Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society

Hellfire Clubs 1750s and 1770s

On Wednesday January 11, 2023
Aisling Tierney

The high period for notoriety of these activities extended between the 1750s and 1770s, although the first manifestation seems to have appeared in London in the 1720s. Rumours of disgraceful events led to two letters being sent to the Bishop William Wake, following which a Bill came to Parliament.  However, this Bill did not attract a great deal of interest and was indeed opposed in some quarters because it threatened to infringe a number of freedoms.  Finally it was dropped without being enacted.  King George I ordered the practice to be suppressed.

The popular press reacted with a frenzy of speculation and stories of notorious behaviour, alleging all kinds of demonic and hellish incidents.  Pictures of diabolic masquerades appeared in which a woman might appear with the wings or cloven hooves of the devil poking out from behind her.  The clubs spread to Ireland, where two hellfire clubs are known to have existed in Limerick and Dublin.  A range of activities were ascribed to them, but the only common factor seems to have been drinking.  James Worsdale was the leader of the Dublin club and a punch bowl of his survives with the inscription “Master of Revels”.  His painting of the hellfire club shows a small group of clearly rich men relaxing around a table in a generally rather genteel posture with no hint of wild revels. The Limerick club built a special building in the ruins of a castle with servants and a preparation room out of the way.  This was below a room for the gentleman on the second storey from which they could look down on surrounding single storey buildings and not to be seen themselves.  An important aspect of the clubs was privacy and atmosphere of apartness.

In England, the torch of notoriety was taken up by Sir Francis Dashwood, an extremely wealthy aristocrat who later became the Chancellor of the Exchequer and who possessed an enormous appetite for fun.  He went on the Grand Tour nineteen times and wrote books on classical and monastic themes.  He liked dressing up as a monk and satirical pictures of him survive.  He took up the idea of the Abbey of Thélème from Rabelais’ Pantagruel and Gargantua and its motto of “do what though wilt shall be the whole law“, a command which Dashwood used himself.  At his West Wycombe home at Medmenham, he created the hellfire caves in the grounds.  The caves were entered through a folly suggesting a ruined Abbey.  From the entrance a quarter mile of tunnels proceeded along a series of contrived atmospheric environments, through two very sharp turns, descending to ever lower levels.  Divertissements were offered along the way one of which, deep in the cave, was a circular banqueting chamber which had niches above where diners could retire.  The caves can now be visited by the public.  Another construction of Dashwood’s was a large golden (wood frame painted with gold leaf) ball on the roof of the nearby church.  There was seating inside and the views would be extensive but what went on within is not certain.  Our speaker showed us a large spreadsheet of known or attributed characteristics of hellfire clubs but only two items are common to all:  that they involve drinking and were kept strictly private.  Generally, rich aristocrats formed the main clientele.