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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Beds, Herts and Bucks

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Beds, Herts and Bucks
Sir Francis's Folly

The Hell-Fire Club

Sir Francis's enemies at the time believed the road was only a camouflage for his real motive - to create a secluded meeting place for his club the 'Knights of St Francis'. The Knights first met at Medmenham Abbey, and were labelled a 'Hell-Fire' club by contemporaries, although they never referred to themselves as such. Hell-Fire clubs already existed elsewhere, and were accused of drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, and of practising black magic. What better place for this kind of thing than underground?

Reconstruction of a Hell-Fire club meeting in one of the caves
© West Wycombe Caves
Little is known of the Knights' activities and most of the stories that surround the club are probably myth. One such story that came to public notice involved the dressing up of a baboon to look like the Devil! The baboon was released from a box behind an unsuspecting member, who ran out terrified, begging to be spared as he had never been as sinful as he had boasted!

Doubtless the club did meet at the caves on occasion, but it is more likely that this use came as an afterthought. Whatever stories may have been passed around amongst villagers, the 'Knights' were probably only guilty of a few wild parties - not so shocking by today's standards!

So the purpose of the caves remains something of a mystery even today.

Stalactites and stalagmites
© West Wycombe Caves
Sir Edward Dashwood thinks his ancestor was "always looking to set the fashion and bring ideas over from Europe", and he certainly visited caves and grottoes whilst on his Grand Tour.

Maybe he thought to offset the utilitarianism of the road by creating a decorative grotto for himself, in which case the caves were a mix of both philanthropy and folly - a perfect reflection of the aristocratic ideals of the period!

Sir Francis Dashwood
  • The Dashwood family has had associations with West Wycombe village since the 1670s, but best known is the 2nd Baronet Sir Francis Dashwood, one of the more extravagant characters of his age.
  • Sir Francis travelled widely and was one of the first Britons to include Russia in his 'Grand Tour'.
  • He was elected to Parliament in 1741.
  • He was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762-3, retiring after just one year following an unpopular budget.
  • From 1765 until his death Sir Francis was joint Postmaster General.
  • As Postmaster General he met American Benjamin Franklin with whom he became friends. Franklin appears to have visited the caves in 1770.
  • Sir Francis was a founder member of the Dilettante society, which came to play a prominent role in the study of classical art.
  • He also founded the Divan club for those who had visited the Ottoman Empire.

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