‘Elite v plebs’: Oxford rivalries between boys who will never become men | Theater


It was even more elitist than the Oxford Bullingdon Club, whose former members include Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne.

The Annandale Society, nicknamed the Anna, was made up exclusively of former Etonians of Balliol College, Oxford, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They had their own dining table, smashed dishes by throwing them down the stairs, ransacked the rooms of other undergraduates, chased non-Balliol from college grounds, and ritually, verbally and physically mistreated, some of their own comrades.

Now the story of five young men who attended college shortly before World War I – three Anna’s Old Etonian members and two non-Etonians – has been turned into a play, which will debut in London this month. next.

In combat Not only conveys the feud between this trio of Balliol Old Etonians and the other two students, but the looming war, in which, by a tragic coincidence, all five were killed.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart, president of the elite Annandale Society, was celebrated for his war poem Achilles in the Trench. Photography: to be confirmed

It was also the name of a poem written by Annandale member Julian Grenfell, who – despite his rogue behavior in Oxford – was a renowned poet, commemorated at the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. His poem Into Battle was a pro-war play written in 1915 and received public acclaim when published posthumously.

The idea for the play came after former publicity manager Hugh Salmon helped a friend research and publish a book about English rugby union player Ronald Poulton, who captained his country during the international final before the first world war. Poulton, one of the non-Old Etonians in the Salmon drama, had also been to Balliol before the war.

“He was not just an extremely talented player. As I rummaged through the archives and old books, and after talking to relatives, I discovered this extraordinary feud with the Eton crowd,” said Salmon, whose full brother Jamie was – single – selected for rugby by England and New Zealand in the 1980s.

Salmon’s play focuses on three Old Etonians in particular: Grenfell, his younger brother Billy, who behaved in the crudest manner, and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, president of the infamous Anna. Shaw-Stewart also became a war poet, best known for his verse Achilles in the Trench – also referred to as Saw a Man This Morning – which was found after his death in France in December 1917.

This trio looked down upon the others in college, whom they called ‘plebs,’ and lashed out at Poulton and, in particular, his close friend Keith Rae, who had been educated at his home in Liverpool due to a bad illness. health. Rae was a Christian with very strong social convictions. He and Poulton were mainstays of the Balliol Boys’ Club, which had been established to help underprivileged youth in the area.

But Rae and Poulton ranted against the appalling behavior of the Annandale Society, including, according to Salmon, “releasing rabbits in an enclosed quad for a bulldog to kill them.” On another occasion, they disguised themselves as prehistoric men, ransacking the college, smashing windows, and throwing beds out of them.

“The Grenfell brothers were particularly ugly. It was intimidation and not just good humor. Billy was really mad at Keith Rae, insulting him and throwing his things out of his room, while Julian even used a whip to force a student from another college out of Balliol’s grounds.

Billy Grenfell was eventually sent off for a year from college, while Julian had to take time off, returning to the family estate, where he lay for weeks on a couch with a loaded gun by his side.

By a twist of fate, Rae and Billy Grenfell, sworn enemies at Oxford, died fighting together in the same regiment against the common enemy of Germany on July 30, 1915 in the trenches of Belgium, near Ypres. .

“The Annandale was finally closed in the 1930s by then-left-wing Balliol’s master, Sandie Lindsay,” said Seamus Perry, professor of English literature at Balliol. Perry is also chairman of the Keith Rae Trust, which took over the role of the Balliol Boys’ Club in the early 1920s.

“Keith’s remains were never found, although his father Edward, devastated by the loss of his son, left to search,” said Alistair Rae, grandson of one of Edward’s brothers. and himself administrator.

Edward Rae, a stockbroker, was aware of his son’s commitment to young people and put money into establishing a new trust. A century later, he still gives annually to boys’ clubs and organizations across the UK.

This type of financial support is particularly welcome today, as public funding for boys ‘and girls’ clubs has been severely curtailed over the past decade. “In fact, he was wiped out,” said Andy Hamill, director of the National Association of Boys and Girls Clubs. “While today there is in principle more things to do for young people, those who have already joined youth clubs often came from more disadvantaged backgrounds and no longer have as much access to the full range of ‘activities available. “

In combat, which will take place at the Greenwich Theater in south-east London, looks back on the extraordinary events of just over a century ago at a college in Oxford. Today Balliol highlights how much that has changed. When Julian Grenfell first went there in 1906, he was one of 18 Old Etonians among his 53 freshers. Yet in 2020-2021, there was only one in 137.

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