Hellfire Caves and Club
We have been unable to find an original 18th century source that identifies a name for this part of the caves other than just “the Circle”. It does appear on several map layouts that can be found on the internet but does not appear on the website of the Hellfire Caves (2009).
The only reference that we’ve been able to find is that part of the caves were designed to represent the Circular Earth and it may be that Sandwich’s sponsorship of the explorer Captain Cook may in some way be linked to this feature. It may also have a basis in 18th Century Alchemy
THE LORD SANDWICH CIRCLE
Lord Sandwich was born in 1718 and had a difficult childhood that was devoid of long-term parental affection. At an early age he was sent to boarding school and was later educated at Trinity College, Eton, but failed to achieve a degree. As a young man he travelled to Europe and the Near East in 1937. Countries visited included: France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Malta, Portugal and Spain. Already “rakish” in his behaviour, he was drawn to the ancient mysteries of the time. During his time abroad he collected many rare artefacts including coins and archaeological remains and may have become acquainted with Sir Francis Dashwood who was embarking on his third journey to Europe and the East. On his return he was duly elected to the Royal Society. It is likely that he first engaged with Sir Francis Dashwood at this time and four years later he married Dashwood’s second cousin – Lady Dorothy Fane. He clearly had powerful associates for in the same year he was appointed to the House of Lords and to the post of Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and thus the most powerful person in the British Navy. There is no doubt that he had a remarkable career from this point onwards although he has often been accused of well-meaning incompetence. (To be fair, modern historians are increasingly challenging recorded history as it does seem to have been written by people who were politically hostile to Lord Sandwich.) There is strong evidence that an early age he was indoctrinated into the Jacobite cause and had conflicting emotions regarding his role in British government. His most active period with the Friars of Sir Francis was between 1750 and 1757 after he was dismissed from his government post in 1749. (He would be reinstated later and hold several key government positions.) He was almost certainly the highest ranking of the 12 Apostles (messengers / agents).
No reference to Lord Sandwich is complete without mentioning that he was once tricked by John Wilkes into believing that a baboon was the Devil or that the fast food – The Sandwich – was named after him. We could write volumes about this man; about his successes (often discredited) and his failures (often exaggerated). There is no doubt that he developed a hatred for Wilkes that threatened the Order and their secret objective which we’ll reveal later in another section. He did use his position to persecute Wilkes and have him exiled for a pornographic work of literature called “An Essay on Women.” (Some sources claim that Wilkes actually never wrote the book at all.) Many despised Montagu for this act as they knew that he himself was a heavy drinker, a gambler and a man who had willing participated in the many sexual activities that had taken place at Medmenham Abbey and the Hellfire caves. They also knew that he had been living with his mistress Martha Fay – a much younger singer who was later murdered by a jealous clergyman who had hoped to marry her.
His naval failures during the American war of Independence are considered by many historians to have tipped the balance in favour of the colonists. Some even go so far to say that his ill-advised military tactics cost Britain the war. In his later career he shared the position of Post Master General with Sir Francis Dashwood his friend and – on many occasions – his financial patron.
The Numerals XXII
Along the passage between The Circle and Franklin’s Cave you will discover the Roman numerals XXII deeply engraved into the chalk wall. Nobody knows for sure why they were carved at this point and various explanations have been proposed. The most interesting is that they mark the starting point from which an undisclosed tunnel can be discovered that leads to hidden caves and passages that contain the real secrets of the Friars of St. Francis. A contemporary poem from this time refers to this as a possibility:
Take 20 steps and rest a while;
Then take a pick and find the stile
Where once I did my love beguile.
‘Twas 22 in Dashwood’s time,
Perhaps to hide this cell divine
Where lay my love in peace sublime.
The 22 steps – A clue in the Hellfire Caves
It may be this passage or entrance that leads to the “lost chambers” such as the Cloisters, the Endless Stair and Sarah’s Cave. Several references suggest that a tunnel leads downhill approximately 500 metres to the George and Dragon and another to a spiral staircase that leads to the Nave of St. Lawrence Church. We have found at least one letter from a woman who visited the caves many years ago and then did so again recently. She is adamant that the caves were bigger when she first visited. They were also visited in 1796 by Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys who’s diary suggests that they were larger than they are now.
Robert Chambers 1869 work – Book of Days (A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities) States:
“In the middle is a pool of water, called the Styx, said formerly to have been deeper, and only to be crossed by a boat ; now it is bridged by stepping-stones, leading to a large, lofty, circular cave,”
In fact, there is now a tiny bridge and it is impossible to see how the pool could ever have been large enough to have needed a boat. During our visit we also noticed many areas of reconstruction and relatively fresh mortar. In certain areas the roof of the tunnel had been strengthened with modern concrete struts and heavy wire grills sealed of several apertures located above us. Any of these could have deliberately or accidentally sealed off part of the caves.
A second poem said to allude to the secret tunnels was “The Duellist” by Charles Churchill. Below is a small segment that very likely relates to the Hellfire caves.
Under the Temple lay a cave: Made by some guilty, coward slave,
Whose actions fear’d rebuke, a maze Of intricate and winding ways,
Not to be found without a clue; One passage only, known to a few,
In paths direct led to a cell, Where Fraud in secret lov’d to dwell,
With all her tools and slaves about her, Nor feared lest honesty should route her.
There is a growing body of circumstantial evidence that the Friars / Knights of Sir Francis did have a “Secret Purpose” other than wine, sex, old gods and a love of the ancient world. There may be strong clues to this purpose hidden in the rest of this poem.
THE WHITE LADY: SUKI’S GHOST
The story of Suki, The ghost bride of the Hellfire Caves, is an odd one. According to the legend written on a plaque in the tunnels Suki was a servant girl who was employed at the nearby Public House (pub/bar), the George and Dragon. Apparently she was most appealing and had high hopes of being noticed by the local squires and nobility. The plaque states that she desired to be a bride of an aristocrat. As such, she kept herself pure and rejected the propositions of the local lads who grew increasingly irritated by her manner. There came a day when a young and wealthy nobleman visited the George and Dragon and seemed quite taken with Suki who flirted “most seriously” with him.
After he departed the angry local lads who had witnessed this interchange decided to teach Suki a lesson. Apparently, they wrote her a letter purportedly from the young man that she had just met. It stated the he wanted to elope with her and that she was to meet him in the caves in her wedding dress. Suki did as she was asked and arrived at the caves to find that she had been tricked and it is said that “Stones were thrown”. It seems that one struck Suki on the head and she collapsed to the ground. Horrified at what they had done the young men carried her to the Inn but she died during the night. Her ghost is said to roam the caves and is also sometimes seen at the George and Dragon and many paranormal experts have claimed to have been able to make contact her.
There is so much wrong with this story that it’s hard to know where to begin. Suki(e) is not an English name that was at all common in the 1800’s and is actually Japanese in origin. It may be a misunderstanding relating to the letter “F” where “K” could have been misread. For example: Sufie = Sukie = Susie! Which is, of course, is short for Susan (a very common name). The local lad’s would have been farmers’ sons or “Toil Workers”. It is unlikely that they could write their own names let alone compose a letter that could fool Suki even if she could read herself. And … what are the chances that a poor servant barmaid had a wedding dress all prepared that she could slip into and rush off to the caves? Wedding dresses were painfully expensive items in the 1800’s. Also, the distance between the George and Dragon and the entrance of the Hellfire Caves is about half a kilometre. Suki would have had to walk this in her wedding dress, uphill, though the high village and the brambles (bushes with lots and lots of thorns) – not likely! Let’s add insult to injury … She would have also had to carry a lantern if it was at night – as suggested. 18th century lanterns weigh more than a kilogram and spill oil everywhere.
The story of Suki(e) is probably a local myth based on an older event. And – because we are fanatical about accurate information – we state clearly that this is speculation. We believe that the death of Suki (if it occurred at all) may refer to an event that took place when the caves were being used by the Friars of Sir Francis. Why? Well … the women that attended the meetings commonly took exotic names. The Friars had a love of costume and “Dressing-up” and could afford it. The quasi-virgin bride “Ariadne” of Greek mythology was apparently a popular theme. Young local lads and lasses would have been intrigued by the “goings on”. Accidents happen and life in 1756 at the height of the Seven Years War was cheap! It would be fascinating to do a DNA analysis of the long-term residents of West Wycombe and see how many of them were distantly related to Sir Francis Dashwood, John Montagu, William Hogarth, Paul Whitehead and John Wilkes.
Benjamin Franklin is recognised as one of the founding fathers of America but it is often overlooked – particularly in American histories – that he lived for a considerable part of his life in England and found it an agreeable place for a man of his talents. As a man fascinated by science, politics, Europe and history it should be no surprise that he eventually became a close friend of Sir Francis Dashwood. Franklin travelled to Britain in 1757 having already established himself with both wealth and renown in the American Colonies. Some of his notable achievements before leaving America included his success with newspaper publishing, the foundation of the Union Fire Company, experiments with electricity and his appointment as Deputy Post Master General for the Colonies. Over the next two decades he would energetically engage with British society and become a member of the Friars (Knights) of St. Francis. This particular cave may have been named for him as a token of respect or it may have been the very “chamber” that he used for more intimate engagements while taking part in the rituals and ceremonies of the Hellfire caves. There is so much more research needed into this subject. There is no doubt that he was, at times, a participant both at Medmenham Abbey and the Caves. There is a record that he officially visited them again in 1770 – possibly out of nostalgia or for some other purpose yet to be revealed.
THE CHILDREN’S CAVE
We don’t know why this was called the Children’s Cave. The explanation on the official website reads:
Frankly, this description has no relevance to the name of the cave that we can figure out. It was almost certainly not called this during Dashwood’s time. However, if anyone out there knows better – please tell us. The only other reference that we’ve been able to find is that this is called the children’s cave because it was the furthest into the cave that the local children dared to venture. (Hmm)