‘Elite v plebs’: the Oxford rivalries of boys who would never grow up to be men

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

The Annandale Society, nicknamed the Anna, was made up exclusively of Old Etonians at Balliol College, Oxford, in the late 19th and early 20th century. They had their own table for meals, smashed crockery by throwing it down staircases, trashed the rooms of other undergraduates, whipped non-Balliol members out of the college grounds, and ritually abused, verbally and physically, some of their own fellow students.

Now the story of five young men who attended the college shortly before the first world war – three Old Etonian members of the Anna and two non-Etonians – has been turned into a play, opening in London next month

Into Battle conveys not just the feud between this trio of Balliol Old Etonians and the other two students, but the imminent war, in which, by a tragic coincidence, all five were killed.

It was also the name of a poem written by one Annandale member, Julian Grenfell, who – despite his thuggish behaviour at Oxford – was a poet of some note, being commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. His poem Into Battle was a pro-war piece written in 1915 and was met with popular acclaim when published posthumously.

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

“He was not just an extremely talented player. As I dug around in archives and old books, and after talking to relatives, I found out about this extraordinary feud with the Eton crowd,” said Salmon, whose own brother Jamie was – uniquely – capped for rugby by both England and New Zealand in the 1980s.

Salmon’s play concentrates on three particular Old Etonians: Grenfell, his younger brother Billy, who behaved the most boorishly, 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 called I Saw a Man This Morning – which was found after his death in France in December 1917.

This trio despised the others at the college, whom they called “plebs”, and took it out on Poulton and, in particular, his close friend Keith Rae, who had been educated at home in Liverpool because of poor health. Rae was a Christian with very strong social convictions. He and Poulton were stalwarts of the Balliol Boys’ Club, which had been set up to help underprivileged local youngsters.

But Rae and Poulton fumed at the appalling behaviour of the Annandale Society, including, according to Salmon, “letting loose rabbits in a closed quad for a bulldog to kill them”. On another occasion, they dressed up as prehistoric men, rampaging through college, breaking windows and hurling beds out of them.

“The Grenfell brothers were particularly awful. This was bullying and not just high spirits. Billy really had it in for Keith Rae, insulting him and throwing his belongings 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 finally sent down for a year by the college, while Julian had to take a term off, returning to his family estate, where he lay for weeks on a sofa with a loaded rifle at his side.

By an extraordinary twist of fate, Rae and Billy Grenfell, sworn foes at Oxford, died fighting together in the same regiment against the common enemy of Germanyon 30 July 1915 in the trenches of Belgium, very close to Ypres.

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

“The remains of Keith were never found, though his father Edward, devastated by the loss of his son, went searching,” said Alistair Rae, a grandson of one of Edward’s brothers and himself a trustee.

Edward Rae, a stockbroker, was aware of his son’s commitment to young people, and put up the money to establish a new trust. A century on, it still gives each year to boys’ clubs and organisations around the UK.

This sort of financial support is particularly welcome today because government funding for boys’ and girls’ clubs has been severely cut back over the past decade. “In fact it has been decimated,” said Andy Hamill, director of the National Association of Boys and Girls Clubs. “While today there are more things, in principle, for youngsters to do, those who once joined youth clubs often came from more deprived backgrounds, and now don’t have as much access to the full range of activities out there.”

Into Battle, which will run at the Greenwich theatre in south-east London, looks back at the extraordinary events of just over a century ago at one Oxford college. Today, Balliol points out how much it has changed. When Julian Grenfell first went there in 1906, he was one of 18 Old Etonians among its 53 freshers. Yet in 2020-21 there was just one from the intake of 137.

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