Howard Croft column: The duke of hazard as viewed by students

University of Bristol
University of Bristol

It was with great sadness that I read in the Daily Telegraph an obituary of the 11th Duke of Beaufort. I never knew him, of course; dukes are pretty thin on the ground these days and new ones are no longer created, apart from for members of the Royal Family, and my social circle does not include one, select though it is. It would be a good idea to have a duke or two appearing on the honours lists from time to time, honouring a particularly skilful sportsman, perhaps, or a popular musician. Geoffrey Boycott’s name springs at once to mind, as does Ringo Starr’s. Boycott would be a splendid choice as he has recently 
expressed dissatisfaction with the honours system and it might shut him up.

Beaufort’s demise brought to mind an odd episode from my youth involving his father, the tenth of that name. The chancellor of my own university, Bristol, died when I was an undergraduate; he was no less a person than Sir Winston Churchill. He had been appointed very many years before the Second World War, when Churchill, although well known, was not the figure he later became. Who could possibly replace him?

The students were not considered fit to be consulted and anyway were otherwise pre-occupied with more important matters. In my own case, looking for girls. And avoiding listening to lectures. The first we knew was that a shortlist of two was announced by the university senate. They were the 10th Duke of Beaufort and Lord Franks. Now this was in the 60s, when university students were becoming restless, taking to the streets, occupying senate buildings and making nuisances of themselves. But not at Bristol, which had a famously conservative and docile student body.

The publication of the shortlist changed all that. The students preferred the candidacy of Lord Franks on the grounds that he had been educated at Bristol Grammar School, whose premises were adjacent to those of the university, that he had had a very successful academic career – and that he was not a duke. His rival could point only to the fact that he had been born the son of a duke, a bit of luck rather that an achievement, and that his only responsibility was for the Queen’s safety whenever she was on horseback, a job he hung onto to 40 years. No doubt HMQ valued his services.

And so it was that Bristol University students were radicalised and took to the streets to indulge in a spot of light rioting. In one particular episode of disorder, which I personally witnessed through the window of licensed premises, a policeman’s helmet was knocked off, an outrage previously unheard of in the city. This event made the front page of the local paper.

The outcome of all this was that the duke got the job and as far as we students were concerned was never heard of again. He was not entirely unfamiliar with education – he went to Eton after all, before becoming a cavalry officer – but he was an odd choice for the top spot at a distinguished university, albeit in a ceremonial role. Franks, on the other hand, would have been just the ticket. Two of my contemporaries of that time, David Fletcher Hunt (he re-styled himself Dave Hunt, following the lead of Anthony Wedgwood Benn in making himself more palatable to “ordinary” voters) and Keith Hampson, both became Conservative MPs, Hampson for a Leeds constituency. I cannot say whose corner they were in for the Beaufort-Franks bout, but I suspect they were for Beaufort. Both got off to promising starts, especially Hunt who changed his name again, on this occasion to Lord Hunt of the Wirrall, by which time voters no longer mattered. Hampson’s political career came to an abrupt end when he was involved in an incident in a gay club in London in which he “accidentally brushed” against the thigh of an undercover police officer. The police officer was rumoured at the time to be dressed in tight satin trousers and entrapment was suspected. The case was dropped, but the damage had been done.

In those days it was considered perfectly acceptable for the police, in their own minds at least, to behave in this way. Gay clubs were not illegal. I myself spent an evening with a gay friend in a gay club in Manchester at about the same time. I did not see anyone in tight satin trousers, but there was a police raid during which my name and address were taken. Whenever I am in Greater Manchester I am careful to stick to the speed limits.