The Hellfire Caves, or West Wycombe Caves, are located in Buckinghamshire, Southeast England. It’s an underground network of man-made chalk and flint caverns. The caves are located 260 meters underground and about 400 meters long. The Hellfire Caves were created by Sir Francis Dashwood in the 18th century. Today the caves are open to the public, but you must be rather brave to enter them.
The history of the Hellfire Caves
To take a look at the history of the caves, we should take a look at the Hellfire Club first. The first official Hellfire Club was founded in 1718 by Sir Francis Dashwood. The name Hellfire Club was given much later. The club has had several names: The Brotherhood of Sir Francis of Wycombe, The Order of Knights of West Wycombe and The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of West Wycombe. The Club’s motto was “Fais ce que tu voudrais” or in other words “Do what thou wilt”. Members of the club were various politically and socially important 18th century figures. A few names were William Hogarth, John Wilkes, Thomas Potter, Paul Whitehead, Benjamin Franklin (perhaps not a member, but a close friend of Sir Francis) and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.
The first “clubhouse” of the Hellfire Club were the ruins of the Medmenham Abbey, just 6 miles (13 km) from West Wycombe, where Sir Francis lived. But when the Hellfire Caves were finished, the meetings were moved there. Meetings were held twice a month and twice a year a longer event was organised. Usually this event lasted a week. The main motto of the club was having fun. Members were allowed to introduce a cheerful lady. Men (non-members) were sometimes also allowed in, but there were many restrictions. Most important was that they were merry men and that some events that occured there remained a secret.
Sir Francis Dashwood
So why did Sir Francis want a cave? That desire can be traced back to the time Sir Francis was a young man. High class young men would often go on a so-called Grand Tour. In the case of Sir Francis, he visited Italy, Turkey, Syria, Greece and other areas of the Ottoman Empire. He was inspired by some of the caves he visited on his journey. The Hellfire Caves were dug out between 1748 and 1752. There were three main reasons why Francis wanted a cave of his own. The first reason was that in that period new landowners tended to build huge impressive buildings on their estates to impress the neighbours. There was an intense rivalry between most. Sir Francis probably tried to outdo his neighbour Lord Temple.
The second reason why he wanted a cave was that when the Hellfire Club flourished, he wanted more luxury and seclusion. And the third reason was to help employ locals. The locals had suffered from three harvest failures (in 1748, 1749 and 1750) and unemployment was a massive problem. Sir Francis knew that by excavating the cave chalk was won. Chalk was used to make a new road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. The old road along the valley bottom had become deeply rutted. Sometimes, especially during wet weather, carriages would become overturned. The men were paid a shilling each day, which was enough to keep a family.
When Sir Francis visited Italy during his Grand Tour, he started developing a deep antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. When he returned to England, he had Nathaniel Dance paint a painting of him dressed as a Franciscan monk and he had Carpentiers paint him as Pope Pontius VII toasting the statue of Venus. The gods the Hellfire Club members worshipped were Venus and Bacchus. There were several statues of them inside the Hellfire Cave. Some are still there. Fun fact: the Hellfire Caves are located right underneath the St. Laurence’s Church. Sir Francis did in fact finance the restoration of this church. He even gave it a golden ball on top of the roof. The golden ball was seen from the new road that was made from the cave’s chalk.
The Hellfire Caves
Let’s zoom in at the Hellfire Caves themselves. Let’s start at the entrance of the cave. It resembles the facade of a mock gothic church. The Hellfire Cave has several underground chambers. From the entrance hall, you’ll find the Stewards Chamber, Whitehead’s Cave, Lord Sandwhich’s Circle and the Franklin Cave (named after Benjamin Franklin). Then you’ll enter the huge Banqueting Hall (which allegedly is the largest man-made chalk cave in the world). After the Triangle you’ll find the Miner’s Cave and finally, across a subterranean river named The Styx, lies the final cave: The Inner Temple.
The River Styx
Sir Francis loved Greek Mythology. In this mythology, the River Styx separated the mortal world from the Hades. The Inner Temple lies directly beneath the St. Laurence’s Church. This was supposed to signify Heaven and Hell. People claim the Hellfire Club performed satanic rituals. There’s no evidence for that. Other rumors of excessive drinking, wild sex parties and mock rituals are more likely to have happened. The members of the club were asked to wear certain costumes and the ladies who were invited had to dress up as nuns. On March 22 1766, Sir Francis decided it was time to remove all traces of incriminating evidence against the Hellfire Club. All prints of the heads of kings and nuns were removed as well as the pegs for the clothes with the brothers’s names on them.
The Dashwood Mausoleum
The Dashwood Mausoleum is located right next to the St. Laurence’s Church on top of West Wycombe Hill. Together with the church, the mausoleum is one of the most famous landmarks in Britain. The Dashwood Mausoleum is a large enclosed private burial ground. For the Dashwood family, but also for special “brothers”. For instance, Paul Whitehead’s heart was buried in a special urn here. I say “was” because it was stolen by an Australian soldier in 1829. The rest of his remains were buried at St. Mary’s Church in Teddington, along with his wife Anne.
Whitehead was the steward of the Hellfire Club and requested Sir Francis to bury his heart at the mausoleum. He even paid £ 50,- for the urn. The poor poet now haunts the Hellfire Caves in search of his heart. Unfortunately, Whitehead’s heart is not the only thing missing from the mausoleum. Several urns and busts have been stolen or vandalized as well. By 1956, the mausoleum was in near disrepair, but fortunately it was renovated.
The ghosts of the Hellfire Caves
Yes, Paul Whitehead still haunts the caves. He has been seen on many occasions. He’s wearing old fashioned 18th century clothing and he disappears when someone meets his eye. He’s also known to cause poltergeist activity. Some visitors of the caves have also seen an elderly man in the cave system. It’s uncertain that this is also the spirit of Paul Whitehead, but it could be another spirit as well. As far as anyone knows, no one got killed inside the caves during the time of the Hellfire Club, but something bad did happen to a poor young lady at the beginning of the 19th century. And she still haunts the caves as well.
The legend of Suki
Suki (Susan for short) was a 16 or 17 year old barmaid who worked at the local George and Dragon Inn. She was a beautiful young lady and she had a lot of male attention, but Suki wanted to marry into high society and didn’t care for the local men and boys. She started dating an aristocrat and was thrilled to receive a message telling her to meet him inside the caves later that evening. The note also said she had to wear her most beautiful white dress, as a wedding gown.
When Suki arrived at the caves in her white dress she quickly learned the note didn’t come from her aristocrat but from three local boys. They started teasing and tormenting Suki. Suki got mad and she threw rocks at the boys. One of the boys playfully decided to throw a rock back, but it hit her right on the head and was knocked unconscious. Suki died later that night but haunts the caves ever since. She has been seen in her white dress on numerous occasions.
Other ghostly phenomena at the Hellfire Caves
The temperature in some of the caves can suddenly drop without a probable cause and strange lights and orbs have been seen. People have heard disembodied voices and some even claim to have been touched by unseen hands. Some visitors have even heard Gregorian Chanting coming from the Inner Temple. Who knows, perhaps the Hellfire Club still operates in the afterlife!
The Hellfire Caves today
You can visit the Hellfire Caves and take a tour along the narrow corridors. There’s even a paranormal tour! Make sure to also visit the Mausoleum above ground. Who knows, perhaps you’ll encounter a ghost or two.
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Please note: this Hellfire Club is different from the Irish Hellfire Club in Dublin. That’s also known as Montpellier Hill. I’ll tell you all about that later!
Cover photo: Lee Russell via flickr CC BY-2.0
Sources: wikipedia, hellfirecaves.co.uk, hauntedhappenings.co.uk, ghosts.fandom.com, hauntedwalk.com and ghost-story.co.uk
Address: Church Lane, West Wycombe, HP143AH, United Kingdom