It has survived a wartime recruitment crisis, a disastrous fire and a “horrible scarcity of whisky”. Now a Cambridge University members’ club is facing a surprising new challenge to its survival: the lockdown misfortunes of Pizza Express.
One hundred and eighty-five years after it was founded, the university’s Pitt Club – whose alumni include John Maynard Keynes, John Cleese and the Prince of Wales – is so close to financial catastrophe that it has been forced to make a desperate appeal to its lifetime members.
In an email sent this week, the trustees and senior committee issued a blunt warning that the club was in a “perilous position”. “In short,” the message said, “the survival of the club in its present form is at risk.”
The Pitt Club, which is sometimes mentioned alongside its flashier cousin at Oxford, the Bullingdon, is notorious for its history of public school ties, male-only membership and bacchanalian parties.
More prosaically, it also rents the ground floor of its listed neoclassical premises to Pizza Express – and the impact of Covid-19 on the casual dining market has had calamitous consequences.
“We have received no rental income for nine months, which is unrecoverable,” says the email, which was shown to the Guardian. “Pizza Express’s proposed launch of a company voluntary arrangement looks to deprive the club of at least 65% of its expected income for the next three years.”
The loss of income from the chain, reluctantly installed at another moment of financial stress in 1997, has taken a heavy toll. In order to keep the club’s doors open, alumni are asked to contribute to a £50,000 “Pitt Club 200th anniversary campaign emergency cash appeal”, with a minimum suggested donation of £100.
If that seems like a tall order for most people in the current circumstances, the Pitt’s life members – who count in their number QCs, senior politicians and Hollywood A-listers like Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston – appear to be willing to open their wallets.
A day after the initial email, another message told alumni that “a high number of simultaneous requests to access the donation page caused the club website to overload and crash”.
A member of the club committee declined to comment, saying by email: “As the Pitt Club is a private members’ club, I will not discuss internal club affairs.”
The club has faced serious threats to its existence in the past, as a history of the institution by Walter Morley Fletcher notes. A serious fire in 1907 forced a complete renovation of its interior. The club was forced to close from 1917-19 after many of its members joined the armed forces, and attempts to keep it open left it £2,600 in debt. In 1920 its return to normality was compromised by a whisky shortage.
Not everybody will view the institution as deserving of its members’ generosity. While it allowed women to join as full members in 2015, that step only came about after a trial run where they were allowed access in the daytime (having previously been allowed in only “after dark except Sunday lunch”) but were barred from buying their own drinks. A generation earlier, its ranks were dominated by alumni of a select group of boarding schools, who were said to decide which girls should be invited to parties by rating their looks out of 10.
David Cameron, famously a member of the restaurant-smashing Bullingdon Club along with Boris Johnson and George Osborne, was pictured at a party at the Pitt in the 1980s in black tie. Alumni and former guests also recall stories of nine-course dinners at which attendees would be expected to down a bottle of wine with each course, with a bucket or barrel in the corner to accommodate any unpleasant consequences. Accounts vary on whether the floor was protected by sawdust or a tarpaulin.
The writer Elizabeth Day, who modelled an equivalent institution in her 2017 novel The Party on her memories of nights at the Pitt Club, recalled “dinner in this private oak-panelled room, and a lot of champagne and rah rah rah and ‘we all went to Eton and Harrow’.”
But, she added, there was “no smashing up … just undergraduates playacting at being adults. I was generally pleased to be invited, purely because it gave me an excuse just to sit there and observe the absurdity. But, looking back, I didn’t question its existence as much as I should have done.”
Others suggest the club has diversified its membership, reined in its most ludicrous traits, and at least cemented itself as less grotesque than the Bullingdon. “It was basically losers getting pissed and playing Mario Kart,” said one. He remembered a ritual known as the Cresta Run, “where you slid down the stairs on a tray” – which had, he allowed, become “less good because you now end up in Pizza Express”.
Despite those halcyon memories, alumni are curiously reticent. Among others who declined to speak, the Conservative minister Kwasi Kwarteng, so attached to the club that on at least one occasion he returned for an afternoon tipple after he had graduated, was unavailable for comment.
Andrew Roberts, the historian and broadcaster and the only alumnus contacted by the Guardian who was prepared to discuss the club, said that even if it survived, it would be likely to continue to struggle. “I haven’t known a time when it hasn’t been in severe financial difficulties,” he said. “Precariousness goes with the territory.”
He added that the club was “not quite like the Bullingdon, because we actually had club premises which you had to hand on and didn’t want to smash up”. After a pause, he added: “Although, there were plenty of occasions when things got wildly out of control, come to think of it. But I’m not going to talk about that.”