Ghosts, debauchery and devils… The Hellfire Caves are one of Buckinghamshire’s most intriguing attractions - but what of the club that named them?
The original Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton. The Duke could have been best described as a “character”. Sometimes charitably given the sobriquet as a “man of letters”, he was equally known as a “a drunkard, a rioter, an infidel and a rake”.
Wharton’s club admitted men and women as equals, and set out to satirise the clubs of the day. A open disdain for religion saw members referred to as “devils”, dressing as characters from the Bible and holding mock religious ceremonies. Regular menu items included: “Holy Ghost Pie”, “Breast of Venus”, and “Devil’s Loin”. And it was washed down with “Hell-fire punch”.
Like all the best parties, the club was shut down in 1721 by George I on grounds of immorality.
The club was revived (albeit under the name of Order of the Knights of St Francis) in 1755 by Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer. Also a bit of a wag, his CV included impersonating Charles XII while in Russia, attempting to seduce Tsarina Anne, and a subsequent expulsion from the Papal states.
The new Hellfire Club had a motto: “Fais ce que tu voudras” (Do what thou wilt) – incidentally later used by the occultist, and all-round fun guy, Aleister Crowley.
In 1755, Sir Francis leased Medmenham Abbey from a friend and rebuilt it in the fashionable Gothic revival style, along with the Hellfire motto in stained glass above the entrance and murals by none other than William Hogarth.
Around the same time, Sir Francis excavated the nearby West Wycombe Caves, on his family’s estate, in order to provide chalk and flint for a local road. The caves had existed since ancient times and Sir Francis extended these for his own nefarious purposes, decorating them with mythological themes, phallic symbols and other things you wouldn’t want your gran to see.
All dug by hand, the caves extend 400 metres underground, with the individual chambers connected by a series of long passageways. The irregular path of the caves is said to stem from the workers following the seam of chalk.
The club met twice a month, using both Medmenham Abbey and the caves and local legends told of black masses, drunkenness and female “guests” (actually prostitutes) being referred to as “Nuns”.
By the 1760s the heyday of the club was over. After a disastrous turn as Chancellor of the Exchequer for a year, Sir Francis took up his position in the House of Lords. And this, combined with the publication of a number of salacious pamphlets published by leading members of the club, and easily identifying Medmenham, spelled the end of the road for the Hellfire in 1766.
Nothing now remains of Sir Francis’ club. Its Steward, Paul Whitehead, burned all the incriminating records before his death in 1774 – and it is said that his ghost haunts the caves.
Despite the original being long gone, Hellfire clubs do still exist. Two Irish universities play host to Hellfire clubs – Trinity College and Maynooth University – but more certainly exist in secret around the globe.
The Hellfire caves are open every day from April 1st to 31st October from 11am to 5.30pm.