Prince Regent: Last night, I was having a bit of a snack at the Naughty Hellfire Club, and some fellow said I had the wit and sophistication of a donkey.
Blackadder: Oh, an absurd suggestion, sir.
Prince Regent: You’re right. It is absurd.
Blackadder: Unless, of course, it was a particularly stupid donkey.
If you are like me and a fan of the greatest television show in the entire world- Blackadder- you will have heard them make mention of the “Naughty Hellfire Club”. This was not a fictional club, but the name of several actual organizations which existed in the mid 18th century. Were they actually “naughty”? Well, that depends on who you ask.
“Hellfire Club” was the name for several exclusive clubs established in Britain and Ireland during the 18th century. These were exclusively for high society gentlemen who wished to take part in activities that were not acceptable in polite society. This could be anything from politics to heavy drinking. The first Hellfire Club was established in London in 1718 by Philip, Duke of Wharton for his high society friends. Whilst there, Wharton and his friends would ridicule religion and poke fun at the seriousness of English society. Surprisingly, ladies were treated as equals and given full membership alongside male members. The president of the club was called “the Devil” and the members called themselves “devils” as well. Wharton’s political enemies put an end to the club in 1721 accusing them of “horrid impieties”. The worst we have documented was they had feasts where they named the dishes “scandalous” names, such as “Holy Ghost Pie”, “Breast of Venus”, and “Devil’s Loin”.
However, the most notorious Hellfire Club was The Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, which was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood around 1749. Dashwood was active in the Dilettanti Society and the Divan Club, for gentlemen who had an interest in classical art and those who had visited the Ottoman Empire. The Hellfire Club was a natural progression out of these organizations. Like many gentlemen of means at that time, Dashwood went on a Grand Tour of Italy. While there, he developed a virulent antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. To demonstrate his disdain, Dashwood had himself painted in several poses unflattering to the Church. He had himself painted as a Franciscan monk, as Pope Pontius VII toasting a statue of Venus and again as a monk leering at a nude of Venus.
The original meeting place of the club was a London pub, the George and Vulture. However, meetings soon outgrew the pub and Dashwood leased
Medmenham, a 13th century Cistercian abbey, near his home in West Wycombe. He rebuilt it as the clubhouse of the Hellfire Club and carved “Fay ce que voudras” or “Do what thou wilt” over the door. And that is exactly what the members expected to do. Underneath the abbey, there were caves where the meetings took place. No one is quite sure what went on at the meetings or even how often they met, but there are a few contemporary accounts which give us a tantalizing glimpse. Apparently at least twice a year, there was a chapter meeting, which was invitation only. A costume was required, but no one is quite sure what that was. A book published in 1779 called Nocturnal Revels describes the meetings, “’They however always meet in one general sett at meals, when, for the improvement of mirth, pleasantry, and gaiety, every member is allowed to introduce a Lady of cheerful lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity. Male visitors are also permitted, under certain restrictions, their greatest recommendation being their merit wit and humour. There is no constraint with regard to the circulation of the glass, after some particular toasts have been given: The Ladies, in the intervals of their repasts, may make select parties among themselves, or entertain one another, or alone with reading, musick, tambour-work, etc. The salt of these festivities is generally purely attic, but no indelicacy or indecency is allowed to be intruded without a severe penalty; and a jeu de mots must not border too much upon a loose double entendre to be received with applause.” However, as the ceremonies went on the ladies were to consider themselves the lawful wives of the brethren during their stay within the walls. Well, we all know what husbands and wives do…. They also indulged in mock religious ceremonies as their was an “Abbot” in charge of the club who was elected each year.
Some of the notables who passed within the walls of the Hellfire Club included:
Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord le Despencer
Paul Whitehead, Poet and Steward
The Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty
Lord Melcombe Regis, Politician
Sir Thomas Stapleton of Greys, near Henley
Sir William Stanhope, MP for Buckinghamshire
Thomas Potter, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury
Sir John Dashwood-King, MP and Landowner
Dr Thomas Thompson, Physician to the Prince of Wales
Francis Duffield, owner of Medmenham Abbey
John Tucker, MP for Weymouth
John orris, MP & don at Magdalen College, Oxford
Arthur Vansittart, of Shottesbrooke Park, MP
Sir Henry Vansittart, Governor of Bengal and MP for Reading
Robert Vansittart, Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford
Charles Churchill, Poet
Robert Lloyd, Poet
George Selwyn, MP
John Wilkes, MP
Sir John Aubrey, MP
Dr Benjamin Bates of Aylesbury
William Hogarth, Painter
John Hall Stevenson
Mr Clarke of Henley
Dr John Morton, MP
Richard Hopkins, MP
Sir John Russell
Even Benjamin Franklin was said to have been a club guest at one of their soirees. The club began to die out in the early 1770’s as the members began to die off. However, in its heyday it was certainly scandalous, but probably a lot of fun.
Sources available on request