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June 19, 2006

The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality by Geoffrey Ashe

Posted by barry

Geoffrey Ashe - The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality

Geoffrey Ashe

The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality (

The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality (

The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality (Powell's Books - new or secondhand)

Originally published in 1974, *The Hell-Fire Clubs - A History of Anti-Morality* is Geoffrey Ashe's valuable study of the Knights of St. Francis a.k.a. the Monks of Medmenham - erroneously referred to these days as *The* Hell-Fire Club. This infamous mid-eighteenth century organisation of Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord Sandwich and John Wilkes amongst others was, ironically, the most tasteful, contrived and the least violent of all the groups of rich wastrels - the original Hell-Fires, or Mohocks - who roamed the streets of London and Dublin, literally raising hell.

As Ashe says of the Irish Protestant gentry of the time: 'the Irish Hell-Fire groups are harder to sort out... they tended to be more frankly wicked, and sometimes more overtly harmful. Their members flirted with crime, and with an ill-informed kind of black magic and devil-worship.' In London, George I issued an edict suppressing the Hell-Fire clubs - it's worth noting that at this time, Dashwood was only 21, and was off on his grand (and somewhat bizarre) tour of Europe. Ashe traces the beginnings of the first British Hell-Fire club to the doings of Philip, Duke of Wharton, around 1720. His doings are too incredible to discuss here, but he was, unwittingly, the first to *oppose* the humdrum politics established by Sir Robert Walpole, setting a precedent for further eccentric political behaviour.

Rather than over-indulging in the usual eccentric apocrypha which surrounds the antics of Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord Sandwich, John Wilkes and their circle, Ashe digs deeper - far deeper...finding the root birth of anti-morality in the works of Rabelais, who, in his *Gargantua*, describes the Abbey of Thélème, a fictional utopian society for the well-heeled and well-endowed - a place with only one clause: *fay ce que vouldras* - Do What You Will. From here, Ashe draws an almost continuous line through history - through the questionable 'magickal' polygamy of Dee and Kelley, through the beginning of the novel as an accepted literature, the famous works of erotica - Fanny Hill, amongst others, the eccentric and violent rakes of the early 18th century, the Medmenham group of Dashwood, the libertine cruelty of the Marquis de Sade, the birth of Gothic literature, oddly enough through the fiction of Horace Walpoke, son of Robert, and the antics of Byron, right into the 20th century, with Aleister Crowley, Anton Lavey and the Manson Family deservedly name-dropped.

Ashe never seems to fall the trap of fetishising his topic - his approach is clear, entertaining, but never merely sober. An absolute classic.

[Also reviewed in Fortean Times FT139:56]

- daev

Posted by barry at June 19, 2006 8:21 PM

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