A hundred years of the Hypocrites: farewell to a Oxford’s most notorious club

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A hundred years of the Hypocrites: farewell to a Oxford’s most notorious club

“It seems that now, after the second war, my contemporaries are regarded with a mixture of envy and reprobation, as libertines and wastrels.”

Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning, 1964.

Some time after 8 March 1924 and before end of the spring term, the Oxford Hypocrites Club was closed down, by order of the University authorities. Its brief, inglorious career was brought to an end after a riotous fancy dress party, notionally Victorian in theme, where members had dressed as vermilion-lipsticked choir boys, nuns, and powdered ladies, amidst a variety of other outré disguises. Madame de Pompadour put in a guest appearance.

The Hypocrites was, essentially, a drinking club. Undergraduates, officially at least, were prohibited from going into Oxford pubs. The club’s premises, a member later wrote, were “two or three rooms over a bicycle shop in an ancient half- timbered house at the end of St Aldates”. It was situated in “the slums of the town. The reason why it was out of the way in one of those back streets must have been that the members made so much noise. It was a drinking club but was more, in the terrific roar of its evenings, the quarrels, the shouting and extravagance.” Another member recalled “a rich smell of onions and grilling meat. Usually the constable on the beat was standing in the kitchen, helmet in one hand, a mug of beer in the other.” More bluntly, the club was “a noisy alcohol-soaked rat-warren by the river”. After its closure, one member wrote to another, “What a blank Oxford will be.”

The identity of the authors of those quotes shows that this was no ordinary drinking club. They were written by the novelists Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Evelyn Waugh; the political journalist Claud Cockburn; and the greatly admired travel writer Robert Byron. Another member, Peter Quennell, one of the founders of History Today, described it as “a kind of early-twentieth-century Hell Fire Club”. Its most prominent members were born between 1903 and 1905.

Robert Byron

The Hypocrites Club began its career in late 1921. That’s the best guess, at least: record keeping was never one of the club’s strong points. There is no real agreement as to where precisely in St Aldgates it was situated, either – three separate addresses have been given. Nor do we know how much the subs were, or who was a member rather than a regular guest. Only that the club employed, full time, two waiters and a cook. She was, as far as we can tell, the only female ever to set foot on the premises.

We know too that the club began life as a considerably more respectable institution than it ended up. Powell later characterised its first iteration as “relatively serious and philosophy-talking”. According to Waugh, the first members were mostly from Winchester and Rugby. The club’s motto, taken from Pindar’s Olympian Ode, was “Water is Best”. Because its members were known far and wide for their flagrant disregard of this well-meant advice, the club acquired its familiar name.

In late 1922 a group of Etonians joined the Hypocrites and its character was transformed. As Powell put it, the membership changed “from shove-halfpenny playing Bohemians to fancy-dress wearing aesthetes”. This, he thought, “on the whole regrettable”. And Powell was from Eton. Evelyn Waugh wrote: “The difference between the two antagonistic parties may be expressed in parody by saying that the older members were disposed to an archaic turn of phrase, calling: ‘Drawer, a stoop of ale, prithee’, while the new members affected cockney, ordering: ‘Just a nip of dry London, for me wind, dearie’.”

Hypocrites 2.0, though never a gay club per se, became, in Waugh’s words, “notorious not only for drunkenness but for flamboyance of dress and manner which was in some cases patently homosexual”. The Secretary of the club had “ordained that ‘Gentlemen may prance but not dance’, but his rule was not observed after his sequestration”.

The chrysalis from which these brilliantly coloured new members emerged was the Eton Arts Society. It was set up by Brian Howard, and his friend — and rival — Harold Acton. Both had extremely well-connected, rich fathers. The first a notable art dealer, the second an art collector based in Florence. Their mothers were American heiresses. Both men were gay. So too was Robert Byron, as were some others who would go on to join the Hypocrites. “My Eton friends and I,” Acton wrote later, “were voluptuaries of the imagination.” A magazine Howard and he produced, The Eton Candle, was so aggressively aesthetic and anti-heartie that it became known as The Eton Scandal.

Brian Howard

Acton and Howard were Modernists, whose lodestars were Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell and, later, T.S Eliot. While still at school, Brian Howard – a published poet at 15 — wrote to Acton, already at the university, “At present I am looking forward, Harold, to an Oxford which, on its artistic side, shall be ruled by you and I together – as we ruled Eton.”

Acton did rule Oxford on the artistic side. A book of his poems was published in his first year. Howard, while a faithful Hypocrite, largely abandoned his aesthetic activities in favour of riding to hounds and sucking up to the bluebloods and drones of the Bullingdon Club – perhaps at the urging of his socially-conscious parents. Of Harold Acton, Waugh wrote that “he set out to demolish the traditional aesthetes who still survived here and there in the twilight of the 90’s and also the simple-living, nature-loving, folk-singing, hiking, drab successors of the ‘Georgian’ poets … Harold brought with him the air of the connoisseurs of Florence and the innovators of Paris, of Berenson and of Gertrude Stein, Magnasco and T.S. Eliot; above all of the three Sitwells who were the objects of his admiration and personal affection.”

Evelyn Waugh, Mr Harold Acton, 1923

Acton was a mixture of Petronius Arbiter and Peter Pan. He invented the wide trousers that became known as “Oxford bags”, and spearheaded an ironic homage to the taste of the High Victorians. In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian Flyte’s rooms in Meadow Buildings, Christ Church, were modelled on Acton’s, in the same location: “A strange jumble of objects – a harmonium in a gothic case, an elephant’s foot waste paper basket, a dome of wax fruit, two disproportionately large Sèvres vases.” This was largely a pose, a means to twist the tails of the “Bunthornes”, the neurasthenic survivors of the 1890s “Art for Art’s Sake” movement. Another Hypocrite wrote that “the drooping lily gave way to the wax banana”. Acton’s tutor later remarked: “To us it seemed obvious that he would be the literary leader of his generation, rather as Lytton Strachey had been in an earlier decade.” Harold Acton did not become the literary leader of his generation.

Harold Acton by Mark Ogilvie Grant

Thanks to this Etonian influx, the club’s reputation for wickedness went up several ratchets. The future actor and playwright, Emlyn Williams, a working class scholarship boy who never stepped inside, was assured by a friend, “They’re supposed to eat new-born babies cooked in wine.”

Another working class scholarship boy did visit. The future historian and Fellow of All Souls, A. L. Rowse, was invited for breakfast. He was led through “a tortuous staircase and along twisting passages to a room still filled with the atmosphere of beer, stale smoke and the nameless goings on of the night before: it quite came up to my expectations of wickedness. Not for me membership of such an establishment.” Nor for the aristocratic friends and acquaintances of the Hypocrites. Only one peer was known to be a member.

The club’s infamy began to travel beyond the University enclave. Claud Cockburn, on a visit to an elderly aunt’s garden party in Hampshire, held to raise money for the care of distressed cats, heard another undergraduate belabouring the sinister and immoral nature of the club. To his great surprise the aunt vigorously defended it – pointing out that she happened to know that her own nephew was a member; and going on to name several of the other leading lights, including Waugh — Cockburn’s cousin. How she had come by this information he never found out. But it was a portent. The Oxford High Command began to take notice.

Claud Cockburn (left)

While most of the Hypocrites’ famous alumni took lousy degrees — if they passed their exams at all — this was down to boredom with the stodgy teaching and tedious curricula rather than a lack of intelligence. There were exceptions to this undergraduate apathy: three Hypocrites became professors. One of them, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, emerged as a leading figure in the still new-fangled discipline of Anthropology. Two more became Conservative MPs. Tom Driberg, who left a striking account of a highly-sexed evening at the club, to which his schoolfriend Waugh had invited him while he was up for an interview, became a Labour MP, and later Chairman of the party. As for the more academically averse members, many wrote and illustrated for student magazines. They were, Powell later wrote, “a collection, most of them, of hard-headed and extremely ambitious young men”.

Robert Byron, one of the most interesting – and rumbunctious — of the Hypocrites, is a paradigm. Often dressed as Queen Victoria – to whom he bore a startling facial resemblance — he would screech songs made popular by Dame Clara Butt at the battered upright piano, in what Powell remembered as “an earsplitting alto…contorting his features into fearful grimaces”. Byron was “gated” (confined in the evenings) several times by his college – the first time being only two weeks into his time at the university, for falling down drunk in the street. Another sentence lasted eight weeks – he was eventually shown the door. According to Waugh, Byron liked to fake epileptic fits, and, while being driven in an open-topped car, shouting to passers-by that he was being kidnapped.

Byron’s take-no-prisoners approach can be discerned in his books. It’s not every travel writer who spends a night in the cells for assaulting a jobsworth station master — as Byron did in Persia. On a visit to Russia – where he was one of the first Britons to see the wretched reality behind the Stalinist propaganda – his tourist guide turned out to be one of those who thought that Shakespeare’s plays must have been written by an aristocrat: a man of the world, not a Stratford grocer. Byron replied that they are “exactly the sort of plays that I would expect a grocer to write”. He didn’t think much of Rembrandt either.

As Powell shrewdly recognised, Byron’s masterpiece, The Road to Oxiana, published in 1937, “makes plain that his blend of persuasiveness and aggression was as successful dealing with alien persons and situations as with his own countrymen”. The cultural historian Paul Fussell commented: “What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.” Bruce Chatwin considered it “a sacred text, beyond criticism”. It was admired also by Jan Morris, Eric Newby, Jonathan Raban and Colin Thubron, among many others.

Byron died in 1941 when his ship was torpedoed off Cape Wrath. He was on his way to spy for British Intelligence in Persia and Afghanistan – keeping an eye on the Soviets, still bound by the Machiavellian Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the Nazis too, under cover of acting as a war correspondent for the Sunday Times. A High Tory, Byron despised both the signatories of der Pakt, and was forthright in attacking British appeasers of Hitler. At a dinner table he asked one such, a close colleague of Neville Chamberlain, “Are you in German pay?”

On leaving Oxford, the Hypocrites kept in close touch. In his letter to Henry Green mourning the club’s closure, Byron wrote that its members had “boundaries to their minds a little wider than the snobbery of the moment”. Very different characters, in temperament and certainly in politics, they were an awkward squad. They had in common a fearlessness, a scepticism, a sense of curiosity, a desire to kick against the pricks. They formed a mutual aid society, regularly puffing each other’s books in reviews and articles. Like Adam Symes in Waugh’s Vile Bodies, the Hypocrite Patrick Kinross, later a Baron, wrote a gossip column; as did the Hypocrite manqué, Tom Driberg, who invented the William Hickey persona for the Daily Express. The doings of the Hypocrites were regularly reported on, and favourably. They helped each other professionally.  Anthony Powell set Waugh on his writing career by commissioning his first published book, a life of Rossetti, for Duckworth. He also brought out a book of Byron’s.

Claud Cockburn did not coin, but did popularise the journalistic watchword, “Believe nothing until it’s been officially denied.” He claimed that while working as a sub-editor on the Times, he won a competition to invent the very dullest headline possible, which was then a Times speciality. He supposedly came up with: “Small Earthquake in Chile. Not Many Dead.” (Alas, no such headline has ever been found.) Cockburn interviewed both Al Capone and Charles de Gaulle (separately). Both interviewees had armed guards at the ready in case he tried anything on. He had a ringside seat at the Wall Street Crash. He became a Communist soon after, writing for the Daily Worker – the official organ of the British Communist Party — as well as Pravda,  and rose to be the senior British apparatchik of the Comintern.

In 1936 Cockburn went to Spain – arriving there having stepped onto the wrong train – and volunteered for a militia, before his Communist colleagues persuaded him to become a full time propagandist for the Soviet Union’s aims in the Civil War. George Orwell excoriated him in Homage to Catalonia for lying for the Stalinist cause – under a pseudonym, Frank Pitcairn. In his memoirs, Cockburn mentioned that he once fabricated an entirely non-existent battle in Morocco, so as to lend credence to the – false – idea that the Republicans were gaining the upper hand against Franco.

This was a dangerous game. He later had it confirmed that in Gibraltar he had narrowly missed being assassinated by a Francoist hitman, after being tipped off to make himself scarce by a pro-Republican hotel waiter. In 1952, during a communist purge in Czechoslovakia, Cockburn’s former boss, under duress, falsely identified him as a British agent. “Several dozen people were arrested, and some of them tortured, for just having known me at one time or another.”

In 1933 Claud Cockburn started his subscription-only political magazine, The Week. (It has no connection with the present-day magazine of that name.) At the peak of its popularity he claimed that it was read by pretty much every diplomat, minister, and foreign correspondent in Europe and the United States. According to Cockburn, “Goebbels read it and a mysterious war-lord in China read it. Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador in London, on two separate occasions demanded its suppression.” Subscribers also included Charlie Chaplin and the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Like his fellow Hypocrite Robert Byron, Claud Cockburn became a leading opponent of Appeasement. (Although not while the writ of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was running, from August 1939 to June 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.) Cockburn himself coined the collective noun for the group of highly-placed Appeasers assembled by Nancy Astor in her stately home in Buckinghamshire: the “Cliveden Set”. So well-known did this soubriquet become that foreign reporters started turning up at The Week’s tiny ramshackle offices in Victoria, asking where they could find this group of would-be collaborators. “It was as though we had suddenly discovered Whipsnade. But a Whipsnade full of menacing, hitherto unknown serpents.” When in London the Cliveden Set liked to gather at Lady Astor’s palatial town house in St James’s Square. Cockburn encouraged visiting press photographers to wait around outside until the menagerie emerged. When he later read the published diaries of one of the group – who happened to be his former Editor at the Times – he was delighted to find out how intensely irritating they had found this attention to be.

Like Private Eye later, journalists slipped Cockburn stories their editors – or proprietors – wouldn’t run. Once such material appeared in The Week, it could then be quoted in their own papers. He also reported political gossip, judging that, though it had to be clearly labelled as such, it was in itself revealing and worthy of interpretation. The Week and The Daily Worker were banned after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. Clandestinely, Cockburn carried on writing for samizdat versions of both, at the risk of imprisonment, but soon gave up. The war over, he left the Communist Party.

Claud Cockburn at Private Eye 1960s

In August 1963 Richard Ingrams invited Cockburn to be a guest editor of the still infant Private Eye. The edition he was asked to take on was largely devoted to the Profumo scandal. Cliveden was in the news again. Cockburn – later described by an Eye regular as “a veteran political hooligan” — set to work with a will, claiming (wrongly, as it turned out) that the society osteopath-cum-pimp Stephen Ward might have been murdered. He printed, without explanation, three pictures that confirmed, at least to those who had heard the rumours, that Dorothy Macmillan, wife of the Prime Minister, was having an affair with Lord Robert Boothby. He named, for the first time in the British press, the head of M16 – which became something of a Private Eye tradition – and could very possibly have ended up being sent to prison, for breaking the Official Secrets Act. For good measure Cockburn also listed the names of all the candidates rumoured to be the “headless man” being fellated by the Duchess of Argyll – a concept that would surely have amused Joe Orton – in a notorious photograph of the duchess and an unknown torso. It provided the star turn in the salacious divorce case going through the courts at the time.

In 1981 Cockburn’s schoolmate and lifelong friend, Graham Greene, wrote: “If I were asked who are the two greatest journalists of the twentieth century, my answer would be G.K. Chesterton and Claud Cockburn.”  (On being told of this by Richard Ingrams, Cockburn murmured, “Pity he had to bring Chesterton into it.”)

Henry Yorke was the real name of the novelist who wrote as “Henry Green”. In his earthbound life he was a businessman, independently wealthy, who succeeded his father as M.D. of a firm that made very good money manufacturing the high-pressure filling machines used in the bottling of beer.  At Eton Yorke was a close friend of Robert Byron – with whom he had been at prep school – and Anthony Powell. Henry Green’s first novel, partly set at Eton – it featured a character based on Byron – was published while he was at Oxford. He then moved to Birmingham for two years to work on the shop floor of the family foundry. This resulted in what many think is his best novel, Living, published in 1929. After Oxford he became close to Evelyn Waugh, who in a review had extravagantly praised Living. Yorke-Green wrote to him in 1930: “I think you & I are the only people who can write at all.” He confided to Powell soon after, “I suppose I am generally recognised now as being as good as any novelist can be.” He later fell out with his former friends and became an alcoholic and a virtual recluse. In the 1950s the American novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern described Henry Green as “a writer’s writer’s writer”. The drawback was that his books, written in a syntactically-splintered experimental prose, rarely sold.

Henry Yorke in the 1920s

During the Blitz, Yorke – like his exact contemporary at Eton and Oxford, Cyril Connolly – became an auxiliary firefighter — much to the disgust of Waugh, who served with the Royal Marines and the SAS. In Officers and Gentlemen, published in 1955, Waugh wrote: “On the pavement opposite Turtle’s a group of progressive novelists in fireman’s uniform were squirting a little jet of water into the morning-room.” Connolly spent most of the war editing Horizon. When Waugh presented him with a copy of Men at Arms, he inscribed it: “To Cyril, who kept the home fires burning.”

Anthony Powell wrote four well-received novels between 1931 and 1936. He then worked, most unhappily, as a screenwriter at Teddington Studios, and tried his hand in Hollywood – to no avail. Except that he met F. Scott Fitzgerald. A fifth novel was published in 1939. During the war, in which he mostly served in Intelligence, in London, he was unable to write at all. Only in 1951 did he publish the first of the twelve volumes of his hugely popular roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time, completed in 1975. The work is often cited by its many admirers as an English equivalent of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Evelyn Waugh was a strong supporter.

Evelyn Waugh

The Hypocrites Club didn’t just provide Waugh with lifelong friends, such as Powell and Harold Acton. He was acutely aware of being the product of an unfashionable school, Lancing, and a member of an unfashionable college, Hertford. It was thanks to his membership of the Hypocrites – he had been invited to join by a college friend, who had been at Rugby — that the solidly bourgeois Waugh gained entry into the brittle, epicene world of the Bright Young People. Like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, in this case by means of a happy accident, he was admitted into a social milieu that included the Hypocrites’ aristocratic friends; and their sisters and female cousins, the former debutantes and party girls who made up the distaff side of the “BYP”. Had he not fallen in with the Hypocrites, Waugh’s life and his writing – if indeed he had produced any – would have been quite different.

For one thing, club membership provided him with models for several of his fictional characters – often composites, utilising biographical incidents as well as character traits. One such was Anthony Blanche, whom Waugh later said was made up of two thirds Brian Howard – whom Waugh loathed, and who provided the Blanche bitchiness — and one third Harold Acton – whom Waugh considered one of his closest friends, who lent the stutter, the megaphone and the charm. Howard’s dreams of a successful literary career crumbled into dust thanks to his pathological incapacity to get anything more than some short poems and book reviews down on paper; a waste of what was an undoubted talent, if not a major one. Alcohol, cocaine and heroin didn’t help.

Harold Acton and Robert Byron

Ironically, and bitterly, Howard did achieve literary fame, of a sort – thanks to Waugh. He was immediately recognisable to insiders as the fatuous influencer Johnny Hoop in Vile Bodies. In Put Out More Flags Waugh made what Howard correctly realised was a “vicious attack” on him, in the character Ambrose Silk. This was a spiteful and unpleasant portrait of a man Waugh summed up in the novel as “a pansy. An old queen”. The subplots of Put Out More Flags and Brideshead Revisited that concern a German boyfriend – Hans, then Kurt – are based on the experiences of Howard. From 1935 onwards, he had traipsed around Europe, getting thrown out of or refused entry to one country or another, so as to save his own boyfriend, Toni, from repatriation to Germany, conscription, and very possibly a concentration camp. When a later partner died in an accident in 1958, Brian Howard took his own life.

Less vicious than the assault on Howard was the portrait, more of a cameo, of a notably camp character in Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall. “I think cards are divine, particularly the kings. Such naughty old faces! But if I start playing for money I always lose my temper and cry.” In the first edition, he was called “Brian Saunderson”. This was so patently a reference to Waugh’s fabulously wealthy fellow Hypocrite Gavin Henderson that Robert Byron prevailed on him to change the name. Henderson – who with the help of Byron set the Thames on fire with petrol at Henley at what was meant to be a celebration of his engagement – duly became “Lord Parakeet” instead. Henderson did indeed become a peer, succeeding his father as Lord Faringdon in 1934. In the Upper House he once addressed his fellow peers as “My dears …”

Robert Byron 1923

A declared communist, Faringdon drove down in his Rolls Royce to support the Republicans in Spain, joined a field hospital as a medical orderly, and donated his car to be converted into a makeshift ambulance. (Riddled with bullet holes, it was later exhibited at Transport House, the headquarters of the TUC.) Bravely, Faringdon single-handedly faced down Francoist troops. The latter were trying to round up Republican refugees who had taken shelter in a British-built, British-owned port. He also accommodated Spanish evacuees in his stately home, Buscot Park.

Another character based, as Waugh later confirmed, on fellow Hypocrites – habitués if not members per se – was Basil Seal, the rogueish cad we first meet in Black Mischief (a grim novel to read today). Seal is also the anti-hero of Put Out More Flags, and the subject of Waugh’s last fiction, Basil Seal Rides Again.

Seal was based on two men: Basil Murray, the son of the celebrated Oxford Professor of Greek Gilbert Murray, friend of Shaw and Einstein; and Peter Rodd – known far and wide as “Prod”. The latter was a brilliant but wayward individual, later married to Nancy Mitford, who became a confidante and devoted correspondent of several Hypocrites, especially Waugh.

The most memorable accounts of both men are provided in the memoirs of Claud Cockburn. In 1937 Murray asked Cockburn to secure him a press pass to report on the Civil War from Valencia, where the Republican government was situated. He immediately fell head over heels in love with a young woman, of whom Cockburn wrote, “One may say that had she had the words ‘I am a Nazi spy’ printed on her hat, that could hardly have made her position clearer than it was.” When she left with another man, leaving Basil Murray bereft, he bought an ape he had seen in a travelling street show. This creature, he told Cockburn, was the only mammal who had looked at him with “friendly sympathy” since the girl moved on. He installed the ape in his hotel suite.

One swelteringly hot afternoon, having had too much to drink, Basil Murray locked his simian companion in the bathroom and fell comatose on the bed. The ape managed to free itself – Cockburn suggests that the ingenious animal somehow managed to pick the lock – and, eager for some play, tried to rouse the snoring Murray. Failing to do so, and in frustration, it bit through his jugular vein and he bled to death. According to Cockburn’s account, Murray’s family, outraged that he was reporting the civil war from a point of view sympathetic to the Republicans, spread the calumny back in England that he had been enjoying improper relations with the ape. (It was a female ape.)

In 1943 Cockburn was in hiding in Algiers, there to report on what was to become Operation Husky, the Allies’ invasion of Sicily. The Americans, who were in control of the campaign, had put him on a blacklist, owing to his membership of the Communist Party. He lay low, knowing he would be thrown out of Algeria if discovered. Disturbed that a man in a British Colonel’s uniform was visible through a mirror in a hotel where Cockburn was enjoying a lunchtime drink, to his relief he recognised Peter Rodd, whom of course he had known from Hypocrites days. Rodd had no interest in the Americans’ promulgations, and, what’s more, he had an idea. Why not, he suggested to Claud, lay hands on a British army uniform, whereupon he would smuggle him aboard one of the first landing craft to set off for Sicily? Cockburn, though intrigued, saw there was a flaw in this plan. If he was discovered in a British army uniform he had no right to wear he would promptly be shot as an enemy spy. Rodd assured him that he would make sure to be on hand to vouch for Cockburn’s credentials in person, so as to forestall such an eventuality. Remembering that Rodd was every bit as reliable as the English weather, Cockburn passed up the scoop of the century.

As well as Brian Howard, six more Hypocrites helped inspire characters in Brideshead Revisited. The most important influence on Sebastian Flyte in his earlier, golden period was Waugh’s own lover at Oxford, Alastair Graham. (His formidable American mother became Lady Circumference, first encountered in Decline and Fall.) In his manuscript, Waugh sometimes wrote “Alastair” instead of “Sebastian”. Their affair continued for several years after they left Oxford.

Alastair Graham passport Oxford

The second main inspiration for Sebastian was just as crucial in Waugh’s life and writing. Hugh Lygon was a member of the Eton Arts Society, despite having little interest in the topic. Powell later wrote that he believed he had been included because of a “tendresse” on the part of Byron or Acton. Hugh Lygon was due to share lodgings in Oxford with Waugh in the latter’s ninth and final term. After a disastrous performance in his Finals – he took a Third and lost his scholarship – Waugh’s father refused to fund him any further, and he went down. Sebastian and Charles Ryder, similarly, were meant to room together in their final term: Sebastian was sent down. Some of their friends thought that Evelyn and Hugh too may have had an affair. This is not clear.

Portrait of The Hon. Hugh Lygon, by Ranken (1927).

Through Hugh Lygon, Evelyn Waugh fell in love with an entire family. The Lygons were the basis for the Flytes in Brideshead Revisited. Hugh had four sisters, to two of whom Waugh became very close. One of them lends something to Cordelia Flyte in the novel; the other provides beauty rather than character to Julia. Madresfield, their home near Malvern, was one of the models for Brideshead itself.

The patriarch of the Lygon family, the 7th Earl Beauchamp, provides a significant aspect of the backstory of Lord Marchmain in the novel. Waugh describes the latter as “the last historic, authentic case of someone being hounded out of society”. This was indeed what happened to Beauchamp — though he was not the last to suffer such a fate. Marchmain was shunned because he had left his wife for an Italian mistress. Beauchamp was hounded by his own brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster, one of the wealthiest rentiers in Europe. He was jealous of Beauchamp, a cultured and popular figure, highly placed at court.

The weapon used against him was his homosexuality. He was well known for the handsomeness of his male servants, to whom he liked to give gifts of expensive jewellery. The diplomat Harold Nicolson – also married and gay — reported being at dinner when another guest asked him, “Did I hear Beauchamp whisper to the butler, ‘Je t’adore”?’ ‘Nonsense,’ Nicolson replied. ‘He said, “Shut the door.’”

Westminster persuaded his sister to sue for divorce. Private detectives were hired to find testimony of Beauchamp’s affairs – by no means a difficult assignment. The King was informed, and Beauchamp was given an ultimatum: leave England, permanently; or be arrested. He had 24 hours to make his decision. He left. The Duke sent him a valedictory telegram. “Dear Bugger-in-law, you got what you deserved. Yours, Westminster.”

At different times before his exile in 1931, both Byron and Waugh had accompanied Hugh Lygon and his father on trips to art galleries and museums in Italy. Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte similarly visit Lord Marchmain in Venice. Beauchamp did manage to return to England for his beloved son’s funeral in 1936.

Hugh was, most of his friends believed, an alcoholic. So, of course, is Sebastian. Waugh tried to pretend the Flytes were not modelled on the Lygons. But when Hugh’s sister Dorothy read Brideshead Revisited on publication, she wrote to Waugh, “Sebastian gives me many pangs.” Nancy Mitford confirmed to him that “everyone” in London thought, “It is the Lygons’. (She went on, “Too much Catholic stuff.”)

Hugh’s elder brother, Lord Elmley, the Hypocrites Secretary who had ordained that “Gentlemen may prance, but not dance,” succeeded his father to the title. His wife was a sophisticated, rather glamorous lady from Denmark. Thus they were in character nothing like the vague and distracted Bridey or the bigoted Catholic termagant Beryl Muspratt in the novel. However, Elmley’s siblings mistrusted and disliked his wife – just as Sebastian, Julia and Cordelia Flyte feel about Beryl.

Sebastian’s alcoholism in Brideshead Revisited, in particular the episode where he gives the oleaginous Mr Samgrass the slip and disappears on an extended drunken spree, echoes the life of a close friend of Waugh and the other Hypocrites. Alfred Duggan first introduced Anthony Powell to the club, inviting him to lunch. During which “Alf” sank a tankard of Burgundy. “A full-blooded Restoration rake”, in Waugh’s remembering, Duggan, who was enormously rich, had a car and chauffeur on permanent standby at Oxford, and would regularly be driven up to the West End of London, where he was having an affair with a nightclub hostess.

Anthony Powell

Waugh was extremely fond of Alfred — the Duggans were Irish-Argentine and thus fellow Catholics – and tried to persuade him to go on the wagon. On at least two occasions, Duggan managed to shake Waugh off when they were travelling together, so that he could go on a titanic bender. Once in Italy; once when they were on a retreat at Ampleforth Abbey. Here, Sebastian-like, Alf managed to disappear and was later found, soused, in a Scarborough pub. After the war Duggan, to his friends’ surprise and relief, managed to give up the grog. He then surprised them even more when he became, in his forties, an admired historical novelist. His time studying History – he was sent down before taking a degree because of his visits to his London mistress – wasn’t wasted after all.

Alfred’s younger brother, Hubert, also lent something to Brideshead Revisited. He was a close friend of Anthony Powell at Eton – and one of the two people who inspired the mercurial and charismatic Charles Stringham in A Dance to the Music of Time. Hubert also became a friend of Evelyn Waugh’s. In 1943, he was dying of tuberculosis. Waugh, against the family’s wishes, smuggled a priest into Duggan’s room, where he was given the last rites, received the sacrament and so died in a state of grace. This was the incident that inspired Lord Marchmain’s deathbed reaffirmation of his Catholic faith by making a sign of the cross. Ironically, a plot device that many readers found completely unconvincing.

By Easter 1924 the Hypocrites Club, as a university-licensed institution, was no more. The Victorian-themed fancy dress party thrown in March was, for the Oxford authorities, the last straw, the final nail. Not least because later that night, a young nun was seen by the porters slipping into Balliol just before the gates closed and questioned. The nun was unfrocked as Arden Hilliard, returning from the Hypocrites party. His father was Bursar of the College. The Dean of Balliol was the Hypocrites’ main enemy. That was it.

A wake was held at a favourite pub of the Hypocrites, the Spread Eagle in Thame. Rumour had it that a fleet of hearses ferried the mourners there from Oxford. The vehicles themselves, it was later alleged, became the setting for scenes of wanton dissolution. I rather doubt that this embellishment to the legend of the Hypocrites is strictly true. But it would serve as a fitting coda to the club’s career if it were.

David Fleming’s book Hellfire: Evelyn Waugh and the Hypocrites Club was published in paperback by the History Press in April 2024.

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