THE HELL FIRE CLUB – DEVILRY, DEBAUCHERY AND POLITICS

Franklin knew Le Despencer very well. He was fully aware of an enterprise which the Englishman had been conducting for some years more or less surreptitiously, known as the Hell Fire Club. Its activities were familiar to Franklin and he occasionally joined in them.

CECIL B. CURREY, Road to Revolution: Benjamin Franklin in England

The eighteenth century in England was a strange and exciting period, one in which the concept of democracy constantly battled against ever-threatening tyranny, where the divide between rich and poor was monumental and over which, towards the end of the era, hovered the terrible cloud of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). Great men of letters jostled for acclaim with painters, philosophers and architects, the like of which few previous centuries had ever witnessed. Laurence Sterne was writing Tristram Shandy(published 1760), Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Dr. Johnson was compiling his dictionary, while Sir Joshua Reynolds produced some of his greatest paintings. Other artists of the period included Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Thomas Lawrence and of course, William Hogarth. Architects such as Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Adam were designing some of that century’s most noteworthy buildings, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Capability Brown quietly revolutionized garden design to the extent that we can still see his influence in landscaped gardens and parks today. This, then, was an innovative, turbulent period, aptly described by Charles Dickens as being, ‘the best of times and the worst of times,’ during which one of the most colorful, not to mention bizarre, secret societies was first established in Britain.

There had been other secretive British groups, clubs such as the Hectors, the Mohawks and the Blasters, but unlike these organizations, the Hell Fire Club’s membership included some of the most influential men of the day; men who included a Prime Minister, a Lord Mayor of London, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, a son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as a handful of some of the country’s finest artists. So who was it that first conceived the idea of this highly secretive, positively influential club?

Sir Francis Dashwood, baronet and heir to one of the greatest of all eighteenth- century fortunes, was born at the turn of the century in 1708. His father was an extremely wealthy businessman who had married into the aristocracy. Dashwood Senior pushed his son hard, and, as was the vogue in those days, when young Francis reached the age of twenty, he was sent on a Grand Tour of Europe with a tutor in tow to complete his education. The pair traveled through many countries, but it was while in Italy that young Dashwood’s spirits soared and his curiosity became aroused when he fell in love with the country’s classical architecture, the Renaissance paintings and sculptures and the romantic myths and legends of Italian history. Francis also became intrigued by the Catholic Church, although he later developed a deep hatred for this institution, but the greatest influence upon Dashwood while sojourning in Italy came when he was introduced to Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the pretender to the British throne. Following their meeting, or so it is claimed, Sir Francis became a Jacobite secret agent and his fascination with intrigue and secrecy might explain his later involvement with the Rosicrucian movement and the Freemasons.

By 1746 Dashwood was ready to form his own secret society, which would be known by a variety of names, such as the Order of the Knights of St. Francis, the Monks of Medmenham and the Order of the Knights of West Wycombe. Initial meetings were held at an old inn called the George and Vulture (later immortalized by Charles Dickens in Pickwick Papers) in Cornhill in the City of London.

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Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the Hell Fire Club, is depicted here by Hogarth in a symbolic, quasi-religious pose with a halo above his head but his crucifix set aside. The open book may be a Bible, or may be something far more sinister. The mask at his elbow represents the secrecy of his society and the near-naked nymph with which he is toying the magic and debauchery in which he indulged. The spilled wine and ruined fruit again symbolize the Hell Fire Club’s drunken debauchery.

Sir Francis’s knights, of whom there were thirteen in total, each named after one of the twelve apostles with Sir Francis taking the role of Christ, were loyal servants, all of whom appreciated meeting at the George and Vulture. But while the inn was at first suitable for the society’s purposes, by 1752 Dashwood decided to move his club to a ruined medieval abbey, Medmenham, on the banks of the Thames near Marlow, a mere six miles from his ancestral home at West Wycombe.

Originally the abbey had been a twelfth-century Cistercian monastery, before falling into secular hands and being converted into a Tudor manor house. Dashwood, far from wishing to preserve the abbey, instead planned that most eighteenth-century of changes, converting the building in the trend-setting style of the ‘Gothic revival’. This, after all, was the era that would later produce Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and M.G. Lewis’s The Monk, both of which were packed full of ghostly happenings, apparitions, murders and vampires. Dashwood spent vast sums of money installing stained-glass windows picturing the twelve apostles in often extremely indecent poses, ornate stone carvings, frescoes and a motto engraved about the main door stating, ‘Do As Thou Wilt.’ Other changes to the abbey included a room devoted to Roman mythology, the walls of which were reputedly painted with copies of indecent frescoes from that period. Adjacent to this room was the library, said to contain the finest collection of pornographic books in the country. There was also a small Robing Room and a Withdrawing Room. In the main dining hall stood a statue of the Egyptian god of silence, Harpocrates, with a finger to his lips, no doubt reminding everyone who entered the abbey that what occurred within its walls was not to be spoken of on the outside. Nor was statuary confined to the abbey building, for the extensive gardens were replete with little temples in the Grecian style and hundreds of stone and marble figures of nymphs, gods and goddesses scattered everywhere one cared to look.

Yet if the house and gardens were impressive, the arrival of the monks themselves at the abbey, which always took place at night, was a truly awesome sight to behold. Journeying by gondola up the Thames, dressed in snow-white robes with hoods lined with scarlet silk and holding lighted torches, they made some onlookers imagine that they were watching the spirits of the original monks returning to haunt them.

Once inside the abbey, however, there were no outside spectators for the ceremonies and rituals played out within the abbey walls. The group’s antics involved debauchery, black magic and Satanism. Satanism has, over the centuries, attracted people from all walks of life, due no doubt in part to the theory that Satan was an heroic figure who refused to bow down to any higher authority. Milton reflected on just this attitude in his greatest work, Paradise Lost (1667), in which Satan (who is arguably the most charismatic figure in the whole piece) states, ‘Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.’ A rebel to the last, so it is easy to see why Satanism appealed to the members of what was now called the Hell Fire Club, who also prided themselves on their own rebelliousness. What cannot be so easily documented is the extent to which the club practiced this black art, or how seriously they took it. The artist William Hogarth, who was a member of the club, did make a now very famous print showing Sir Francis partaking of his rather dubious devotions, dressed in the habit of a Franciscan monk, kneeling before a naked nymph. It was also common knowledge that a large part of belonging to the Hell Fire group consisted of partaking of licentious pleasures, normally with prostitutes. Despite this, most members had wives, including Sir Francis, who married a woman called Sara Gould (known to everyone as ‘Lady Mary’) in 1745. The prostitutes, however, and the games they played with Hell Fire members, usually while dressed up as nuns, were the mainstay of these men’s earthly pleasures. During the eighteenth century there were countless brothels catering to the gentry’s every need. One of the most famous was Charlotte Hayes’s establishment in London and, due to her having kept a ledger recording the comings and goings of her girls, we have been left documentary evidence that she provided ‘nuns’ for the abbey. ‘June 18, 1759. Twelve vestals for the Abbey. Something discreet and Cyprian for the friars.’1 The kind of antics in which they indulged involved pretty much every kind of sexual fantasy imaginable. The ‘Abbot of the Day’ would get first pick of the ladies, who wore nun’s costumes and masks, after which everyone else would pair off. Normally couples then retired to single cells in the Withdrawing Room. Alternatively, they could use the abbey’s extensive gardens, or if they preferred they could stay in the Roman Room, where they could practice the type of voyeurism so favored by John Cleland in his pornographic novelFanny Hill, written in 1749. Brothels of the period also encouraged this type of behavior, positioning couches round the walls of the main ‘play’ area so that onlookers could be accommodated.

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Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club was also known as the Order of the Knights of St. Francis (or Knights of West Wycombe) and the Monks of Medmenham. The original twelve members took the names of the apostles with Sir Francis assuming the title of Jesus.

The sexual shenanigans enjoyed in the abbey, and the pomp and ceremony surrounding their rituals, encouraged membership of the club to blossom throughout the 1750s, to such an extent that Dashwood was eventually forced to split the members into two different categories. The first were known as the Superior Members and comprised of the twelve apostles plus Sir Francis. The second group were Inferior Members, of whom there may have been in the region of forty to fifty. When one of the Superior Members died, the remaining apostles would select a replacement from the Inferior group, among whom there was a great deal of competition to be granted the honor.

There was, of course, an initiation ceremony that everyone who wanted to join the Hell Fire Club, in any capacity, had to endure.

At midnight the candidate, clothed in a milk-white robe that flowed loosely around him, walked alone to the entrance of the chapel and knocked on the door. As it opened, he prostrated himself, then rose to walk slowly to the altar rails where he fell on his knees. The apostles sat in carved chairs along the wall, and Sir Francis, in his priestly robes, conducted the ceremony, attended by the poet Paul Whitehead, who kept records of the society’s meetings, which he destroyed shortly before he died, years later, to try to keep secret the exact nature of the monks’ rituals. (Whitehead’s attempts at secrecy were only partially successful, for a good deal has been written by others about the Hell Fire Club ceremonies.) When the initiate sank to his knees before Sir Francis, the narcotic herbs burning in the braziers filled the chapel with fumes that dimmed the light of the candles. The candidate was called upon to abjure his faith and then to recite after Dashwood a perversion of the Apostles’ Creed and the Articles of Faith. Next he was sprinkled with a mixture of salt and sulphur and baptized in a black font. He was then given some mystical name by which, in future, the brotherhood would always refer to him during meetings. After receiving the blood-red triangular Host, the candidate was finally admitted into full membership.2

Unlike today, where there is rigorous scrutiny and general abhorrence of politicians who dabble in anything regarded as being even slightly outside what is considered ‘normal behavior,’ there were no such constraints in Sir Francis’s time. Members of the twelve apostles were frequently drawn from the highest echelons of social and political life. Dashwood’s second-in-command was none other than the Earl of Sandwich, who became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1748 and served in this capacity again in 1763 and 1771, in control of the Royal Navy and, therefore, one of the most powerful men of the period, despite being described as being all but incompetent.

Next in the Hell Fire Club’s chain of command was the Earl of Bute. Like Sandwich, the Earl was a close friend of King George III, and in 1762 he became Prime Minister – the most powerful man in the country. Other members of the twelve apostles included the Archbishop of Canterbury’s son, Thomas Potter, who was later made Vice-Treasurer for Ireland by Prime Minister William Pitt; the poet Charles Churchill who, although not well-known today, was regarded by contemporaries as one of England’s greatest men of letters; the novelist Laurence Sterne; Lord Melcombe; and the politician George Selwyn. Joining this worthy crowd, William Hogarth frequently attended Hell Fire meetings to sketch the participants, sketches that would later appear in some of the artist’s series of prints.

Given the high-society status of its membership, there is little doubt that the Hell Fire Club wielded huge influence in England’s corridors of power. It can even be contended that Sir Francis Dashwood (who was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer by King George III) and his fellows were effectively running the country. Yet there was one man who, although he dabbled with the Hell Fire Club, ultimately found its antics so distasteful that he almost destroyed the group.

Introduced to the club by Thomas Potter, John Wilkes was not an immediately likeable man, but Sir Francis Dashwood apparently felt fondly toward him and he was begrudgingly accepted into the fold.

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The Hell Fire Club ‘monks’ traveled up the River Thames in gondolas for their ceremonies at Medmenham Abbey, arriving at night wearing white robes and carrying candles, looking for all the world like the ghosts of the Cistercian abbey’s original twelfth-century inhabitants.

Born in 1727, Wilkes, a staunch Whig, was elected to Parliament as the Member for the Borough of Aylesbury, for which it is said he worked most diligently. His membership of the Hell Fire Club was not, however, quite so successful, for shortly after he gained entry he was expelled, following a prank he played on his fellow members. During one of their black masses, Wilkes, who had grown irritated by the anti-religious pretensions of the ceremonies, released a baboon dressed up as the Devil into the congregation. The result was pandemonium, with the Earl of Sandwich shouting aloud that the Devil was upon him, while other members collapsed in fright. Finally, the poor animal escaped through a window and order was restored, but not before the twelve apostles demanded of Sir Francis that Wilkes be excommunicated.

Wilkes felt little dismay or remorse at having been thrown out of the group; instead, he expressed his intense relief. He was glad to be shot of the Hell Fire Club and concentrated his energies on his blossoming political career, involving himself in one of the main debates of the time, about whether to give American Colonists representation in Parliament. As a Whig, Wilkes was all for it, but in this he was strongly opposed not only by the King, but also by ‘the King’s Friends’ – a powerful group that included Bute, Sandwich, Dashwood et al. Whenever Wilkes attempted to make a speech in Parliament, the Hell Fire members combined to shout him down in rowdy exchanges.

In retaliation, Wilkes decided to use the pen rather than debate, employing the pages of a magazine that he had founded with Charles Churchill. The North Briton was a political pamphlet and, therefore, the best possible vehicle for the campaign Wilkes had in mind. Casting aside all caution, in the forty-fifth issue of the magazine he published a blistering attack on the government during which he included a choice piece of gossip (gleaned from his time with the Hell Fire Club) to the effect that Bute had had an affair with the King’s mother. The result was extraordinary, for no sooner did Number 45 (as it soon became known) hit the streets than furious mobs began to hold demonstrations against both the government and the King. Neither Bute nor the King could move without being barracked, and the latter eventually invoked what was then known as a ‘general warrant’. This allowed for the arrest of anyone thought to be associated with a criminal act, and the subject of the warrant was Wilkes.

The hapless Wilkes was duly arrested and incarcerated in the Tower of London. Yet far from calming the mood of the populace, by locking Wilkes up the King only provoked further rioting. Mobs ran amok, smashing windows and looting property until the King had to order Wilkes’s release. Even then the mob wasn’t satisfied and there remained a grave feeling of dissent among the general public. The King’s Friends decided, therefore, to retaliate ‘in kind’ by publishing a bawdy poem Wilkes had written during his time with the Hell Fire Club; a poem which, when released, was pretty much guaranteed to shock and appall the general public. Called An Essay on Woman, the piece was actually a parody of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man beginning with the line, ‘Awake, my Sandwich’ in imitation of Pope’s ‘Awake, my St. John.’ By this time the King’s Friends among the Hell Fire Club had nothing to lose, for George III had become a laughing stock, Bute was discredited and Sandwich, whose reputation had never been good, was now universally loathed.

On November 15, 1763, the Earl of Sandwich stood up in Parliament and recited the entire poem to his fellow politicians. The result was astounding. There was much hilarity with, for instance, Lord Chesterfield standing to announce: ‘Thank God, gentlemen, that we have a Wilkes to defend our liberties and a Sandwich to protect our morals,’ after which there erupted a now very famous exchange between Sandwich and Wilkes, with the former shouting out, ‘Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of the pox!’ and the latter replying calmly, ‘That, my Lord, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.’

After many heated exchanges, Parliament decided to delay any action against Wilkes (such as charging him on the grounds of indecency or blasphemy), but while the government hesitated, the King’s Friends were not so tardy. They saw to it that the poem was distributed throughout London to a shocked public, whose support for Wilkes dramatically changed. Wilkes’s friends, meanwhile, tried to help him by explaining that they still supported his policies, if not his private life. But Wilkes was in an incredibly difficult position for, unlike many of the Hell Fire Club members, he did not have a title or limitless funds at his disposal. Although he might have fought like with like and revealed more about the club’s less salubrious practices, he could not afford a lengthy battle with the Hell Fire Club, especially since, having been branded a Satanist and a writer of obscene literature, his political career was in ruins. No one wanted to be seen consorting with such a man, certainly not members of his own party. Even Pitt, who had always been a staunch supporter of Wilkes, rose in Parliament and before everyone present stated that his fellow politician was ‘a blasphemer who did not deserve to be ranked among the human species.’

Even so, members of the Hell Fire Club, not satisfied that they had dragged Wilkes so low that his political career could never be revived, together hatched an even more wicked plan. They hired a lowly member of the House of Commons by the name of Samuel Martin to denounce Wilkes in front of everyone as a coward and a scoundrel. The insult called for nothing less than a duel. A time and place was arranged and on November 16, 1763, the pair faced each other with pistols. Although a first round of the duel was declared void, during the second Martin, who had put in a great deal of target practice prior to denouncing Wilkes in Parliament, wounded his opponent in the groin. The injury was not, however, fatal.

Having failed to have Wilkes killed, the Hell Fire Club now relied on the Commons to force a bill through Parliament declaring their former friend an outlaw for high treason against the King, as well as for producing indecent literature. In this, at least, they were successful and a warrant was put out for Wilkes’s arrest, but he, wary of the Hell Fire Club’s powers, had already fled to France.

Despite their success in the matter of John Wilkes, the repercussions of Number 45 meant that Bute’s and Dashwood’s political careers were effectively shattered, while Sandwich was forced to resign from the Admiralty (although he was later reinstated). The antics of the Hell Fire Club, on the other hand, continued unabated. Holding black masses, invoking the Devil to appear, enjoying orgies and drinking to excess, all carried on as normal. A few glitches were experienced along the way, such as the one caused by the publication of a novel entitled Chrysal, or The Adventures of a Guinea by Charles Johnson. The novel was a ‘confidential,’ with the golden guinea coin playing the main role, describing everything it saw on its strange journey through life from the time of its origin in a Peruvian gold mine. Part of its journey included a brief sojourn with a member of the Hell Fire Club where the guinea ‘witnessed’ a black mass and an orgy. Suddenly everyone wanted to visit Medmenham Abbey which, although not named in the book, was soon singled out as the most likely site. Crowds began to turn up to watch the ‘monks’ arriving by night, while others attempted to break into the gardens, sometimes even into the abbey itself. For a secret society this was a distinctly undesirable turn of events. Something had to be done and, as ever, Sir Francis Dashwood was just the man to do it.

Sir Francis’s own house at West Wycombe was large enough to accommodate any number of clubs and it was decided to move the Hell Fire Club to this location. But while the building was large enough and private enough, it sadly lacked that most of elusive of things – ‘atmosphere’. Undeterred, Sir Francis came up with the extraordinary idea of excavating a vast network of caves under West Wycombe Hill. The caves had originally been created as part of a mining operation to provide material for road building and the spoil produced in extending them was used in one of Sir Francis’s own philanthropic road-building schemes. Extending the caves, however, also had a far more sinister purpose and it was an undertaking in which Sir Francis reveled, personally designing each room, each twist and turn of these underground caverns. The entrance was surrounded by dark yew trees (trees normally associated with graveyards), beyond which lay a passageway leading downwards to join a whole system of caves and catacombs. On the walls of the corridors were carved grotesque faces (thought to be images of the Devil) while beyond the catacombs lay a Banqueting Hall from the ceiling of which hung a huge Rosicrucian lamp. Beyond this room was the Triangle (so named because of the shape of the chamber) and after that a river which the apostles named the River Styx, beside which stood a well called ‘The Cursing Well’ that was filled with ‘unholy’ water. In the very deepest part of the caves lay the Inner Temple, a circular room in which the black mass was practiced. The caves suited the Hell Fire Club’s purposes perfectly. Hidden from view, no prying eyes could see what the Hell Fire members were doing or how many prostitutes were being hustled into the place. Normal service was resumed and continued discretly.

Around this time, Benjamin Franklin redoubled his efforts to persuade the British government that unless the American Colonists’ demands to have proper representation in Parliament were met, a revolution was likely. Sir Francis Dashwood immediately invited Franklin down to his country estate where the two became firm friends (later devising the Franklin Prayer Book together, a revision of the Book of Common Prayer), although it is difficult to say whether Franklin ever became a member of the Hell Fire Club itself. It would seem likely, however, that he did, as membership meant instant access to several senior politicians and statesmen who would have been invaluable to Franklin in attempting to place American MPs in the House of Commons. Sir Francis certainly did everything he could to help Franklin achieve some kind of compromise with the King’s Friends over the American Colonist question, and would even go so far as to invite the Prime Minister, Lord North, who served his country in this role from 1770-82, down to West Wycombe in order to meet Franklin. But for all the help Franklin was given, his pleas would ultimately fall on deaf ears; the British government was not to be moved.

Meanwhile, a ghost from the past had reappeared in the shape of the notorious John Wilkes who, having spent several years in France, returned to London in 1768. Despite there still being several arrest warrants out for him, Wilkes decided to take a calculated risk and once again run for Parliament, this time as the MP for the Middlesex constituency. This move must have impressed Dashwood, who had always respected anyone willing to flout authority, for on hearing of it he decided to give Wilkes his support. The news of Wilkes’s return and parliamentary candidacy spread fast, setting off a series of highly public demonstrations. Benjamin Franklin described one such:

I went last week to Winchester and observed that for fifteen miles out of town there was scarce a door or a window-shutter next to the road unmarked with ‘No. 45’ or ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ and this continued here and there to Winchester which is 64 miles. London was illuminated for two nights at the command of the mob who made their rounds at intervals during the whole night and obliged those who had extinguished the candles to light them again, their windows being smashed if they refused.3

The King was not merely unamused, but terrified that Wilkes’s re-election might bring about the downfall of the monarchy. But the latter’s involvement with the Hell Fire Club still counted against him, particularly with the more staid elements of society. He did, of course, command strong support among a certain element of society who saw him as a symbol of liberty, a man who had opposed the King and the arrogant King’s Friends. With a warrant for his arrest still outstanding, Wilkes’s next move was to force George III’s hand by marching to the King’s Bench Prison, where he demanded to be given a cell. It was all highly embarrassing for the monarch, but Wilkes remained where he was, corresponding from his prison cell with Franklin, whose cause for the Colonists he supported wholeheartedly.

Meanwhile, every day saw a crowd of supporters gathering beneath Wilkes’s cell, until the King put a stop even to this by mounting an armed guard underneath the window. This could only spell disaster and, sure enough, shortly after the guard arrived, a riot broke out, resulting in the shooting of seven people. Several of the victims were women. The incident ignited further rioting together with a countrywide march on London, with the demonstrators demanding the release of Wilkes. Something urgent had to be done so the King’s Friends held a meeting at which they declared Wilkes’s original arrest warrant invalid due to faulty wording. Wilkes was immediately released, much to the mob’s delight, and Sir Francis whisked his erstwhile friend down to West Wycombe.

During Wilkes’s sojourn in France and his spell in the King’s Bench Prison, Dashwood had built a church on the hill above the caves. St. Lawrence’s was (and is) a beautiful, if somewhat mystifying, structure, given that Sir Francis espoused Satanism. Some people believe it was built in order to make up for all Sir Francis’s misdeeds, while others prefer the theory that it was built simply to improve the view from West Wycombe Hall. Wilkes certainly appreciated being shown the building, although his stay at West Wycombe was not to last long as he was compelled to rush back to London, where the elections were about to take place. This was an election that Wilkes had had to fight several times over. The King’s Friends had first fielded a candidate by the name of Dingley, but sadly he died before the election took place. Searching round for a replacement candidate, the King’s Friends then chose a Colonel Luttrel, but to no avail. Wilkes won a resounding victory, yet even so his path to Parliament was not without hitches for the King, infuriated that such a man could be re-elected, issued an order that Wilkes not be allowed to enter Parliament. It seemed that Wilkes had failed in his bid and the King’s Friends had once again managed to scupper his political dreams by forcing a resolution through Parliament refusing to allow him to be seated due to his being a blasphemer, a traitor and a writer of salacious poetry. It was as if time had stood still; once again riots broke out, Lord North, the Prime Minister, was dragged from his carriage by an angry mob and nearly killed, and men from all over the country marched on London, until finally Parliament backed down. At long last John Wilkes, sworn enemy of the King, took his seat in Parliament for the second time in his life.

Unfortunately, for several members of the Hell Fire Club life had not been so kind. Thomas Potter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s son, died in 1759 at the age of forty, while the poet Charles Churchill met his end in France at the tender age of thirty-three. Meanwhile, Lord Melcombe developed dropsy, but instead of going to a doctor, sought out a charlatan quack who prescribed all kinds of strange remedies. Finally, in 1762, Melcombe suffered a major fit and fell downstairs, killing himself. The death toll continued; the club’s secretary, Paul Whitehead, died in 1774. In his will he left his heart to Sir Francis, who had it placed in an urn which was later secured inside a mausoleum built on top of the caves at West Wycombe (though the heart was later stolen by a souvenir hunter in 1839). Nor did the Earl of Sandwich fare much better. The public never forgave him for his attack on Wilkes or his reading aloud of Wilkes’s poem in Parliament. Sandwich did his public image further damage when, as an elderly man, he took up with a young girl called Martha Ray. Martha had already caught the eye of a curate, who fell in love with her and offered her marriage, but Martha turned him down, preferring instead the rich pickings she enjoyed with Sandwich. One night while Sandwich and his young mistress were stepping into their carriage, the curate rushed up to them, put a pistol to Martha’s head and killed her. The curate was later hanged for her murder, but the public saved its vilification for Sandwich who, they claimed, had prevented the girl from marrying and was thus as guilty of Martha’s death as the curate had been. Sandwich could no longer enjoy respectable society and eventually retired to the country, where he died in 1792, unloved and unmourned.

Lord Bute, the ex-Prime Minister and third in command at the Hell Fire Club, denounced the new government, particularly with reference to their handling of the American Colonists, after which he retired to Italy a bitter and disappointed man. He, like the Earl of Sandwich, died in 1792.

In old age Sir Francis Dashwood lived the life of a quiet country gentleman. He often reminisced about the ‘good old days’ when he and his companions pleasured themselves with orgies and passed the rest of the time playing at politics. Sir Francis died on December 11, 1781, and with his passing there slipped away one of the most curious of all secret societies – a group of men who, to every intent and purpose, ran the country, but whose real passion lay deep underground, in caverns beneath the quiet West Wycombe countryside.

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