Myths and Legends
The entrance to the Hell Fire Caves
The Hell Fire Caves
Nobody knows quite what went on in the Hell Fire Caves, but since the notorious Hell Fire Club met there, they have been a subject of much speculation!
There’s a unique system of caves in West Wycombe which, although thought to be ancient in origin, were excavated in the mid-18th century by the infamous Sir Francis Dashwood, the founder of the notorious Hell Fire Club whose membership included some of Britatin's most senior aristocrats and statesmen.
The hill above the caves
Subsequently the caves have taken on the name of the society that met in the system of tunnels and caverns beneath the earth. But what they actually did there, we don’t really know. While it was generally thought to be a club known for its rather risqué behaviour, it seemed to be a case of “What goes on underground, stays underground”!
Intrigued, I headed off to the Hellfire Caves, and in front of the beautiful Gothic façade that Sir Francis built to mark the entrance, I met Kerry Ann Williams, who works for Sir Edward Dashwood, Sir Francis descendent at the West Wycombe Estate.
She told me how what was thought to once be a chalk mine, turned into this incredible system and became the meeting place for a legendary society.
What exactly are the Hell Fire caves?
Kerry Ann: In the 1750s there was a series of harvest failures and Sir Francis was always a great advocate of government policy that enabled the locals to maintain some work. So he employed the locals to dig out the chalk from the caves and rebuilt the road from West Wycombe to High Wycombe, And so the chalk was used in the foundations of the road. The cave system we are left with is the legacy of that work, but the intriguing thing is the shape of those caves and why they’ve been created in the manner that they are.
Inside the Hell Fire Caves
So what exactly is down there? How long is it – how deep does it go?
Kerry Ann: Well it’s really quite unique. You don’t walk through it as you might imagine a standard cave system to be because this is actually man created. Beautiful Gothic arches have been created within the cave system itself and you walk down passages. The passageways go past separate little caverns or alcoves and in those alcoves, well, we don’t know what happened in the past. You get then down to the Inner Temple which is a quarter of a mile down the passageway and you end up 300 feet underneath the hill surface.
The Inner Temple is said to be positioned immediately underneath the church at the top of the hill. There's a small river that runs through the bottom of the caves and in the 1750s, you did need a small boat to cross the river to gain access to the Inner Temple.
The system is just brilliant – you can’t get lost on the way back out again if you remember that you need to go uphill, but on the way down there are lots of little twists and turns and passageways that lead to who knows where.
Why were they created like this?
Kerry Ann: That’s the mystery. It’s a really lovely little system, it’s got strange turns and funny little caverns and we can’t quite work out just what that’s all about. I think that they followed a natural fissure and they just took the caves from the sections that were most sensible. However, the actual layout of the caves themselves are often referred to as having some significance because there’s a section of the caves that’s said to refer to a section of a woman’s anatomy, and there are other references to do with some pagan themes and also the Knights Templar.
A statue inside the Hell Fire Caves
So we don't know why the caves were created like this but they were used as a meeting place for Sir Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hell Fire Club, although it wasn’t their original location or their original name was it?
Kerry Ann: The name has stuck with the cave system since Sir Francis established a club in the 1750s. To put it into context, in the 1750s, in London there were an awful lot of gentleman’s clubs most often frequented by the aristocracy. Sir Francis created other clubs in addition to this one, so the Knights of Sir Francis of Wycombe was just another one. The Hell Fire branding came a little bit later. The original Hell Fire Club was created by Philip the Duke of Wharton, and it really was a club of quite risqué behaviour – which is the best way we can put it.
Clubs in general were banned because the behaviour of some of the gentlemen members was getting a little bit out of hand so Sir Francis and his gentlemen friends met quietly, but once the club became known to the public through an argument amongst members which led to the club being exposed in some newspapers in London, it was then branded the Hell Fire Club.
But is has also been known as Knights of Sir Francis of Wycombe, the Fransciscans and the Monks of Meddenham. We know that the original club met at Meddenham Abbey. Sir Francis took over the ruined site there and created a place for his club members to go to enjoy the things that they enjoyed.
So what did they do?
Kerry Ann: That’s the big question. The club was probably established so that these gentlemen could get together and I like to think of them as happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, they enjoyed their women and they enjoyed their wine, but what actually went on we won’t know because Paul Whitehead burned the records just days before his death.
He was a member of the club, wasn't he?
Kerry Ann: Yes, Paul Whitehead was the steward of the club so he maintained all the records associated with the consumption and the equipment which was used by the club – a lot of silverware, that sort of thing. In the three days prior to his death it’s said that he spent those days burning all of the records of the Hell Fire club so we will never really know.
Inside the Hell Fire Caves
So they met in the Inner Temple but nobody really knows what went on there?
Kerry Ann: No, but it’s said that they were meetings that involved a lot of ritual. Women were invited as guests of the members, and a lot of drinking went on and a lot of good food was consumed as well but there were many references to perhaps other rituals that may or may not have been conducted here.
You could only enter The Inner temple if you were one of major members of the Club – the minor members weren’t allowed to go as far as the Inner Temple, that truly was the inner sanctum of the club and it’s said to be the position where some of these rituals may or may not have been conducted. It’s certainly a very strange part of the caves.
What sort of rituals have been talked about?
Kerry Ann: Well there are suggestions of some types of sacrifice, and the use and abuse of women in some instances but none of these things are prove,n it really is just an extension of literature that was published in the 1750s not necessarily based on fact – we don’t know.
What the Hell Fire Club may or may not have done is just one of the mysteries surrounding the Hell Fire Caves. It is a place that is steeped in myth and legend, and not least is the paranormal activity that is said to take place there, with ghost sightings reported on a regular basis.
last updated: 15/09/2008 at 10:20