By Dr David Muggleton of the University of Chichester
My introduction to the collected story of the A.O.F.B. was through the 2005 self-publication by David Woodhead entitled Of Fripp and Froth Blowers. David went on to become Chairman of the tribute organisation, Friends of the Froth Blowers, but had initially been sceptical as to the authenticity of the original Order. His book recalls how he first came across the A.O.F.B. through the unearthing in a second-hand bookshop of a membership booklet, number 371,296, date of issue 17 March 1927. It was not merely its whimsicality that suggested to him that it was a spoof. Surely any organisation of that period purporting to have a membership of that number with meeting places (humorously called ‘Vats’) established worldwide and who had by that point raised £10,000 (and would go onto raise ten times that amount) for charity could not have completely vanished from popular consciousness as this one had done.
David did eventually establish that the A.O.F.B. had been a genuine charitable organisation, founded in London and in existence from 1924-31. Yet aspects of its ‘roaring twenties’ jocularity – the lampooning of the proceedings of a Masonic Lodge, the cod-Medievalism of the membership booklet language, the elevation of beer-drinking to an almost jingoistic act of patriotism – rendered its story just too implausible for the ears of modern audiences. I discovered this to my cost after deciding to add some conceptual socio-historical analysis to what had so far been an anthology. And so it was that in February 2013, I gave my first talk on the A.O.F.B. – at a conference on historical aspects of drink hosted by the University of Warwick. Just as comedians can ‘die a death’ on stage, so can university lecturers. Looking back over my thirty years in this role, I can safely say that Warwick was not my finest twenty minutes.
It did not help that I was allocated the closing Sunday afternoon ‘graveyard shift’, or that the auditorium was stiflingly hot and that many participants, including myself, had over-indulged at the Saturday-evening dinner. An American academic at my table with whom I had previously corresponded by email insisted on buying an extra bottle of wine or three on meeting me face-to-face for the first time. Well, it was a conference on drink, after all. A fresh blanket of snow had then fallen overnight across the West Midlands and when icy conditions persisted on the Sunday most delegates decided to leave early. It was therefore to the remaining handful of the most-hardened conference-attendees that I rose to my feet to address as the final speaker. Having fluffed my lines a few times along the way, I reached the end only to be met by blank stares and stupefied silence. After a few awkward seconds, a woman put to me the only question of the session, but phrased as an accusation – ‘you make it sound like the Froth Blowers were the forerunners of UKIP. Do you agree?’
But it wasn’t me. I did the same talk in collaboration with the Lewes Octoberfeast of that year in the more congenial surroundings of the upstairs room at the John Harvey Tavern to an engrossed audience who even burst into an impromptu smattering of applause at the end. And yet – a few people at one table seemed reluctant to depart and one of them eventually and hesitantly approached me. ‘Do you know’, he said, ‘for the first ten minutes we thought you were making it all up’. But amongst those persuaded of the veracity of my talk, a Mr Bob Oliver and his associates were enthused to form their own Friends of the Froth Blowers Vat at their local pub in Burgess Hill. So if you are attending my talk on the A.O.F.B. at the West Sussex Record Office on Tuesday 26 November this year, please be reassured that however fanciful their story may appear, all is true. Please also note that a preview article on which the talk is based will appear in the forthcoming autumn, No. 87 issue of West Sussex History.
Our next Tuesday Talk will be on the 28 January 2020 – By Rail to Chichester, 1846-2016, by Alan Green. To book tickets call 01243 753602. Talks start at 7pm and cost £8.00 a ticket.