Into Battle, a new play by Hugh Salmon focused on a student feud at Balliol College in the years prior to the First World War is set to open in London this month. 

The play focuses on the feud between members of the Annandale Society, and the less privileged members of the College whom they victimised. The Annandale Society, described by The Guardian as “more elitist than Oxford’s Bullingdon Club”, was composed exclusively of Old Etonians.

The thuggish behaviour of members of the ‘Anna’ included wrecking other students’ rooms, setting loose bulldogs on rabbits in the quad, and whipping non-Balliol students out of the College. The play focuses on three particular members: brothers Julian and Billy Grenfell, and club president Patrick Shaw-Stewart. Also prominent are two of their enemies: Keith Rae and future England Rugby Captain Ronald Poulton.

Rae, a home-educated student from Liverpool, was particularly victimised by the Society. Rae was constantly verbally abused, and his belongings were thrown out of his window on numerous occasions. Both Poulton and Rae were committed members of the Balliol Boys Club, set up to help local children from underprivileged backgrounds.

All five of the play’s main characters would be killed in the First World War, with Rae and Billy Grenfell dying while serving in the same regiment in Belgium in July 1915. 

Rae’s father, stockbroker Edward, was aware of his son’s commitment to charity. He founded a trust which continues to this day and is currently chaired by Balliol English Literature professor Seamus Perry.

The play is not the first to focus on the elitism in Oxford’s exclusive clubs. 2014’s The Riot Club depicted the destructive and abusive behaviour of a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club. 

Some may feel an unease at the potentially off-putting image of Oxford life these depictions may give to prospective applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, Balliol’s JCR president Shreya Kirpalani said that media can also “open up a conversation about such issues” and are “rather engaging starting points for discourse around class and access at the university”.

Many more egregious instances of elitism no longer occur. The Annandale society, for instance, was closed in the 1930s by left-leaning Master Sandie Lindsay. 

However, Balliol continues to award a travel grant worth up to £4000 to undergraduates who “have had at least part of their previous education at Eton College”, and members of the University from disadvantaged backgrounds have previously described their struggles against classism from more privileged students. 

Efforts continue to be made to curb this, both on a college and University-wide level. Kirpalani pointed out that over the past year the JCR has ”restructured room rents to make many more rooms a fair bit cheaper”, and “worked closely with College to ensure that all students who needed support due to the impact of COVID on their financial lives did receive it”.

The JCR also cooperates with the College’s Access team to organise tours and encourage prospective applicants from a range of backgrounds, and appoints Class and First Generation officers to address student’s class-related concerns. In 1906, when Into Battle was partly set, Old Etonians comprised 18 of Balliol’s 53 freshers. In 2020, there was only one among 137. 

Dame Helen Ghosh, Balliol’s Master, said that “Oxford and Balliol have changed out of all recognition in the last 100 years, in terms of the diversity of our students, the backgrounds they come from – and how we expect them to behave.”

Into Battle will run between the 13th and the 30th of October at the Greenwich Theatre.

Image credit: Tony Ord/CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

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