Exclusive ‘secret’ societies at Oxford and Cambridge have long been in the public eye – most notably the Bullingdon Club, whose alumni include the current Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Mayor of London. Likewise, the operation of ‘secret societies’ in Durham is (ironically) no secret. In 2012, Palatinate revealed the existence of The Exiles, a group of ‘predominantly male, white, upper class students’ from Josephine Butler College (see Palatinate no. 736). This was a society, created in 2006, the year of the college’s foundation, by ‘exiles’ from the more traditional Bailey Colleges from which they had been pooled and reallocated.
The backlash to this article was significant, and the very fact that such operations were being looked into was disapproved of by some. Indeed, the exposition of The Exiles only scratches the surface of the secret societies that operate in Durham, with some of them operating far more invidiously than as a glorified drinking society.
Durham Secret Societies
Secret societies at Durham can be broadly divided into two categories: those that actively seek to maintain secrecy, and in some cases, supremacy (with varying degrees of success), and those that are an open secret, with largely more light-hearted aims. From the latter category we find the like of the ‘31sts’, who would apocryphally streak around Palace Green on the 31st day of the month before the clock finished striking twelve. That is, until the police realised the pattern, with further incidents occurring at random, rather than on the eponymous date. Likewise, some might place Castle Fives under the broad umbrella of a ‘secret’ society, despite general public knowledge of them, along with the Red Poet Society, Elephant Polo Club, the Caelians and the Lumley Run Club, among others.
In reality, it is the first category characterised by their longevity, traditions and privilege that are the true ‘secret societies’. Access to these societies is, by their very definition, exclusive and clandestine. These are societies with largely no additional supervision or monitoring, without direct affiliation with the University or Students’ Union.
At the heart of secret societies is the idea of helping one another out, something that is also said to make membership worryingly elitist. Importantly, Palatinate has uncovered that some secret societies hold alumni databases, with the primary aim of providing contacts and links to the professions.
Regular club dinners and events are held in or around Durham, sometimes in University property. These are complemented with alumni dinners, often in the prestigious members’ only clubs of London.
For many, a secret society can provide a valuable networking opportunity and a step up both in student life at University as well as the wider world. Beyond this, however, Palatinate found no evidence of any serious intervention in University or student affairs.
One finalist from a Bailey College, who did not wish to be named, told Palatinate “I found a letter in my pigeon hole in Freshers’ week. It had a reference number for a book in the Cathedral Library and a deadline for response. The note made it clear that I should tell no-one.
“The letter in the book from the Cathedral Library there was a card instructing me to arrive at a location at midnight in Black Tie.”
Access to such groups is often invite only, the fact that often candidates are approached in their first weeks at Durham hints at the elitist and public school nature of the members. While the majority of secret societies consist of all-male membership, others have opened their doors to women, such as the Aeolian society. The Aeolian Society, named after the Greek god of wind, Aeolus, purports to be the oldest student society at Durham. The society is almost exclusively associated with University College. Potential new members are questioned by candlelight in a manner, according to Sarah Richardson, a Durham alumna, treads a “fine line between garnering insight and causing humiliation”.
Another secret society, largely confined to the Bailey Colleges, is known as ‘A.A.’ or Arcanum Arcanorum to those in the know. It is one of the better-attested societies, with even a scant online presence. Initiation procedures largely revolve around being a ‘gentleman’: combining the necessities of a superficial knowledge of good manners and dress; psychological challenges; rudimentary, ritualistic team-building exercises; and, ironically, binge drinking… the staples of a traditional student secret society.
Initiations vary wildly with some being relatively benign as well as other instances where the explicit aim is to terrify candidates, from forcing them to eat dog food to simulating acts of rape. This is the true danger of secret societies: accountability and responsible oversight are too often anathema.
One JCR President, and a self-confessed former member of a secret society, told Palatinate “I think it is obscene that the University allows these societies to continue to exist.
“The ritualistic humiliation of applicants is disgraceful and brings all students into disrepute. I have no doubt that the traditions continue to thrive at Durham because the old boy network is so important for the funding and some of our more senior University figures were likely previous members.”
Whether members of current University staff were actually were members of such societies, or are even aware of the wider presence of secret societies is unclear. However, a limited knowledge of such operations is obvious. Indeed, one senior member of the University referenced the Aeolian Society in an open letter (see Castellum no. 52, p. 4).
When asked about the operation of secret societies at the University, Professor Graham Towl, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Warden said: “We want students to have both a positive academic and social experience in Durham and we have over 180 societies with something to appeal to everyone. Students can become involved in clubs and societies either through their College or through the Students’ Union.
“As citizens, students are free to choose what clubs or societies they join. However, with rights come responsibilities as citizens too and we would anticipate that students would be mindful of this in informing their choices.”
Do you have any information about the operation of secret societies in Durham? Have you been scouted yourself? Palatinate would love to hear from you. Get in touch with us as firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Harriet-Jade Harrow