Eton's old boy network

Terry Kirby looks at the school that connects the ruling classes, whether they hold sway over the worlds of politics, the arts, a regiment, a boardroom or merely the odd nation

Wednesday 07 December 2005 01:00 GMT


The 19 former prime ministers produced by Eton include Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Elder, Gladstone, Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alex Douglas-Home, not to mention countless ministers, top civil servants and diplomats. The apotheosis appears to have come during the Macmillan/Home years when, according to Nick Fraser, author of The Importance of Being Eton (published by Short Books next year), the joke was that a sign could be hung on the gates saying "Cabinet Makers to Her Majesty the Queen".

Although Mrs Thatcher apparently disliked many members of the Old Etonian club - sacking several from her cabinet in 1983 - others found favour, including Douglas Hurd, the former home and foreign secretary, Douglas Hogg, who served in a number of ministerial posts and Alan Clark, the roué and diarist, who served time as a defence minister and described Eton as " an early introduction to human cruelty, treachery and extreme physical hardship."

But perhaps the key Old Etonian of the post-war years was Hogg's late father, Lord Hailsham, formerly Quintin Hogg, who served in the Macmillan and Heath governments and was lord chancellor under Thatcher (see Law). Then there is Jonathan Aitken also liked by Thatcher, but never one of her ministers.

Boris Johnson claims the first of four entries on these pages as MP for Henley and former arts minister.

There are few radical politicians among Old Etonians, let alone Labour prime ministers. But Eton can lay claim to former MP for Linlithgow Tam Dalyell, left-wing troublemaker and Father of the House until earlier this year.

Arts and entertainment

Eton has such a conventional image, it is surprising how many authors, critics and artistic figures received their education here, some of whom could never be considered establishment lackeys.

They include George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Aldous Huxley, Henry Fielding, biographer Michael Holroyd, poet Percy Shelley and playwright Jeremy Sandford. Orwell, typically, took a caustic view of Eton: "Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there."

Actors include Hugh Laurie who once played a fictional Old Etonian, P G Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster. He said of his time at the school: "I just sort of plodded through it. I'd love to tell you I burned the place down ... but such was not the case. I was a bit of a square."

Other thespians include Damian Lewis and Christopher Cazenove, while Bamber Gascoigne and Humphry Lyttelton, jazz musician and host of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, are among the broadcasting alumni, as is, of course, Boris Johnson, occasional host of Have I Got News for You.

Eton does not seem to have produced many really cutting-edge figures or conceptual artists (at least, they don't advertise the fact), but Jay Jopling, owner of the White Cube gallery, a key figure on London's contemporary art scene, and husband of artist Sam Taylor-Wood, confesses to being a pupil.


It will come as no surprise that many of the Old Etonians in the media work or have worked on the right-ish side of the spectrum. The Telegraph group is and was rife with them. Dominic Lawson, son of Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor, and the former editor of The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, was a pupil, as was Charles Moore, Mrs Thatcher's biographer and former editor of The Daily Telegraph. Boris Johnson, the current editor of The Spectator and a former Brussels correspondent and columnist for The Daily Telegraph, can also claim inclusion here.

William Shawcross, the journalist and biographer of Henry Kissinger, is also an Old Etonian, as is Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast in the UK and, as is to be expected, one of the most well-connected media people in the country.

But the more radical fringe is still represented. David Jessell, the broadcaster responsible for uncovering many miscarriages of justice went to Eton, as did Anthony Lloyd, a foreign correspondent for The Times, who has confessed to addictions both to war reporting and heroin.

The City

While Eton once provided the bowler-hatted and pinstriped mainstays of the City and the boardroom - not to mention the odd governor of the Bank of England - today it likes to stress its credentials when it comes to creating more modern entrepreneurs. Eton produced two successful pioneers of internet trading - Johnnie Boden, the man who made shopping by catalogue fashionable again for the middle classes and Brent Hoberman, chief executive and powerhouse behind, one of few big successes of the boom. But these two are firmly in the mould of freewheeling individuals like Peter Palumbo and the late Sir James Goldsmith, old Etonians both.

However, the school's more traditional side is shown by such figures as David Coleridge, former chairman of Lloyds, Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays and one of the City's key figures and Oliver Letwin, who may have a job as a Tory MP and would-be member of Cameron's team, but would be likely to earn far more in his role as a director of Rothschild's corporate finance division. But even more important, Eton was the alma mater of John Maynard Keynes, father of modern economic thought.

The school

It has more obscure rituals and traditions than Harry Potter's Hogwarts or Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, while its internal rules can be as baffling as those for Mornington Crescent. To many, Eton is a throwback to an earlier age, an outdated anachronism in the modern world, rather like the Royal Family and members of the upper classes, many of whom were educated there themselves and like their offspring to follow in their footsteps.

But it is also the place where countless politicians, legislators, writers, musicians, warriors, sportsmen - there are, still, only men - and more than a few scoundrels, received their education. The name threads its way through the CVs and Who's Who listings of the great and the good.

Among them is David Cameron, the new Conservative Party leader, who may or may not become one of the 19 prime ministers of Britain who attended Eton.

Mr Cameron has a lot to live up to. No other school has a greater sense of its own history. This is where Percy Bysshe Shelley carved his initials on a desk. This is the place that also counts the Duke of Wellington, George Orwell and Sir Matthew Pinsent as former pupils (although they never call them pupils - they are Scholars or Oppidans and they wear a version of morning dress, described by one former pupil as "quasi-Hassidic" at all times). This is also a world where lessons are called schools, a term is a half and a sixth-former is a Specialist.

Paradoxically, despite its reputation as an establishment breeding ground, Eton has produced its share of free thinkers - it educated the rebel Labour MP Tam Dalyell, visionary writer Aldous Huxley, and left-wing playwright Jeremy Sandford - although none of the 19 prime ministers were Labour ones.

Under the current administration its political influence is less pronounced - none of the current Cabinet went to Eton, whereas the Cabinet of Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the 1960s contained 11 Old Etonians. In the legal field four lord chancellors and a couple of lord chief justices have attended Eton and past pupils account for four out of the top 70 current judges in England and Wales.

The school was founded by Henry VI in 1440 as a place to educate students for King's College, Cambridge, and endowed with a substantial income from the surrounding lands. The original core of 70 King's Scholars, selected by competitive examination, still exists, but this has almost doubled in recent years with the addition of music, junior and sixth-form Scholarships. The remaining 1,200 or so Oppidans in theory simply have to have their name put down at birth, pass aptitude tests at 11 and then the common entrance examination for admission at 13. Oh yes, and have parents prepared to fork out around £23,000 a year for their education.

At Eton today, computers are de rigueur. Top hats were abolished in the 1960s and fagging in the 1970s - before Mr Cameron attended. Good grief, this could be a serious drawback in his bid to be a Conservative prime minister.

The armed forces

Although the Duke of Wellington's famous line about Waterloo being " fought and won on the playing fields of Eton" was almost certainly apocryphal, Eton has always had a strong military tradition.

It was, of course, the Iron Duke's alma mater and today membership of the school corps is automatic, unless you claim exemption.

A total of 37 Old Etonians have won the Victoria Cross in campaigns that included the Crimean War, the Zulu Wars and the Indian Mutiny. Thirteen were won in the First World War, five in the Second World War. All, of course, were earned by officers. The last was won posthumously by Colonel H Jones, who died during the famous battle for Goose Green in the Falklands War.

Less celebrated, perhaps, is Simon Mann, the mercenary who is currently serving a long prison sentence in Zimbabwe for his involvement in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea.


With four lord chancellors and a couple of lord chief justices behind them, there is a major tradition of Eton pupils heading for the Bar. However, relatively few of the current crop of leading judges are Etonians and none are exactly household names. The most senior is Sir Robert Morritt, Chancellor of the High Court.

In recent years, the most famous old Etonian to have risen to the top of his profession was Quintin Hogg, a former barrister, who as Lord Hailsham, was lord chancellor for many years under Margaret Thatcher and one of the era's great behind-the-scenes fixers. He himself followed in the footsteps of his father, the first Viscount, who was attorney general and then twice lord chancellor in the 1920s and 30s. Lord Hailsham's son, Douglas Hogg, also an old Etonian, a barrister and still a Conservative MP, was once tipped to become the third member of the family to occupy the Woolsack, but that now seems unlikely.

The world's rulers

Probably the most infamous of the many royals to have attended Eton was the late Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal, who, demonstrating the worth of a classical and expensive education, massacred eight members of his family, including his father, King Birendra, and his brother, Prince Nirajan, both also former Eton scholars, in a drunken rage in June 2001. He turned the gun on himself and died later. The Eton website lists him as King Dipendra, which he was, if only for a few hours.

Overseas royals and Arab dynasties have always been keen to get their offspring into Eton and a long list includes the late King Leopold of Belgium, Prince Zara Yacob of Ethiopia and the Maharajah of Jodhpur.

In a break with British royal tradition, both Princes William and Harry attended Eton. The latter's art teacher took the college to an industrial tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal. Although she won her case, the tribunal rejected suggestions that she had been asked to do some of the Prince's work.

... and the rogues

The list of infamous Eton alumni is long and entertaining and full of people without whom the world might be a considerably duller place. Prime ministers we can live without, but these people we relish.

The indiscretions of colourful characters such as the late Ronald Ferguson (Royal polo manager and father of the Duchess of York; various sexual scandals), Lord Lambton, (former Conservative minister, involved in sex and drugs scandal), Alan Clark, (former Conservative MP and minister, serial adulterer and gossip), Boris Johnson (Conservative MP and former shadow minister, alleged adulterer who insulted Liverpool) have enlivened the nation over the past three decades.

More serious misdemeanours have raised questions in the House, never mind eyebrows, as in the case of Guy Burgess, the drink-sozzled star of the infamous Burgess-Maclean-Philby spy ring. A former diplomat who defected to Russia in 1951, he has been the subject of fascination ever since and the inspiration for Alan Bennett's play, An Englishman Abroad.

Eton can boast its share of convicted criminals, who include Darius Guppy, the old Etonian convicted of attempting to defraud Lloyds out of £1.8m by staging a fake jewellery robbery. He was sent to prison for six years; he doesn't figure on Eton's list of notable former pupils.

Then there is the one that got away. Lord Lucan, gambler and man about town, who vanished in September 1974 after killing his children's nanny, is still officially on the run. The Eton website simply lists him as "missing".

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