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

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

[Also reviewed in Fortean Times FT139:56]

– daev

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.