Monday, 12 August 2013

Hell-Fire Caves and the Hell-Fire Club

Yesterday I visited somewhere I've wanted to see for ages - the Hell-Fire Caves, erstwhile home to the notorious Hell-Fire Club.

Entrance to Hell-Fire Caves
 The Hell-Fire Caves are in West Wycombe Hill, Buckinghamshire, opposite West Wycombe Park, the 18th century italianate villa that was home to the Dashwood family for over 300 years.  Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet (1708-81) founded the Hell-Fire Club, more properly or more cautiously known as the 'Monks of Medmenham' or the 'Society of Saint Frances of Wycombe'.

The society, whose members included Sir Francis's political cronies as well as poets and satirists, took the form of a mock religious order, perhaps inspired by Francois Rebelais's imaginary Abbey of Thelema, a monastic establishment with the motto in old French of 'Fay ce que vouldras' or 'Do as you wish'.

The activities of the Hell-Fire Club have probably been exaggerated but there's little doubt that elaborate mock religious ceremonies, banqueting, orgies, drinking and free love played a part in the their meetings and parties which took place both at Medmenham Abbey some six miles from West Wycombe and, of course, in the Hell-Fire Caves.

Walpole recorded that the 'monks' had a white costume 'more like a waterman's than a monk's' and dressing up was a favourite pastime of its members.   There are several potraits of Sir Francis in fancy dress, including one in oriental cosume and another as Sir Francis in the guise of Pope Innocent toasting a female herm.

Rumours of Black Masses, orgies and Satan or demon worship were well circulated during the time. Female "guests" (a euphemism for prostitutes) were masked and referred to as "Nuns".  Sir Francis himself certainly enjoyed the charms of the fair sex.  In 1774 he was described at 'the most careless and perhaps the most facetious libertine of his age.'

Walpole described him as having the 'staying power of a stallion and the impetuosity of a bull'.  In 1745, the year of his marriage, a friend of Sir Francis teased him for being 'like a Publick Reservoir...laying your **** in every private family that has any Place Fitt to receive it.'

Ahem, he sounds a bit of a lad to put it mildly!

Banqueting Cave
The caves were originally excavated in 1740s to allow Sir Francis to give employment to the villagers following a succession of harvest failures. They were then and remain totally unique.  Their design was no doubt inspired by Sir Francis' Grand Tour of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.  Many of Sir Francis's contemporaries were building palladian villas and landscaping gardens, but no others ventured underground like the Hell-Fire Caves.  The excavated chalk was used to improve the road between West Wycbombe and High Wycombe.  The caves were all dug by hand and you can still see the pick marks on the walls. 

The caves extend down deep winding passages for over a quarter of a mile underground.  They lead past various small chambers, to the large, vaulted banqueting hall, then further down and onwards to the River Styx, which according to mythology separated the living world from the Underworld, and finally to the Inner Temple, the deepest chamber.  This is some three hundred feet directly beneath St. Lawrence's Church, at the top of West Wycombe Hill, and thus, whether intentionally or not, reflecting Heaven and Hell on the same site.

Two ghosts are said to haunt the caves - one is Paul Whitehead, steward of the Hell-Fire Club.  Whitehead left £50 on his death for the purchase of an urn to be deposited in the Dashwood Mausoleum (situated on top of West Wycombe Hill, next to St. Lawrence's church) so that his heart may be placed inside and thus remain with the Dashwoods forever.  This was done but in 1829 an Australian soldier stole the heart and the urn was placed in the caves for safekeeping.  Paul Whitehead is reputed to haunt the caves searching for his heart.

The second ghost is Sukie, a servant girl who worked at The George and Dragon inn in West Wycombe in the 18th century. Among her many admirers were three boys from the village, whose advances she rejected since she had set her sights on becoming the mistress of an aristocrat. One day a wealthy young man paid a visit to the inn and Sukie, seeing him as her meal ticket out of there, promptly set about ensnaring him. Soon the handsome young buck was besotted and began paying daily visits to the inn. This irked the three local lads, who hatched a cunning plan to teach Sukie a lesson. They sent her a letter, which purported to come from her noble suitor, informing her that he wished to elope with her. She was, he instructed, to don a white dress and meet him that night in the West Wycombe caves. Elated, the unsuspecting Sukie dressed accordingly and set off for her rendezvous.

Arriving at the mouth of the caves she lit a flaming torch and set off into the labyrinth. Hidden behind a large rock, the spurned lads watched with anticipation a she approached. Just as she had passed by, they seized the torch and dashed it to the ground, extinguishing its flame. Sukie was terrified and fled into the darkness with her tormentors in hot pursuit. It was then that the prank turned to tragedy. As the frightened girl turned a corner, she tripped over a rock and her head struck the cave wall, knocking her unconscious. The three lads summoned help and the villagers arrived to carry the comatose girl back to her room at The George and Dragon. A doctor was called, but in the early hours of the next morning she died.

As well as the caves, Sukie's restless ghost is also reputed to still haunt The George and Dragon.

I've posted some photos on my Facebook author page from my visit to the Hell-Fire Caves and West Wycombe park which you can see here.

I must say the caves had a very, very peculiar atmosphere.  And one thing is for sure, no-one would hear you scream down there! :-0

West Wycombe Park
St. Lawrence's Church


  1. Hope this isn't too long...

    I've just been listening to an audio book of Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K Jerome and was quite surprised to hear a mention of Medmenham Abbey in Chapter 13:

    ...and a little further still, nestling by a sweet corner of the stream, is what is left of Medmenham Abbey.

    The famous Medmenham monks, or “Hell Fire Club,” as they were commonly called, and of whom the notorious Wilkes was a member, were a fraternity whose motto was “Do as you please,” and that invitation still stands over the ruined doorway of the abbey. Many years before this bogus abbey, with its congregation of irreverent jesters, was founded, there stood upon this same spot a monastery of a sterner kind, whose monks were of a somewhat different type to the revellers that were to follow them, five hundred years afterwards.

    The Cistercian monks, whose abbey stood there in the thirteenth century, wore no clothes but rough tunics and cowls, and ate no flesh, nor fish, nor eggs. They lay upon straw, and they rose at midnight to mass. They spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and over all their lives there fell a silence as of death, for no one spoke.

    A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright! Strange that Nature’s voices all around them—the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind—should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this. They listened there, through the long days, in silence, waiting for a voice from heaven; and all day long and through the solemn night it spoke to them in myriad tones, and they heard it not.

    There's no doubting the Hell-Fire Club's excesses, even if they were exaggerated, but I thought it was interesting that Jerome thought the original monks at Medmenham Abbey were too austere.

    We visited Burghley House near Stamford last week, and, amongst all the usual family portraits, silk hangings etc, I wasn't expecting to see a ceiling, dating from 1697, depicting Hell. It was surreal, with very strange, and sometimes unpleasant, activities.

    The Hell-Fire Club does make some more recent political scandals seem quite tame in comparison!

  2. LOL yes the Bullingdon Club is like the WI in comparison :D Thanks for the excerpt, I didn't realise Medmenham was mentioned in Three Men in a Boat. They also have a Heaven room at Burghley, I think. It features Ceres, Goddess of Plenty, who has six nipples but was in fact the woman who ran the house brewery and fell out with Verrio the painter over his unpaid bills. He took his revenge by putting her image on the ceiling!

  3. We saw the Heaven Room too. It's possible to stand in the doorway between Heaven and Hell! Verrio spent months working on each ceiling. I can't help wondering if being so close to the images for so long had an effect on him.

    (BTW preview is saying I'm anonymous! - I'm agenoria)

  4. You're showing up as agenoria on the posted comment :-) The paintings really are breathtaking, aren't they? The Heaven room is considered his masterpiece. And yes, one has to wonder about the effect it had on him in many ways, not least his relationships with the rest of the household since he spent so much time at Burghley (and Chatsworth). 10 years in total. I wonder if images of any other of his Burghley contemporaries appear in either Heaven or Hell?!