intense scrutiny. The truly ambitious now choose those. One student, well connected in Oxford politics told me that “I can’t understand why so many people I like so much on a personal level get involved with such a nasty institution.” But such is the stigma of the club that he did not want to be named in this piece even on such a tangential level. One young woman remembered with a grimace how a club member took her to a fancy dinner at a country estate, before attempted to court her with the line “you could be Mrs. Buller.”
Jeremy Catto, a retired Oxford history don, believes the more recent Bullingdon members are not living up to their grand history. “They have become lazy,” he said. “In the past they drove sports cars, today they only meet to eat and drink, probably not one of them has learned to sit properly on a horse.”
In modern day Oxford they can be found in a nightclub called the Bridge, close to the train station. One night earlier this year, some friends and I went up the stairs, past a throng of people, and through an entranceway that opens into a VIP room. We sat down at the largest table, which was surrounded by a red rope.
In 2013, Orme Alexander Clarke, a former club member, reportedly let off a firework in this club’s smoking area area, but no charges were ever brought. One witness to the event told me that he had done it because “he knew they would get away with it.”
A few Bullingdon members were sitting around us, some glared but none addressed us, so we poured some champagne and a little Grey Goose. Despite their fearsome reputation, they seemed unsure about what to do when people didn’t scurry out of their way at a second’s notice.
“Hey man, why are we letting them do this?” one grumbled. “I don’t know, why are we?” another snapped back, before turning back to stare at his phone. Eventually, they slink off into the rest of the club.
In Brideshead, Anthony Blanche is disappointed on meeting the club in person and realizing that their reputation is more braggadocio than bravery. “The louder they shouted, the shyer they seemed,” he said. He soon realized that their scrapes as students would be boasted about and exaggerated for decades until “they are all married to scraggy little women like hens and have cretinous porcine sons like themselves getting drunk at the same club dinner in the same coloured coats.”
Harking back to overblown accounts “their barnyard daughters will snigger and think their father was quite a dog in his day, and what a pity he’s grown so dull.”