Eighteenth century England was a time of great progress in the form of artists and architecture, such as Christopher Wren and Capability Brown. However, it was also a time of great divide between the rich and poor and was also the period where a secret society was created.
Established by Sir Francis Dashwood in 1746, the Hell Fire Club (which by that time was known by a different name), was a secret society consisting of thirteen ‘knights’ and would meet in an old inn. About six years later, the club would eventually move to a ruined medieval abbey, known as Medmenham, near West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.
Over the years, the club became so popular that membership included some of the most influential men of the day. These included a Prime Minister, a Lord Mayor of London, and some of UK’s finest artists. Due to privacy concerns, the club eventually relocated to Sir Francis’s own home to accommodate them.
A cavern of underground caves was created to not only provide privacy, but also atmosphere, and became so large that it contained a series of rooms. These included a variety of smaller rooms for members to participate in sexual activities, as well as a banqueting hall and the Inner Temple, a circular room where black mass was practiced. There was also a well named, ‘The Cursing Well,’ which was filled with ‘unholy’ water.
Membership to the club involved an initiation ceremony, where the candidate would be required to fall to his knees in front of Sir Francis and the apostles. The candidate was then required to recite the Creed, was sprinkled with salt, and was baptised before given a mythical name that he would later be referred to. He was then given full membership.
Despite their attempts at secrecy, the club’s antics became common knowledge. Activities included debauchery, black magic, and Satanism. What is not clear, is to how extensive their practice in Satanism was. Alternatively, there was more truth to the rumour of sexual activities as their dealings involved local prostitutes. Games would be played where the women would dress up as nuns, and the ‘Abbot of the Day’ would get to choose first. Such exploits would allow membership to flourish, so that the club would be split into two groups, known as Superior and Inferior Members.
By the 1760s, the Hellfire Club began to decline, as many of the Superior Members had died. The Club’s secretary, Paul Whitehead specified in his will that his heart be placed in an urn. This was then situated in a mausoleum built on top of the caves but would be stolen in 1839 by a souvenir hunter.
Local legend also has it that the caves are haunted by a young maid by the name of Sukie. In love with one of the club’s members, she was lured into the caves one night, as some of them decided to play a practical joke. Sadly, it backfired as she was accidentally killed.
Displaying a mixture of both marvel and decadence, today, the caves of the Hellfire Club are a tourist attraction.