Hellfire Club

Last updated

Portrait of Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer by William Hogarth from the late 1750s, parodying Renaissance images of Francis of Assisi. The Bible has been replaced by a copy of the erotic novel Elegantiae Latini sermonis, and the profile of Dashwood's friend Lord Sandwich peers from the halo. Hogarth Dashwood.jpg
Portrait of Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer by William Hogarth from the late 1750s, parodying Renaissance images of Francis of Assisi. The Bible has been replaced by a copy of the erotic novel Elegantiae Latini sermonis, and the profile of Dashwood's friend Lord Sandwich peers from the halo.

Hellfire Club was a name for several exclusive clubs for high society rakes established in Britain and Ireland in the 18th century. The name is most commonly used to refer to Sir Francis Dashwood's Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe. [1] Such clubs were rumoured to be the meeting places of "persons of quality" [2] who wished to take part in socially perceived immoral acts, and the members were often involved in politics. Neither the activities nor membership of the club are easy to ascertain. The clubs were rumoured to have distant ties to an elite society known only as The Order of the Second Circle. [3] [4]


The first official Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton and a handful of other high society friends. [5] The most notorious club associated with the name was established in England by Sir Francis Dashwood, [6] and met irregularly from around 1749 to around 1760, and possibly up until 1766. [7] In its later years, the Hellfire was closely associated with Brooks's, established in 1764. Other clubs using the name "Hellfire Club" were set up throughout the 18th century. Most of these clubs were set up in Ireland after Wharton's had been dissolved. [8]

Duke of Wharton's club

Philip, Duke of Wharton Wharton p.jpg
Philip, Duke of Wharton

Lord Wharton, made a Duke by George I, [9] was a prominent politician with two separate lives: the first a "man of letters" and the second "a drunkard, a rioter, an infidel and a rake". [10] The members of Wharton's club are largely unknown. Mark Blackett-Ord [11] assumes that members included Wharton's immediate friends: Earl of Hillsborough, cousin – the Earl of Lichfield and Sir Ed. O'Brien. Aside from these names, other members are not revealed.

At the time of the London gentlemen's club, where there was a meeting place for every interest, including poetry, philosophy and politics, [12] [13] Philip, Duke of Wharton's Hell-Fire Club was, according to Blackett-Ord, [14] a satirical "gentleman's club" which was known to ridicule religion, catching onto the then-current trend in England of blasphemy. [12] [15] The club was more a joke, meant to shock the outside world, than a serious attack on religion or morality. The supposed president of this club was the Devil, although the members themselves did not apparently worship demons or the Devil, but called themselves devils. [16] Wharton's club admitted men and women as equals, unlike other clubs of the time. [15] The club met on Sundays at a number of different locations around London. The Greyhound Tavern was one of the meeting places used regularly, but because women were not to be seen in taverns, the meetings were also held at members' houses and at Wharton's riding club. [5] [15] [17]

According to at least one source, their activities included mock religious ceremonies and partaking in meals containing dishes like "Holy Ghost Pie", "Breast of Venus", and "Devil's Loin", while drinking "Hell-fire punch". [5] [18] Members of the Club supposedly came to meetings dressed as characters from the Bible. [18]

Wharton's club came to an end in 1721 [15] when George I, under the influence of Wharton's political enemies (namely Robert Walpole) put forward a Bill "against 'horrid impieties'" (or immorality), aimed at the Hellfire Club. [2] [19] Wharton's political opposition used his membership as a way to pit him against his political allies, thus removing him from Parliament. [19] After his Club was disbanded, Wharton became a Freemason, and in 1722 he became the Grand Master of England. [20]

Sir Francis Dashwood's clubs

Sir Francis Dashwood and the Earl of Sandwich are alleged to have been members of a Hellfire Club that met at the George and Vulture Inn throughout the 1730s. [21] Dashwood founded the Order of the Knights of St Francis in 1746, originally meeting at the George & Vulture. [22]

The club motto was Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), a philosophy of life associated with François Rabelais' fictional abbey at Thélème [7] [23] and later used by Aleister Crowley.

Francis Dashwood was well known for his pranks: for example, while in the Royal Court in St Petersburg, he dressed up as the King of Sweden, a great enemy of Russia. The membership of Sir Francis' club was initially limited to twelve but soon increased. Of the original twelve, some are regularly identified: Dashwood, Robert Vansittart, Thomas Potter, Francis Duffield, Edward Thompson, Paul Whitehead and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. [24] The list of supposed members is immense; among the more probable candidates are Benjamin Bates II, George Bubb Dodington, a fabulously corpulent man in his 60s; [25] William Hogarth, although hardly a gentleman, has been associated with the club after painting Dashwood as a Franciscan Friar [26] [27] and John Wilkes, though much later, under the pseudonym John of Aylesbury. [28] Benjamin Franklin is known to have occasionally attended the club's meetings during 1758 as a non-member during his time in England. However, some authors and historians would argue Benjamin Franklin was in fact a spy. As there are no records left (having been burned in 1774 [29] ), many of these members are just assumed or linked by letters sent to each other. [30]

Meetings and club activities

Sir Francis's club was never originally known as a Hellfire Club; it was given this name much later. [3] [4] His club in fact used a number of other names, such as the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wy, [31] Order of Knights of West Wycombe, The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe [26] , and later, after moving their meetings to Medmenham Abbey, they became the Monks or Friars of Medmenham. [32] The first meeting at Sir Francis's family home in West Wycombe was held on Walpurgis Night , 1752; a much larger meeting, it was something of a failure and no large-scale meetings were held there again. In 1751, Dashwood, leased Medmenham Abbey [26] on the Thames from a friend, Francis Duffield. [33] On moving into the Abbey, Dashwood had numerous expensive works done on the building. It was rebuilt by the architect Nicholas Revett in the style of the 18th-century Gothic revival. At this time, the motto Fais ce que tu voudras was placed above a doorway in stained glass. [7] It is thought that William Hogarth may have executed murals for this building; none, however, survive. Underneath the Abbey, Dashwood had a series of caves carved out from an existing one. It was decorated again with mythological themes, phallic symbols and other items of a sexual nature.

According to Horace Walpole, the members' "practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighborhood of the complexion of those hermits." Dashwood's garden at West Wycombe contained numerous statues and shrines to different gods; Daphne and Flora, Priapus and the previously mentioned Venus and Dionysus. [34]

Meetings occurred twice a month, with an AGM lasting a week or more in June or September. [35] The members addressed each other as "Brothers" and the leader, which changed regularly, as "Abbot". During meetings members supposedly wore ritual clothing: white trousers, jacket and cap, while the "Abbot" wore a red ensemble of the same style. [36] Legends of Black Masses and Satan or demon worship have subsequently become attached to the club, beginning in the late Nineteenth Century. Rumours saw female "guests" (a euphemism for prostitutes) referred to as "Nuns". Dashwood's Club meetings often included mock rituals, items of a pornographic nature, much drinking, wenching and banqueting. [37]

Decline of Dashwood's Club

The downfall of Dashwood's Club was more drawn-out and complicated. In 1762, the Earl of Bute appointed Dashwood his Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite Dashwood being widely held to be incapable of understanding "a bar bill of five figures". (Dashwood resigned the post the next year, having raised a tax on cider which caused near-riots). [38] Dashwood now sat in the House of Lords after taking up the title of Baron Le Despencer after the previous holder died. [39] Then there was the attempted arrest of John Wilkes for seditious libel against the King in the notorious issue No. 45 of his The North Briton in early 1763. [39] During a search authorised by a General warrant (possibly set up by Sandwich, who wanted to get rid of Wilkes), [40] a version of The Essay on Woman was discovered set up on the press of a printer whom Wilkes had almost certainly used. The work was almost certainly principally written by Thomas Potter, and from internal evidence can be dated to around 1755. It was scurrilous, blasphemous, libelous, and bawdy, though not pornographic- still unquestionably illegal under the laws of the time, and the Government subsequently used it to drive Wilkes into exile. Between 1760 and 1765 Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea by Charles Johnstone was published. [41] It contained stories easily identified with Medmenham, one in which Lord Sandwich was ridiculed as having mistaken a monkey for the Devil. This book sparked the association between the Medmenham Monks and the Hellfire Club. By this time, many of the Friars were either dead or too far away for the Club to continue as it did before. [42] Medmenham was finished by 1766.

Paul Whitehead had been the Secretary and Steward of the Order at Medmenham. When he died in 1774, as his will specified, his heart was placed in an urn at West Wycombe. It was sometimes taken out to show to visitors, but was stolen in 1829. [6] [26]

The West Wycombe Caves in which the Friars met are now a tourist site [43] known as the "Hell Fire Caves". The attraction is highly rated (four stars) by users of the international Web site, Tripadvisor. [44]

In Anstruther, Scotland, a likeminded sex and drinking club called the Beggar's Benison was formed in the 1730s, which survived for a century and spawned additional branches in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Honorary membership was extended to the Prince of Wales in 1783. 39 years later, while the Prince (by now King George IV) was paying a royal visit to Scotland, he bequeathed the club a snuff box filled with his mistresses' pubic hair. [45]

Hellfire Clubs in contemporary life

Phoenix Society

In 1781, Dashwood's nephew Joseph Alderson (an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford) founded the Phoenix Society (later known as the Phoenix Common Room), but it was only in 1786 that the small gathering of friends asserted themselves as a recognised institution. [46] The Phoenix was established in honour of Sir Francis, who died in 1781, as a symbolic rising from the ashes of Dashwood's earlier institution. To this day, the dining society abides by many of its predecessor's tenets. Its motto uno avulso non deficit alter (when one is torn away another succeeds) is from the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid and refers to the practice of establishing the continuity of the society through a process of constant renewal of its graduate and undergraduate members. The Phoenix Common Room's continuous history was reported in 1954 as a matter of note to the college. [47]

In Ireland

A number of Hellfire Clubs are still in existence in Ireland and are centred around universities and meet secretly. For example, there is a Hellfire Club at Trinity College that meets in central Dublin, while there is also a Hellfire Club at Maynooth University that meets in Maynooth, as well as one that regularly meets in Cork. These clubs carry out similar actions as the original Hellfire Clubs, including mock ceremonies and drinking alcohol.


The Hellfire Club has appeared in numerous literary works:



See also


  1. Hellfire Holidays: Damnation, Members Only, Tonyperrottet.com 2009-12-15, accessed 2009-12-18
  2. 1 2 Ashe p.48
  3. 1 2 Blackett-Ord p. 46
  4. 1 2 Ashe p. 111
  5. 1 2 3 Blackett-Ord p. 44
  6. 1 2 "Paul Whitehead". The Twickenham Museum. "The Monks of Medmenham Abbey" (the Hell-Fire Club, founded by Sir Francis Dashwood) of which he became the secretary and steward
  7. 1 2 3 Ashe
  8. Ashe p. 60
  9. Ashe p. 52
  10. Blackett-Ord p.70
  11. p. 44[ incomplete short citation ]
  12. 1 2 Blackett-Ord p. 43
  13. Ashe p. 46
  14. p. 43[ incomplete short citation ]
  15. 1 2 3 4 Ashe p. 48
  16. Blackett-Ord p. 44-6
  17. Willens
  18. 1 2 Ashe p. 49
  19. 1 2 Blackett-Ord p. 70
  20. Ashe p. 62
  21. Ashe, Geoffrey (2000). The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality . Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing. pp.  65. ISBN   9780750924023.
  22. Mike Howard. "The Hellfire Club". Archived from the original on 2009-10-10. Retrieved 2010-01-10.
  23. Alamantra
  24. Ashe p. 115
  25. Ashe p. 113
  26. 1 2 3 4 Simon, Robin (2008-11-03). "High politics and Hellfire: William Hogarth's portrait of Francis Dashwood". Gresham College . Retrieved 2010-01-11. Infamous rake (and Chancellor of the Exchequer), Sir Francis Dashwood was the founder of the Hellfire Club
  27. Coppens
  28. Ashe p. 120
  29. City of Blood, Cities of the Underworld - History Channel 2 (H2), 2008
  30. Ashe p. 121
  31. Ashe p.111
  32. Ashe p. 112
  33. Ashe p.118
  34. Ashe p. 114
  35. Ashe p. 125
  36. Ashe p 125
  37. Ashe p. 133
  38. Ashe p. 155
  39. 1 2 Ashe p. 157
  40. Ashe p. 158
  41. Ashe p. 177
  42. Ashe p. 167
  43. https://thetempletrail.com/hell-fire-caves/
  44. https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Attraction_Review-g635901-d2277486-Reviews-Hell_Fire_Caves-West_Wycombe_High_Wycombe_Buckinghamshire_England.html
  45. Gatrell, Vic, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, Walker and Company, 2006, pg 313
  46. See also A Century of the Phoenix Common Room, Brasenose College, Oxford, 1786-1886, records edited by F. Madan, Oxford, 1888.
  47. 'Brasenose College', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3: The University of Oxford (1954), pp. 207-219. British-history.ac.uk
  48. "Edguy- Hellfire Club". Encyclopaedia Metallum . Retrieved 20 February 2014.
  49. "Hellfyre Club - Dash Lyrics". Genius_(website) . Retrieved 30 May 2019.

Related Research Articles

Thelema Occult philosophy developed by Aleister Crowley

Thelema is a social or spiritual philosophy derived from Western esotericism. The word thelema is the English transliteration of the Koine Greek noun θέλημα, "will", from the verb θέλω (ethélō): "to will, wish, want or purpose".

John Wilkes 18th-century English radical, journalist, and politician

John Wilkes was a British radical, journalist and politician. He was first elected a Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of his voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives. In 1768, angry protests of his supporters were suppressed in the St George's Fields Massacre. In 1771, he was instrumental in obliging the government to concede the right of printers to publish verbatim accounts of parliamentary debates. In 1776, he introduced the first bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament.

West Wycombe village in the United Kingdom

West Wycombe is a small village situated along the A40 road, three miles west of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England.

Hellfire Caves

The Hellfire Caves are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns which extend 0.25 miles (400 m) underground. They are situated above the village of West Wycombe, at the southern edge of the Chiltern Hills near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, Southeast England.

Medmenham a village located in Wycombe, United Kingdom

Medmenham {pronounced /ˈmɛdənəm/} is a village and civil parish in the Wycombe district of Buckinghamshire, England. It is on the River Thames, about 3 12 miles (5.6 km) southwest of Marlow and 3 miles (4.8 km) east of Henley-on-Thames.

West Wycombe Park Country house in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England

West Wycombe Park is a country house built between 1740 and 1800 near the village of West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, England. It was conceived as a pleasure palace for the 18th-century libertine and dilettante Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet. The house is a long rectangle with four façades that are columned and pedimented, three theatrically so. The house encapsulates the entire progression of British 18th-century architecture from early idiosyncratic Palladian to the Neoclassical, although anomalies in its design make it architecturally unique. The mansion is set within an 18th-century landscaped park containing many small temples and follies, which act as satellites to the greater temple, the house.

Dunston Pillar

Dunston Pillar is a Grade II listed stone tower in Lincolnshire, England and a former 'land lighthouse'. It stands beside the A15 road approximately 6 miles (10 km) south of Lincoln near the junction of the B1178, in the parish of Dunston, north of Sleaford.

Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer British politician

Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer, PC, FRS was an English rake and politician, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1762–1763) and founder of the Hellfire Club.

<i>Minuet in Hell</i> Audio drama based on the television series Doctor Who

Minuet in Hell is a Big Finish Productions audio drama based on the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who. Unlike the other Eighth Doctor audio plays from this "season", Minuet in Hell was not broadcast on BBC 7 in 2005, primarily due to story references that were dropped for the broadcasts, and the more mature subject matter of this story.

Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton British Duke

Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton was a powerful Jacobite politician, was one of the few people in English history, and the first since the 15th century, to have been raised to a Dukedom whilst still a minor and not closely related to the monarch.

Benjamin Edward Bates II was a British physician, art connoisseur, and socialite. Born into wealth, he was a prominent member of society and was selected to become a member of the Sir Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club, The Monks of Medmenham. He is the great-great grandfather of Benjamin Bates IV, founder of Bates College.

Dashwood baronets

There have been two baronetcies created for members of the Dashwood family, one in the Baronetage of England and one in the Baronetage of Great Britain. Both creations are extant as of 2008.

Sir John Dashwood-King, 3rd Baronet British politician

Sir John Dashwood-King, 3rd Baronet was an English country gentleman. Born John Dashwood, he adopted the additional surname of King by the terms of his uncle Dr. John King's will.

Sir John Dashwood-King, 4th Baronet was a British Tory politician and country gentleman.

Sir Francis Dashwood, 1st Baronet, of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, London, and West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, was a British merchant, landowner and Whig politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1708 to 1713.

Montpelier Hill Site of the Hellfire Club, Dublin, Ireland

Mount Pelier Hill is a 383-metre (1,257-foot) hill in County Dublin, Ireland. It is commonly referred to as the Hell Fire Club, the popular name given to the ruined building at the summit. This building – a hunting lodge built in around 1725 by William Conolly – was originally called Mount Pelier and since its construction the hill has also gone by the same name. The building and hill were respectively known locally as 'The Brass Castle' and 'Bevan's Hill', but the original Irish name of the hill is no longer known although the historian and archaeologist Patrick Healy has suggested that the hill is the place known as Suide Uí Ceallaig or Suidi Celi in the Crede Mihi, the twelfth century diocesan register book of the Archbishops of Dublin.

John Hall-Stevenson (1718–1785), in his youth known as John Hall, was an English country gentleman and writer.

St Lawrences Church, West Wycombe Church in West Wycombe, England

St Lawrence's Church is a Church of England church in the parish of West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England. It sits on top of West Wycombe Hill in a prominent position overlooking the West Wycombe Road, and surrounding villages. West Wycombe Hill is managed by the National Trust, although the church and graveyard are owned by the Church of England. The church resides in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. St Lawrence Church and the mausoleum both occupy similar positions on top of West Wycombe Hill, and the Church tower is visible for many miles around. The top of the tower is the highest point in the Southern Chilterns and on a clear day it is possible to see West London.

John Norris was an English merchant and a member of the landed gentry. He was High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1775.

Paul Whitehead (1710–1774) was a British satirist and a secretary to the infamous Hellfire Club.