Wine, women and Hell-Fire…

Sitting quietly in the Chilterns, on a hill behind the village of West Wycombe, is one of the most famous examples of clubland in the world.  Its founder Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, had form in this area: his other creations included the Dilettanti Club (to encourage interest in classical art) and the Divan Club, for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire.  Paul Whitehead, steward to the Hell-Fire Club, may have met Sir Francis at the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks – now there’s a club that deserves eternal fame if only for its name…

But it’s Hell-Fire rather than Beefsteak that has earned a place in history – infamy, even.  No doubt a large part of this is down to a later Sir Francis Dashwood deciding in the early 1950s to make the Hell-Fire Caves into a tourist attraction.  The Club – or the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe as it was originally known – met in other locations, too, notably at Medmenham Abbey but also in members’ houses such as Sir Walter Stanhope’s at Eythrope and possibly even at Cliveden.  As the official guide book states, “Numerous second-hand accounts appeared towards the latter part of the eighteenth century giving varying descriptions of the goings on, some of which seem to be completely fictitious and are not corroborated by any other sources.”

The likelihood is that the Club’s activities were not as racy as the publicity would have had contemporaries or later generations believe.  There were plenty of toasts when club members gathered for “private devotions” – although the drinking probably wasn’t excessive – and the guide book notes that “These meetings provided an ideal opportunity for discreet rendezvous with ladies who did not wish to be identified.”

Over its most active years between the 1950s and the mid-1770s, the Hell-Fire Club had twelve members.  They included a First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord Sandwich), the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and even John Wilkes, a journalist who found fame as an MP – now there’s a career path you don’t come across these days…

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