A few months ago, Blather spent two issues telling the tale of the Irish Hell-Fire Club of the 1730s and 1740s, whilst exploring the available (and often apocryphal) evidence of the alleged ‘satanic’ behaviour of the ruling classes of the time. We now turn our attention to the English Hell-Fire Club, which operated from the late 1740s and into the 1760s.
Ironically, this Club never really called itself a Hell-Fire Club – it had various other names dreamt up by its founder, Sir Francis Dashwood (later Lord Le Despencer), such as ‘The Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe’, or ‘The Monks of Medmenham’, but seems to have attracted the ‘Hell-Fire’ label through the organisation’s reputation, echoing that of earlier clubs – suppression of ‘Hell-Fire Clubs’ had been enforced (quietly uselessly, it would seem) since 1721, suggesting that the clubs of later decades were more exclusive, and perhaps a little more pretentious than the early manifestations.
As E. Beresford Chancellor quotes from a news-sheet of February 20th,
“The Hell-Fires, you may guess, aim at a more transcendent malignity, deriding the forms of religion as a trifle with them, by a natural progression from the form they turn to the substance; with Lucifer they fly at Divinity. The third person of the Trinity is what they peculiarly attack; by the following specimen you may judge of their good will: i.e., their calling for a Holy-Ghost-pye at the tavern, in which, by the bye, you may still observe the propriety and justice of God’s judgement on them that blasts the advantages of their education so as to make this shocking stupidity to be the poignancy of their wit, and the life they lead the sublimity of their genius. Such is their disposition; the next things to be remarked are their education and usual place of conference. Their education then, after the care of tender parents and their initiation into the liberal arts, is proposed to be finished in an academy; (do not mistake me) not a scholastic, schismatical one, but a riding one, where obsceneness, curses, blasphemy, exclamations with revolving regularity meet each curvet of the more rational animal. Their usual place of conference in full council is a diminutive tavern not far from thence, where the master and cook may perhaps in time hear something from a Magistrate for striking in with the rakes’ blasphemous jests and supplying them with cards and dice on Sundays.”
As may be divined from our earlier writings, the Irish Hell-Fires of the 1730s, despite including members of peerage and parliament, seemed to be a wild weird bunch of philandering rakes. The English Hell-Fire club, with which this article is concerned, was a different kettle of fish altogether. They were a small, organised group of select members, with a central core of 13 members, Dashwood – a Member of Parliament being the leader. Other members (or ‘apostles’) included Lord Sandwich (who at one point commanded the Royal Navy), the famous politician John Wilkes, painter William Hogarth and poets Charles Churchill, Paul Whitehead and Robert Lloyd. American Benjamin Franklin certainly visited Dashwood’s family seat and West Wycombe, but doesn’t seem to have been at the core of any ‘Hell-Fire’ activities, despite the more spurious books written about the Club. One of these is Daniel P. Mannix’s The Hell-Fire Club , which gives away its angle of attack with a tabloidish subtitle: ‘Orgies were their pleasure – Politics their pastime’.
Mannix’s ‘account’ of the Club’s activities reads more like a Denis Wheatley novel than an historical account – we could never trust a book that
pertains [purports] to tell the truth, grabs quotes from all around and yet has no references or index. However, despite its gleeful horror and emotive claims, this book is a useful guide to the sources of the apocryphal stories surrounding Dashwood and friends. Of the various sources we’ve come across, the rather rare 1925 The Lives of The Rakes IV – The Hellfire Club by E. Beresford Chancellor and The Dashwoods of West Wycombe by the current Sir Francis Dashwood seem to be the most sober and apparently reliable texts available.
Even today, when ‘Hell-Fire Clubs’ are mentioned in even the most secular of circles, vague mutterings of ‘Satanists, weren’t they?’ can be heard.
The problem is, it’s quite difficult to define what the practice of ‘Satanism’ really entails, apart from the writings of Anton Szandor LaVey and the Church of Satan – an organisation which certainly does not conform to the media – and thus public – perception of ‘Satanism’, e.g. human sacrifice, ritual abuse, etc. Judging by various cases of alleged Satanism in recent years – the mainstream media using the term as if it were synonymous with ‘occultism’, many of today’s ‘independent’ practitioners seem to doing what they think Satanism should be . Of course, there are schools of ‘thought’ that would regard anything ‘UnChristian’ as Satanic.
It would seem to Blather that any parody of Christianity could, by a devoted Christian, be interpreted as Satanism, regardless of whether or not the parodists ever actually made any reference to Satan.
From reading the two aforementioned volumes, this would seem to be the case. The current Sir Francis, who doesn’t shy away from admitting the truth behind the claims of Club’s sexual frolics, reckons that ‘there is not the slightest evidence that members worshipped the Devil. This is a myth which gained currency during the nineteenth century and has continued to do so’. It would be Blather’s opinion that the members were far too intelligent to resort to a dogma of mere Satanism…
The current Sir Francis quotes John Wilkes describing the group:
‘A set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury’.
Lest it be forgot, the Hell-Fire Club’s Sir Francis was also founder of the Dilettanti Society, responsible for the popularisation of neoclassical works – which lent much influence to the grandiose architecture of these islands…
When researching extinct cultures, defeated armies, suppressed religious movements or organisations such as the Hell-Fire Club, one finds that the larger part of the available literature is often penned by the enemy. Even at the end of the twentieth century, a time which is often referred to as ‘enlightened’, infantile mud-slinging still appears to be an integral part of politics and propaganda. Only last year, in a sequel to the Gulf conflict of the early nineties, Saddam Hussein made a comeback, for many people, as a possible Antichrist. This year, Saddam is out, and Milosevic is the new demon of the (relative) east. It could be argued that Bill Clinton has been redirecting his demonisation to other quarters, such as these conflicts (see The Curse of the Oval Room in Timothy Leary’s Neuropolitique for more on U.S. presidential demonisation).
Such may be the case, with regard to our Hell-Fire Club. The members, it should be remembered, were prominent people – Members of Parliament, the House of Lords, poets – powerful members of society then. And they were not without their enemies. In fact, enemies were made within the club – there seems to be little love lost between Lord Sandwich and John Wilkes. We shall refrain from entering into any great detail about the poetic and political mud-slinging which went on between these people, but we shall present one of the most common Hell-Fire myths, when Wilkes allegedly played a trick on Sandwich.
‘[Wilkes) had contrived the night before to bring into his cell a great Baboon which he had provided for the occasion. When the brotherhood retired to their cells after dinner, to prepare for the ceremony, he availed himself of the office of keeper of the Chapel, which he then filled to convey this creature, dressed up in the phantastic garb, in which childish imagination cloths devils, into the chapel, where he shut him up in a large chest, that stood there to hold the ornaments and utensils of the table, when the society was away. To the spring of the lock of this chest he fastened a cord, which he drew under the carpet that was on the floor to his own seat, and there brought the end of it through a hole, made for the purpose, in such a manner that he could readily find it; and by giving it a pull, open the chest, and let the Baboon loose, whenever he pleased, without being perceived by the rest of the company.’
When the time came, Wilkes jerked the cord and out popped the baboon which jumped on to the shoulders of Lord Sandwich, cried out:
‘Spare me gracious Devil: spare a wretch who never was sincerely your servant. I sinned only from vanity of being in the fashion; thou knowest I never have been half so wicked as I pretended: never have been able to commit the thousandth part of the vices which I have boasted of … leave me therefore and go to those who are more truly devoted to your service. I am but half a sinner…’
This story comes from a 1766 publication called Chrysal or the Adventures of a Guinea by Charles Johnstone, which the current Sir Francis reckons is ‘inaccurate in almost every detail, and the chapel at Medmenham, which measures 21 [6.4m] by 19 feet [5.7m], is rather small to accommodate thirteen participants and a baboon in a box without its presence being patently obvious’. Johnstone seems to have had little time for Dashwood and friends, yet it is his emotional condemnation and shock-horror depictions of events which he did not attend that have become influential on the popular perceptions of the Knights of St. Francis…The Hell-Fire Club.
In April of 1999, two Blatherskites, Mark Pilkington and Dave Walsh, went exploring the ‘West Wycombe Caves’ – the curious chalk caves built by Sir Francis Dashwood between 1748-1754. They are situated across the Valley from the Dashwood home of West Wycombe, about an hour’s drive north-west of London. Whatever Dashwood’s actual motives (if any) were for tunnelling into a hill, there is little doubt that plenty of jobs were created and a good road was built from the chalk that was mined.
In line with his sense of humour, Dashwood rebuilt an old Norman tower on top of the hill into a church, modelled on the custom house in Venice, complete with a large golden sphere on top. This church – assuredly quite Christian – is apparently 300 feet (91m) above the ‘Inner Temple’ of the caverns.
Both the church and the nearby Dashwood mausoleum – apparently based on the Colosseum (and yes, it’s huge) are made of flint, as is the mock-gothic entrance to the tunnels. As one approaches the tunnels, there seems to be a rather innocent Bank Holiday tourist feel to it – nothing like the local vicar’s claims of ‘evil influence’ in the 1950s. There’s a little shop and cafe, where plastic swords, signed copies of the book written by the current Sir Francis, postcards and torches can all be procured. Admittance is gained for the princely sum of three pounds sterling…a long brick hallway leads into the caves, with wall hangings telling the story of the Club and the caves, and a voiceover by Sir Francis.
And then in…a bizarre winding tunnel to nowhere, each branch or cavity filled up with creepy, tacky mannequins of Hell-Fire Francis, Whitehead, Franklin and others. Ghoulish demons are carved hither and tither upon the wall. The tunnel parts, and rejoins, changes direction for no apparent reason, leading into the ‘Banqueting Hall’ – a massive damp and musty cavern with moss covered classical statues placed in alcoves – before wandering off into the suggestive ‘Triangle’, and to see the fake stalactites in the ‘River Styx’ – the river one has to cross before reaching the ‘Inner Temple’.
Folklore has it that the Knights of St. Francis moved operations to here from Medmenham at some point. While they doubtlessly held wild parties here, it’s doubtful that they ever did any more than that. Why swop the relative luxury of Medmenham Abbey for the cold, dark and damp confines of a chalk cavern? Mannix claims that the alcoves around the Banqueting Hall were used by for entertaining their lovers – a dank and uncomfortable place for it, for sure. It is more likely that there were multiple reasons for building the caves – provide employment, for Dashwood’s amusement, and for the sheer folly of it all.
A visit is highly recommended…photographs of the caves, church and mausoleum are available
Photographs (2006) of the English Hellfire Club – Medmenham Abbey and the tunnels at West Wycombe
The Lives of The Rakes IV – The Hellfire Club
E. Beresford Chancellor
The Dashwoods of West Wycombe
Sir Francis Dashwood
Aurum Press Ltd., 1987
Much the Hell-Fire content of this book is also in a pamphlet called
West Wycombe Caves . Both are available from:
West Wycombe Caves
Bucks HP14 3AJ
Phone +44 1494 533739
Fax +44 1494 471617
The Hell-Fire Club
Daniel P. Mannix, 1970
Timothy Leary, Ph.D.
New Falcon Publications, 1988
Satanists Dave Walsh’s talk from Fortfest 1999
Dave (daev) Walsh
June 5th 1999