The Hellfire Club became known to me as an impressionable boy. When driving out of London on the A40. We would pass West Wycombe Park, the place built for Sir Francis Dashwood, the club’s creator, and I would be told just how infamous, how wicked, the long ago nights and days had once been.
Details were not shared but that the Hellfire Club’s get-togethers had set the gold standard of well-heeled naughty goings-on was not in question. Its shadowy repute and, importantly, such art as William Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress,” which might as well have illustrated the life of one of the club’s younger members, left a lasting impression.
Associations of the like-minded—as opposed to regular clubs, with fixed premises and rules—have existed worldwide ever since. I was a member of one such, the Monday Club, who would meet at one London venue or another, not necessarily on that day of the week, feeling that the world was at our fingertips, but the Hellfire Club we certainly were not.
The worst I, for instance, would usually manage by way of wickedness would be to end up in a Soho clip-joint, paying through the nose for a bottle of dubious champagne with a showgirl, who would be pretend-sipping what was probably a glass of tinted water. Dashwood would have curled his full lip at this kid’s stuff.
Or would he? The really shocking thing about the Hellfire Club is how little we know about it. Or them. Because there were several, the first founded in 1718 by Philip Wharton, who was created a duke by George I.
Indeed, one of our Monday Clubbers, Patrick Lichfield, the photographer, had an ancestor, another Lord Lichfield, who was listed as being one of the members of Wharton’s club, which, incidentally, unlike Dashwood’s, seems to have had woman members, on equal footing.
And there were other Hellfire Clubs including one in Ireland, but the emblematic one was the one started by Francis Dashwood, in 1746, well after Wharton’s, and which was actually called the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe.
Hellfire? Friars? This was also the time of Voltaire and these clubs were very much a product of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. Making fun of the various established churches was very current amongst the well-to-do, and it was central to the party-time rituals of the Hellfire Cub. The mood was mockery, plain and simple.
We do not even know how frequently the Hellfire met, though we do know that many of the original meetings were in a London pub, the George and Vulture. In 1750 though Dashwood leased Medmenham, a tumbledown 13th-century abbey, originally built by the Cistercian Order, close to his place in West Wycombe.
He rebuilt the abbey and had a motto from Rabelais reading “Fay ce que voudras”—“Do What Thou Wilt”—carved over the door. And they were in business, the business being pleasure.
At the time, and since, rumors of orgies and Satanism ran wild but historians who have studied such archives as exist have routinely dismissed them. But there was nothing truly Dark Side-ish about this play-acting, no gurglings of Rosemary’s Baby.
Certainly, members shared a keen interest in pagan cults and affected to practice some but without the serious, deeply felt mumbo jumbo like the goings-on of Aleister Crowley—who would also borrow the motto from Rabelais—for his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, to say nothing of such contemporary cults as Scientology.
Indeed, the year after Dashwood bought the ruinous Medmenham, he rebuilt St Lawrence, a local church, and as a serious architectural project, not a whim.
Booze? Certainly, but the archives suggest just port and claret. Distilled spirits, apparently not.
In 1751 Hogarth published two prints, “Beer Street,” showing a lot of contented beer drinkers, and “Gin Lane,” a kind of desolation row, with such details as a pawnbroker’s three balls and a drunk gnawing on a dog’s bone and a body in a wheelbarrow, but which is centered on a drunken floozy whose infant is shown toppling to its certain death. Hard liquor generally lay in the near future.
Drugs? Users of the primitive opiate, laudanum, in the following century would include Mary Todd Lincoln and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was on it, of course, when he wrote his great “Kubla Khan.” But hard drugs? That lay in the future too. And what William Hogarth would have done with that.
The wickedness of the Monks of Medmenham seem to have focused on cards, backgammon, and libertinage, namely the company of their mistresses. The private company of their mistresses, in all probability.
Gossip was just a craft back then, rather than the major industry it has become today, but much pertinent data would make its way into the wider world and onto the page, and there are no suggestions of orgies, even from the most notorious Bad Boy amongst the Monks of Medmenham, John Wilkes.
Do the Hellfire Clubs survive? No. Wharton’s club was squished in 1721 by a bill against “horrid impieties,” namely those of the club, put forwards by George I.
The decline and fall of Dashwood’s club was more lingering, but there were political furors, as when John Wilkes was accused of “seditious libel” and forced into exile.
Medmenham was closed down by 1766. The Hellfire Caves, where the monks used to meet, is now a tourist attraction. Why not a ride?
The Age of the Enlightenment is well and truly over, worldwide—there are libraries in the U.S. where I doubt that Voltaire is a popular pick—but have there been heirs to the libertinage traditions of libertinage of the Hellfire Club in our time? Well, hello, Dominique Strauss-Kahn! But that will be another story.