The Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe, made famous by their sordid past, are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns in Buckinghamshire, England,. The infamous Hellfire Club, made up of high-ranking members of society, noblemen, and politicians, engaged in pagan rituals, orgies, and black magic deep within the subterranean chambers beneath the sleepy village.
English politician Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project in 1748 to supply chalk for a 3-mile stretch of road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. The project had a two-fold agenda in that on one hand, local labour was utilised to give well needed money by providing jobs to farm workers who were impoverished by a succession of droughts and failed harvests, and on the other to further Dashwood’s secret sexual and cult desires.
The workers were employed at one shilling per day to mine chalk and flint on his estate, which was in the 18th century a good wage. Considering they were all dug by hand, the caves are often regarded as an incredible feat of engineering and something that could not be done today because of health and safety regulations. One speculates that had H&S rules been in existence throughout all of history, most of the incredible tourist attractions around the world would never have been built, dug or even discovered!
As well as being a politician, Sir Francis Dashwood established the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, a private members organisation which to all but the initiated, was an innocent debating and dining club. In actuality it was a secret society for depravity and lust. When identified as such, both locally and in the London press, it later became known as the Hellfire Club and as such, was much sought after by like-minded men and women who wanted to join in.
The club quickly became the playground for the rich and of noble birth, which included members of the British aristocracy, politicians, and other elite members of society, including William Hogarth, John Wilkes, Thomas Potter and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.
Though not recognised as being an actual member of the club, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, was a close friend of Dashwood and visited West Wycombe on more than one occasion. Franklin, who some now consider to have been a spy for King George III, often came over to England and rubbed shoulders with British politicians, therefore, being invited to Dashwood’s estate to dine and afterwards have ‘fun’, would seem something any red blooded 18th century ‘gent’ would have been silly to refuse.
The club motto was Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), a philosophy of life later used by Allister Crowley. It is known that members engaged in numerous illicit activities including sex parties, drinking, wenching, and black magic rituals. It should be realised that the ‘club’ was not solely for men and many ‘upper class’ women became members in their own rite. One can only suppose that local girls and even lads, were coerced by money or promise of promotion in one of Dashwood’s farms and hostelries, to give ‘added’ spice and thrills on ‘special’ nights.
According to Horace Walpole (1717-1797), an English art historian, antiquarian and Whig politician, the members' "practice was rigorously pagan” - Bacchus (wine) and Venus (love) were the deities to whom they most publicly worshipped, although in secret, more devilish and depraved gods were offered up to during orgies and carnal pleasure-making.
As well as humans, animal ‘pets’, such as monkeys and dogs were taken into the caves, which as you can imagine, added greatly to the overall ‘aroma’ in the unhealthy badly aired caves, especially when you consider that human waste would be awash down there. Even fish are thought to have inhabited the small stream in the caves, named by Dashwood as the River Styx, after the Greek mythology, Styx which was a deity and a river that formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld (the domain often called Hades, which also is the name of its ruler).
To get to the inner temple of the caves, where all main ceremonies and larger orgies took place, the ‘River Styx’ had to be crossed and to do that the members had to use a small rowing boat – though in fact, if the width of the stream then was as it is now, they could have jumped across. However, it would have seemed unseemly for ladies and gentleman of leisure to possibly chance a fall in the stream
Layout of the Caves
The grand entrance of the Hellfire caves, erected in around 1752, which still remains today, was designed as the façade of a mock gothic church and built from flint and chalk mortar. Both the entrance and the internal layout of the subterranean network were inspired by Sir Francis Dashwood's visits to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria and other areas of the Ottoman Empire during his Grand Tour period.
The caves extend some 400 metres underground, running deep into the hillside adjacent and slightly above the West Wycombe village and directly below St Lawrence’s Church and Mausoleum. The individual chambers are connected by a series of narrow tunnels and passageways, leading visitors from the Entrance Hall, to the Steward’s Chamber and Whitehead’s Cave, through Lord Sandwich’s Circle, Franklin’s Cave, the Banqueting Hall (allegedly the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world), the Triangle, to the Miner’s Cave; and finally, across the subterranean River Styx, to the Inner Temple, where the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held, and which is approximately directly beneath the altar of St Lawrence’s Church.
The church was also on Dashwood’s estate and all his dead descendants were buried in the mausoleum there. Even today, the area is a very spooky place to be and the large tree that has been named ‘The Tree of Indecision’, adds to the overall eerie feel, even in bright sunshine. Visitors can walk around the mausoleum but cannot enter as it is bordered by a high iron staked fence.
Atop the spire of the church, Dashwood had built a large golden globe, that he often visited and made believe that he was in heaven. As long as he did that, to him his soul was protected against the times he visited ‘hell’ directly below in the caves. Everything he did there was forgiven when he was in ‘heaven’, so the slate was wiped clean for his next romp.
Visitors to the caves today get an inkling of what it was like in the 18th century, as some of the side chambers have been given a ‘grotto’ like treatment, whereby wax dummies depict some of the innocent goings on that happened. Many families visit the caves on weekends and there is no fear that small children will be frightened, just amazed, as there really is nothing like the Hellfire Caves anywhere else in the world.
Written and photos by Paul H Simmons;
As this website has grown, along with its community, we realised that not everyone who travels has the time or ability to write an article. So to make the site more universal, we have created this space to allow people from all over the world to share their experience through media, no matter their language or background.