The Hellfire Club Caves

Mysteries of the Hellfire Caves and the Church of St. Lawrence.

For those who know anything about this period of 18th century British History the mention of the “Hellfire Clubs” seems to provoke swift and polarised reactions.

Some immediately respond with mutterings of dark satanic rites and debauchery of the most extreme kind while others simply laugh at the wild tales and dismiss them as exaggerations. The elusive truth is probably somewhere in the middle – a very complicated middle!

This section of the Aquiziam website focuses on the “club” and “caves” established by Sir Francis Dashwood which has assumed the reputation of being a “Hellfire Society” although, allegedly it never officially referred to itself as such – perhaps because of government edict outlawing the “Hellfire” clubs in 1721.

Located in West Wycombe in the British county of Buckinghamshire the Hellfire Caves have a notorious history and are reputed to conceal many mysteries. They are actually a manmade network of tunnels carved out the chalk and flint of West Wycombe Hill and were commissioned by Sir Francis Dashwood to be one of the secret meeting places of his libertine society “The Knights of Sir Francis”.

THE CAVE LAYOUT AND LOST CAVES

The precise layout of the chalk caves follows a winding path that leads deep under the West Wycombe Hill. Once you pass the gothic entrance made of flint and chalk mortar you enter a brick-lined passage that is perfectly aligned and leading north. There is a schematic map of the layout but all our research indicates that its dimensions may be less than accurate. As you progress ever deeper the landmarks you will discover are:

  • The Tool Store / The Steward’s Room
  • Paul Whitehead’s Cave / Robing Room
  • The Circle
  • The Twenty Two Steps
  • Franklin’s Recess
  • The Children’s Cave
  • The Banqueting Hall
  • The Triangle
  • The Miners Cave / The Buttery
  • The River Styx
  • The Inner Temple
  • The Penitents Recess (Where members without female companions could engage in discussion.)
  • The Endless Stairs / Sarah’s Way (Secret Stairs through the chalk leading to the Church of St. Lawrence.)
  • The Prince’s Cave (Possibly named for Prince Charles Edward Stuart.)
  • The Cursing Well (The secret outlet to the West Wycombe brook)
  • The Heart of Ariadne / Sarah’s Cave (Possibly named after Sarah Dashwood nee Gould.)
  • The Cloisters (Rooms for the entertainment of intimate friends.)
Map of the Hellfire Caves

It’s also very likely that the names of the caves have changed over time and may have even been added later to make the caves more interesting. The Tool Store, Banqueting Hall, River Styx and Inner Temple are most likely the original titles.

Sir Francis Dashwood

The Hellfire Caves, The Knights of Sir Francis, the exotic renovations of West Wycombe Park and the erotic restoration of Medmenham Abbey were carried out at the instructions of Sir Francis Dashwood the Second Baronet. Of all the people mentioned in these web pages he is the one that deserves the most detailed of reviews but this is for another section. This biography will be brief.

Sir Francis was the Great Architect behind the all the legends of wild orgies, pagan rituals, secret chambers, stolen stalactites, mystic gardens, wild parties, plots against the state and even a baboon dressed as the Devil. He built the interior of a Church in the style of an Egyptian temple, dressed up prostitutes as nuns, influenced and maybe even controlled some of the most powerful men in British politics, quite likely seduced the Tsarina of Russia and rewrote the common Book of prayer with his close friend Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United states of America. No … Sir Francis deserves a much more complete analysis than we have space for here. Still, these are the key points:

Entrance to the Hellfire Caves

The entrance to the Hellfire Caves

Francis Dashwood was born in London during December 1708. His parents were Sir Francis Dashwood 1st Baronet and Mary Fane the eldest daughter of Baron Le Despencer. His father had made a fortune by trading with the Ottoman Empire (including modern day Turkey) and China. It’s worth noting that he was a member of the British East India Company and The Worshipful Company of Vitners who were one of the largest importers of wine at the time.

It is clear that he was a highly intellectual young man and was probably exposed at an early age to tales of far off places and the mysteries of the Orient. It is said that he later studied at Charterhouse school and at Eton and it is here that he started to build a circle of friends destined for power and politics including William Pitt the Elder. In 1724 (16) his father passed away leaving Francis his title, a vast fortune and a deep interest in politics, money, the esoteric and the erotic.

In 1726 (18) he embarked on his first “Grand Tour” of Europe to sample the culture and royal courts of these lands. Accompanied by a disapproving tutor, (guardian) he explored with a passion that bordered on obsessive. It is said that for every hour spent in a museum or art gallery he would spend three in a bordello (brothel). It seems that he may have tasted more than art galleries and women. Many of the people he met were “esoterically enlightened” and may have shared with him “secrets of magic and the divine”. A mere three years after his first trip he travelled again but this time to Italy which was widely considered, at the time, to be the centre of occultism and mystic knowledge in Europe. He definitely felt no love of the Catholic Church and once took the opportunity of a Good Friday ceremony in the Sistine Chapel to beat the half naked congregation with a horse whip and earn himself the name -Il Diavolo! (The Devil) It’s likely that he systematically collected documents and artifacts of a religious, scientific and exotic and medical nature that he returned to West Wycombe. Whatever he collected or discovered it provided him with a new view of the world and its religious practices.

In 1734, (26) five years after his return to England Sir Francis joined or maybe even helped to form the first of his own “Societies” The Dilettanti which was dedicated to exposing the young British gentry to the splendour and mysteries of ancient Italy and Greece. (There was method in this madness)

By 1736 (28) it appears that he may have turned to a Hellfire Club that possibly met at the George and Vulture Public House to satisfy both his need to “roister” and to meet other influential people. His sexual cravings and consummate bedroom ability soon became the talk-of-the-town.

Historians tell us that Sir Francis travelled again to Rome in 1739 (31) where it is believed he made contact with and reached some form of agreement with the Masonic societies of the city He also met Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who was once the lover of the founder of the first hellfire club.

At the age of 33 he was elected to Government as the Member of Parliament for New Romney and accepted his seat in the House of Commons. Perhaps to enhance his public image or perhaps because of his interest in archaeology and architecture he started a programme of civil improvements, city development and the construction of roads.
At the age of 36, Sir Francis formed the “Divan Club”. To be a member a person had to have visited the Ottoman Empire and to have brought back “evidence of the Architectural History of this most remarkable place.” Whatever he hoped that this Club would achieve he was disappointed.

In 1745 he married Sarah Ellys the very wealthy widow of Sir Richard Ellys (1682-1742) much to the “so-called” surprise of his friends who perceived both the family and the woman as overly pious and described her as a prude. Now it may be that were wrong in every respect for they stayed married for 24 years and she residing at West Wycombe.

In 1746, now aged 38, his interest in secret societies and clubs emerged again and this time he created the “Order of the Knights of Sir Francis”. It is recorded that at first they met at the pubic house (bar / Inn), The George & Vulture, in Lombard Street, Castle Court, London. Six of the original members are listed as: Robert Vansittart, William Hogarth, Thomas Potter, Francis Duffield, Edward Thompson, and Paul Whitehead.

Sir Fancis Dashwood Portrait

Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood from a sign in the Hellfire Caves.

Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood

A Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood
– Circa 1753

Sir Francis Dashwood of the Hellfire Caves

Sir Francis at his Devotions
Painted by
William Hogarth

In, or around, 1748 Sir Francis commissioned the repair and expansion of a two mile stretch of road from West Wycombe to High Wycombe using chalk as the foundations. While this provided much needed employment for the local people (at a Shilling a day) it also made his journeys south in a horse-drawn carriage much more comfortable and quicker. It would also mean that the 10 mile journey from his home to the future home of his “Knights”, Medmenham, Abbey could now be achieved in about an hour. Between 1748 and 1752 a tunnel and a series of caves were excavated underneath west Wycombe Hill. These would later become known as the Hellfire Caves where the members of Order of Sir Francis would sometimes meet to conduct their wild parties and secret ceremonies.

In addition to the construction of the Caves, in 1751 Sir Francis leased a ruined 12th Century Cistercian monastery from the Duffield family. Situated on the banks of the Thames in a generally secluded location it seemed the ideal home for his new club. At great personal cost he had the property renovated and above the main entrance he installed a stained glass window with the inscription: “Do what thou will”.

We’ll save the details of Medmenham abbey for another section but it is fair to say that it was an extraordinary place filled with works of art as well as erotic and symbolic statues including, Venus, Priapus, Harpocrates and Angerona.
The Hellfire Caves and Medmenham Abbey were used for various gatherings although it was only in with the downfall of John Wilkes and the scandal that followed the publication of “An Essay on Women” in 1763/64 that public pressure literally forced the remaining “monks” and the club underground.

There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that these chalk caves were used for sometime afterwards by the members as both a place of lewd entertainment and political intrigue. Certainly many of the Friars went on to hold high office and Dashwood himself became Postmaster General a position that was often associated with spying. It is our belief that only a fraction of the story of Sir Francis Dashwood and his club has been told but that is for another time.

ENTER THE HELLFIRE CAVES OF WEST WYCOMBE

The entrance to the caves is designed as the facade of a mock gothic church and can be seen from West Wycombe Park – once the home of Sir Francis Dashwood. Constructed of flint and chalk mortar excavated from the caves it is believed to have been constructed in 1753. It’s worth noting that there are no symbols, gargoyles or other quasi-demonic representations. However, it is worth noting the repeated use of three (3) in the design. Three ground level arches, three mid-level arches and three high level arch spaces. In addition, the unusual line of horizontal tiles appears to bisect the circles of the side wings. There is clearly some geometric pattern at work here but we just haven’t worked it out … yet.

Hellfire Caves First Passage

The first passage into the Hellfire Caves

Hellfire Caves Deeper Inside

The tunnel becomes rough brick with a whitewash coat.

Deep inside the Hellfire Caves – now chalk and flint.

Deep inside the Hellfire Caves – now chalk and flint.

THE TOOL STORE / THE STEWARDS CAVE

After you pass through the first and second tunnels you will find a small chalk cave on the right. This is the sometimes referred to as The Steward’s Cave although it was also the place where the original miners would leave their tools when they finished work for the day. As such, it is also sometimes referred to as the “Tool Store”. There may be much more to this first cave than is recorded at the official website. For a start it is the first alcove that marks a significant change in direction and is also aligned with the first parallel of light. (We’ll explain in another section.)

If you scour the internet and printed references (yes .. actual libraries), as we have, there is reputed to be a well in or near the cave that was sunk into an aquifer to provide drinking water for the miners. If it ever existed then it’s no longer visible. The name Tool Store now appears in the official literature and signage but probably refers to the place where the caretaker of the caves would wait for guests to arrive.

Let’s be realistic. Sir Francis and his members would not wish to arrive to cold dark chalk chambers (after the comforts of Medmenham Abbey) but would have had a “man or steward ” prepare for his arrival. Someone who could light the candles and lanterns, supply blankets, bring in glowing braziers of coals and later guard the entrance against prying visitors. This nameless person would have ensured that the wine was the right temperature and that the horses that drew the carriages were provided with a good bag of oats. He would have been a “solid” man of little imagination who humbly accepted the coin that was pressed into his hand as the “posh” visitors departed. In fact, he would be a man that kept no diary and remembered no secrets. This was the Steward of the Hellfire Caves. (The Steward’s Cave should not be confused with the Steward of the Hellfire Club – Paul Whitehead.)

PAUL WHITEHEAD’S ALCOVE (THE ROBING ROOM)

Paul Whitehead in the Robing Room

Once you’ve passed the Steward’s Cave the next alcove is Paul Whitehead’s Cave named for the poet and satirist who was a member of the Order and a close friend of Sir Francis Dashwood. Some articles, many repeating each other without original research, describe Whitehead as “A Minor Poet” and “A person whose work was of little consequence.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We now have brand new and original evidence that he, and Sir Francis Dashwood, may have had a tremendous and shocking influence on history that has yet to be revealed. (And … we will reveal it when we’re ready. Be patient … this is for real!)

Whitehead was born in 1710 to Mr. Edmund Whitehead a wealthy tailor. He first studied his father’s business and was then apprenticed in the City. During this time he foolishly agreed to countersign a bond of surety for Mr. Fleetwood of the Drury Lane Theatre. Fleetwood defaulted on the bond and Whitehead was imprisoned in the “Rules of the Fleet”, a notorious debtors jail. A political activist with Jacobite sympathies he started his writing career at this time and published poems and pamphlets denigrating the current government. He married in 1735 and was released from prison.

There are several modern references that he was nothing more than a minor poet but Walpole wrote at the time that Whitehead needed no description as his works are seemingly read by everyone. Alexander Pope considered him important enough to insult and Benjamin Franklin found him interesting enough to spend an afternoon with at West Wycombe.

Unfortunately, Whitehead had two characteristics for which history has never forgiven him. Firstly, he was drawn to the “rakes” and had a love of wine, women and the erotic. Secondly, he wrote materials for which he was loved by the masses and hated by politicians. 1n 1739 he went too far and published “Manners” a work that attacked several very powerful members of the House of Lords. They retaliated and imprisoned Whitehead’s publisher “Dodsley” and would have imprisoned Whitehead if he hadn’t gone into hiding. It would appear that in the “Great British Tradition of Discretion” a deal was struck and Dodsley was released from jail and Whitehead stopped publishing. It was around this time that Sir Francis Dashwood returned from his last European tour and set about entering politics. Whitehead appears to have been recruited as a political advisor and soon become a friend of the wealthy nobleman. When Sir Francis formed his version of the Hellfire club – The Friars (Knights) of Sir Francis in 1746. it was Paul Whitehead who was appointed to manage the Order as both Secretary and Steward.

Over the next thirty years it would be Paul Whitehead who would be the “fixer” for the various secret societies founded by Dashwood including the Monks of Medmenham. His various duties appear to have included the procurement of prostitutes, political advisor, satirist, speech writing, keeper of the wine lists, blackmailer, researcher and master of the minutes. It is likely that there has never before or again been a man who knew so many secrets about so many powerful British, European and future American leaders. However, his most important role was to record the “Testament of St. Francis of West Wycombe”. From the lack of letters and books it would appear that Sir Francis neither had the time for, nor enjoyed, writing and employed Whitehead for this purpose. There are clues to this “alleged” book that can be found if you take the time to read the poetry of Whitehead which only exist in 18th century English. Take it from us … its slow and painful work. (Source: The poems and miscellaneous compositions of Paul Whitehead By Paul Whitehead, Edward Thompson.)

Whatever Paul Whitehead knew about the Monks of Medmenham, he was determined to keep it secret. A week before his death a messenger arrived at his house and delivered an important letter and then, three days before his death in 1774, he summoned the servants of his home, Colne Lodge, and ordered a great bonfire be built in the garden. It burnt as a “conflagration” for the next 76 hours as books and papers were piled onto it day and night. He is reputed to have said: “Neither history nor my critics shall judge me by my works. No man shall pick over my words and divine the sublime.” Once the last of his papers were ashes he took to his bed and within six hours was dead. (Given the synchronicity of his demise it is likely that Whitehead committed suicide by taking opium or arsenic.)

Bizarrely, his will stipulated that his body was to be left to medical science but his heart was to be given to Sir Francis Dashwood and placed in an urn for which he bequeathed 50 Pounds for said purchase. His wish was duly carried out and a satirical procession of the Bucks Militia did deliver both the Urn and Paul Whitehead’s heart to the Mausoleum of Sir Francis Dashwood. There is a record in a 19th century pamphlet that visitors to the Mausoleum would open the urn and throw the shriveled – lead encased – heart to each other until one day it was lost. (or stolen) A local legend has it that the ghost of Paul Whitehead haunts the caves and hill until either his heart is returned or the secret of Sir Francis is revealed.

Our photographs of Paul whitehead’s cave make it look better than it does in reality. Unfortunately, the management of the Hellfire Caves have chosen to use unrealistic displays – perhaps they don’t want to scare the children. However, and according to their website, the urn is the original one into which Whitehead’s heart was placed and the face of the mannequin is based on based on a contemporary bust – whatever that actually means.

Paul Whitehead was no “Minor Poet” but, together with his patron Sir Francis Dashwood, was a shaper of great political events. History has not been kind to his achievements or his memory.

The inscription on the urn said:

Paul Whitehead - Hellfire Caves

“Unhallowed hands this gem forbear,
No gems or orient spoil,
Lie here conceal’d, but what’s more rare,
A heart that knew no guile.”