The Bullingdon Club: When gentlemen fall out

Nat Rothschild was furious with George Osborne, believing he had betrayed a confidence. He exacted his revenge as only the posh can. By David Randall

How must the floppy-haired public schoolboys of the Bullingdon Club be knowingly nodding their heads this weekend. "Oik" Osborne, as he was apparently known to his fellow members (because his "people" had less money than theirs did), was the one who, in the end, let the side down. They'd known he was an arriviste, that he wasn't quite the full shilling, and so once, in a light-hearted Oxford moment, they'd held him up by his feet until he'd confessed, with a Bunteresque howl, to being "despicable". And, sure enough, in the fullness of time, he'd proved he couldn't live by their code.

He'd squealed. He'd told tales out of school. He'd betrayed a confidence garnered while enjoying country house hospitality. Thus he had broken one of those arcane, unspoken rules that has always made the lives of the English upper classes so richly comic – like never groping another man's mistress under the table before the first course is served, not wearing a yellow buttonhole after the Wednesday of Ascot week, or refraining from shooting one of the beaters before your host has had a go. "Oik" had offended, and amends had to be made. What should it be? A letter of apology on his club's headed notepaper? Not enough. Ostracism? Hardly, the chap may be chancellor one day. And so, horsewhipping having passed out of fashion, the slighted host, Nathaniel Rothschild, invoked the only real alternative: retaliation. Indiscretion was met with indiscretion, and honour – via a letter to the editor of The Times alleging that the "Oik" had been cadging from a Russian billionaire – was satisfied.

Whatever the final political ramifications of this episode, yet another chapter of absurdity has been added to the lengthy history of disputes among gentlemen. In distant days, fallings out were far more entertaining, carrying with them the possibility of violence, albeit in a codified form. The duel was so regulated that it had everything but an offside law, and was, until 19th-century health and safety squeamishness took hold, an entirely acceptable way of settling all kinds of matters: gambling (Sir George Wharton and Sir James Stuart in 1609 after a game of cards in Islington), political differences (Castlereagh v Canning in 1809 over where to deploy troops during the Napoleonic Wars), artistic criticism (Edouard Manet, ably assisted by his second, Emile Zola, v critic Louis Duranty in 1870), and women (Richard Brinsley Sheridan and a Captain Matthews in a quarrel over the affections of one Elizabeth Linley).

Some were fought over weightier matters even than these. In 1765, Lord Byron, great-grandfather of the poet, killed his cousin William Chaworth in a duel fought after a difference of opinion over whose method of hanging game was the better. Byron won, and acquired something of a taste for violently settling disputes, once shooting his coachman mid-journey. He manhandled the man's body into the coach beside his wife, and took the reins himself. And then, in 1840, there was the Great Victorian Officers' Mess Dispute, otherwise known as the Black Bottle Affair, which began with a difference of opinion over the correct receptacle for decanting wine, and ended in a wounding and a subsequent trial. It featured the seventh Earl of Cardigan, one of the lunatics in charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, who had ordered an officer called Captain Reynolds to be arrested for placing on a table at the regimental HQ in Canterbury a black bottle of wine rather than a decanter. An account of the silly business appeared in the Morning Chronicle, and Cardigan challenged its author, Captain Harvey Tuckett, to a duel on Wimbledon Common. Tuckett was injured, the earl tried in the House of Lords, and, to no one's surprise, acquitted.

The colour of a bottle may seem trivial, but, to the protagonists, it was that hugely consequential thing, a matter of honour – as was the cause of the only recorded duel fought between two women, in 1792. Lady Almeria Braddock demanded a Mrs Elphinstone give her satisfaction in Hyde Park after the latter had implied the former was older than she claimed. An exchange of shots damaged Lady Almeria's hat, before a clash of swords sent her opponent bleeding from the field.

Pistols and swords at the alarming time of dawn were the preferred method of duellists, but there are records of confrontations between balloonists and two men armed with billiard balls. The palm for the unconventional goes, however, to one Rudolf Virchow, who, when challenged by Otto von Bismarck, exercised his right to choose the weapons by opting for sausages, one of which was laced with the cholera baccilus. Informed of this, a horrified Bismarck called the whole thing off. But gentlemen in some societies have always been convinced of duelling's usefulness; Uruguay, for instance, did not outlaw the institution until 1992.

Wit is held – rather mystifyingly to those who've ever shot or fenced – to be as effective as any bullet or rapier, but its eventual consequences can be just as unhappy. Take Beau Brummel (real name Bryan, incidentally), who was famously a stickler in matters of comportment and dress. He took less trouble to mind his tongue, and that was his undoing. At a ball in 1813, he felt he had been "cut" by the corpulent Prince Regent, who had entered with Lord Alvanley. In response, he asked: "Alvanley, who's your fat friend?" The prince never spoke to him again; Brummel was cast into the social outer darkness; he had to flee to France, where he died, penniless and riddled with syphilis, 27 years later. (Nearly 100 years later Sir Frederick Johnstone was drunk enough at a country house party to call the rotund future Edward VII "Tum-Tum" to his face. Before breakfast the next day, Sir Frederick's bags were packed for his carriage to take him away.)

Some fallings out between gentlemen are not so much the result of a dispute as the presence of a querulous individual who could conduct a feud with a statue if there were no human adversaries available. Lord Queensberry, the persecutor of Oscar Wilde, once suspected Lord Rosebery, then Foreign Secretary, of both being a homosexual and lavishing preferment (and possibly more) on his second son, Lord Drumlanrig. He followed Rosebery to a German spa, threatened to dog-whip him, and was dissuaded only when the local Polizei turned up.

And then there was Lord Hugh Cecil. A long-time opponent of attempts to repeal the law that made it illegal for a man to marry his dead wife's sister (which Cecil denounced as "an act of sexual vice as immoral as concubinage"), when he discovered that his brother Robert's neighbour in Sussex had married his late wife's sister, he prevailed upon Robert to ostracise him. The neighbour seemed to tolerate this social froideur, but was a patient man and extracted his revenge in the long term. He planted a stand of trees on the boundaries of his property, thus, in time, obscuring the Cecils' view of the South Downs.

Lord Hugh could also conduct his fallings out en masse. Appointed provost of Eton just before the Second World War, he was soon at loggerheads with the college's governors. They, not unnaturally in wartime, felt the school should have bomb shelters; Cecil did not. He argued that it was no part of the school's in loco parentis brief to do anything other than instruct the young gentlemen, to which one master responded that teaching was difficult if the pupils were dead. Cecil dug his heels in (asked what he proposed to do if the Luftwaffe targeted the school, he replied he would ring for Tucker, his butler), and soon he was barely on speaking terms with the entire governing body. The matter, to Cecil's permanent disgust, was settled in favour of the governors.

The record for not being on "speakers" is probably held by the 11th and 12th Dukes of Bedford, who, after some long-forgotten argument, did not exchange a word for more than 20 years. Both were noted eccentrics, the latter keeping huge numbers of budgerigars, writing about them for Country Life, and dying when, in trying to protect them from a lurking bird of prey, he shot himself rather than the hawk. But then family ties are no guarantee against gentlemen's disputes, as shown by Tsar Boris of Bulgaria and his brother Crown Prince Cyril, who fell out frequently in the 1930s over whose turn it was to drive the royal train. But then gentlemen, as one look at the Bullingdon members looking down their noses at the photographer's lens will tell you, are no more rational than we more common oiks.

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