Secret Societies of Durham

societiesExclusive ‘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.

Networking

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.

Initiation

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.”

“The note made it clear that I should tell no-one.”

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.

Wider awareness

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.”

“I think it is obscene that the University allows these societies to continue to exist”

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 news.features@palatinate.org.uk

Illustration: Harriet-Jade Harrow

20 thoughts on “Secret Societies of Durham

  • I mean I didn’t do it, and it’s true it’s only open to one gender, but it’s definitely not clandestine! Anyway, good piece that aside.

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  • Sounds like someone is bitter about not being in a ‘secret society’.

    “This is the true danger of secret societies: accountability and responsible oversight are too often anathema.”

    Why does a society need responsible oversight I ask you? I doubt anyone in these societies is forced to be a member and may wish to leave at any time.
    Let them enjoy their ‘secret’ company as long as no one is harmed.

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    • What a naïve and unconvincing response. That particular point quite clearly referred to initiation activities whereby initiates are coerced into engaging in humiliating and dangerous acts. Quite obviously the danger of a lack of oversight is precisely the chance of someone being harmed, particularly in the formative and vulnerable first few weeks as a university student.

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      • Ah, of course! You are correct Dionysus.

        Many of the sports societies, that have the aforementioned accountability and responsible oversight, conduct themselves in a very dignified and exemplary manner.

        And since you know how “dangerous” and “humiliating” those initiations are.You must be a member of one of these societies and therefore know better.

        Well done! A top notch rationale from you.

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        • The mistake that you’ve made there is suggesting that ‘sports societies’ that act in an irresponsible manner have both accountability and responsible *immediate* oversight. Clearly, as you suggest, this is not the case. The very fact that debacles that reach the national press occur is because of a *lack* of responsible immediate oversight but the presence of accountability (and, additionally, further removed oversight in the form of the JCR/University/etc.), hence the backlash. This is very important.

          Irresponsible sports and societies are brought into line because of this accountability, whereas while secret societies may well have, or not have, responsible oversight, the key check of accountability is not present. As such, there is the very real potential for dangerous activities, especially when some initiations, as the article points out substantively, actually are brutal and humiliating.

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          • Ok fun sponge.

            Since all of us young adults here at university need oversight (aka a babysitter), we should all let a responsible adult (such as yourself) dictate what we can’t and cannot do.

            Why not tie everyone to a chair and impose your “immediate oversight” so
            that we may all avoid the “very real potential for dangerous
            activities”.

            Your argument is pathetic and based on very loose assumptions. If these societies really performed harmful acts, it would have already come to an authority’s attention (be it the university, colleges, welfare support or the police).

          • Worryingly lazy thinking and word choice from you. Once more, I must point out that neither I nor the article suggest alteration to the current arrangement, merely that secret societies, due to their lack of accountability and oversight, have the potential to be more dangerous.

            “If these societies really performed harmful acts, it would have already
            come to an authority’s attention (be it the university, colleges,
            welfare support or the police).”

            First, it’s hardly defensible to suggest that in a *secret* society every single ‘harmful’ act will come to an authority’s attention. Second, who’s to say that such harmful acts have not come to the attention of the University or law enforcement agencies?

    • Sounds like someone’s bitter that they can’t keep their secret society secret…

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  • Rather offended not to have been invited to one of these! Clearly I’m not the right sort… which is shocking, I’m from Kent!

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  • Really, we’re still plugging the ‘Durham is SO much like Oxbridge, honest, it’s literally just as good’ thing? A shame.

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  • I did indeed read the article, but the fact that it isn’t the point if it and yet is its opening sentence makes it all the more unnecessary.

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  • “Importantly, Palatinate has uncovered that some secret societies hold alumni databases, with the primary aim of providing contacts and links to the professions.”

    By which you mean, Facebook? Intrepid reporting.

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    • You’ve come to a strange conclusion off the back of that quote. The article doesn’t seem to imply that Facebook has anything to do with it.

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      • You’re right – with the amount of money knocking about these societies could at least spend some top dollar on a decent CRM database.

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  • I wonder how many Rugby BNOCs are in these. Oil for sure.

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  • Well done for trying to expose other people’s fun for the sake of more student tabloid drivel; like there was a real shortage of that.

    You seem to think that in exposing them, you’ve outed them and opened them up to public ridicule, but all you’ve really done is take a small pleasure away from a small group of people.

    This article has achieved nothing. The societies have nothing to do with you. You have ruined someone else’s fun.

    Reply
    • What an absolute bigoted idiot you are. This comment just makes me sad. So very, very sad.

      Reply

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