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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Beds, Herts and Bucks

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Beds, Herts and Bucks
The 'Banqueting Hall' cave
© West Wycombe Caves
Sir Francis's Folly

Rumour, mystery and wild allegations of drunkenness and debauchery surround the history of the 'Hell-Fire' caves - a labyrinth of caverns and tunnels, which runs a quarter of a mile into the hill at West Wycombe Estate.

The caves were excavated in the 1750s for the 2nd Baronet Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, but opinion differs as to the reason why.

Entrance to the caves
© West Wycombe Caves
Some say Sir Francis was simply providing work for the local unemployed, but his enemies at the time insisted he always intended the caves to be a meeting place for the notorious 'Hell-Fire' club.

So were the caves aristocratic philanthropy or folly?

Dashwood: a philanthropist?

The 'Hell-Fire' caves were fashioned in the 1750s on the site of an existing opencast quarry. All the work was done by hand, and you can still see pick marks in the tunnels today.

The caves were created when chalk was taken from the quarry to build a new road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe.

Sir Francis insisted his sole reason for initiating this work was the welfare of his villagers.
Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood
© West Wycombe Caves
The late 1840s had seen a series of poor harvests in the area, and the construction of a new road provided many under-employed farm labourers with work.

Sir Francis ordered his agent to employ as many men as wanted jobs at a shilling a day - a sign of considerable public spirit for a man of his age. In 1747 he had introduced a poor-relief Bill into the Commons recommending the relief of unemployment by such public works, but his contemporaries had taken little notice of it.

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Hell-Fire Caves
360° view inside the Hell-Fire caves
360° view of the Dashwood Mausoleum
West Wycombe Estate
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