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The Hellfire Club – Orgies in the Thames Valley


No Sex Please, We Are British is the title of a 20th century British farce and indeed the British may come across as a prudish nation. This was not the case earlier in the history. At the beginning of the 18th century the European aristocracy followed the French fashion and so did the English. The high society of Britain lived a carefree, dissolute and immoral life and sought for entertainment in theatres, operas, at cock fighting, gambling houses and in other exclusive clubs – the latter involved sexuality of course. The most famous club of the era was the so-called Hellfire Club which name was used by many others later on. Members of the club were mainly politicians, high society rakes and aristocrats. The most infamous club was Dashwood’s Hellfire Club in the Thames Valley.

The first Hellfire Club

The first official Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1719 by a prominent politician, the Duke of Wharton for his influential and wealthy friends. The club was more of a joke first and meant to shock the outside world and to ridicule religion. Although the president of the club was the Devil and members called themselves devils, they did not worship demons or the Devil itself. Wharton’s club met on Sundays in different locations in London. Both men and women were admitted to the club who dressed as characters from the Bible and their activities included mock religious ceremonies. Wharton’s club came to an end three years later in 1721.

Sir Francis Dashwood, the key figure

Sir Francis Dashwood came from a wealthy London merchant and political family. He was only 15 years old when he inherited his father’s estate in Buckinghamshire and the baronetcy. He was a strange character and famous for his pranks: in St Petersburg while he was in the Royal Court, he dressed up as the King of Sweden – a great enemy of Russia. No wonder then that Dashwood, who was the only chancellor of the exchequer to admit delivering his speech while drunk, was a member of several clubs and founded clubs himself.

‘Orgy’ is one of the series called ‘A Rake’s Progress’ by William Hogarth

Society of Dilettanti

Dashwood’s first club was a dining club called Society Dilettanti which he founded in 1734 along with some friends who returned from the Grand Tour. Getting membership was not difficult: applicants had to prove they had been to Italy, but more importantly they were drunk and drink a lot. Dashwood himself was not sober too often whilst he was in Italy and that is the reason why he became the leader of the club along with the Lord of Middlesex. In spite of this, the club did make sense and had a serious goal: it funded building schemes and archaeological expeditions. It also aimed to correct public taste and supported Italian operas and the group worked towards the objective of forming a public academy.

The Divan Club

Dashwood’s second Club, the Divan Club was more of a light hearted one, founded in 1744 together with the Earl of Sandwich for those who had been to the Ottoman Empire to share their experiences. The club was a short-lived one and ended two years later.

The notorious Hellfire Club

The most famous and dissolute club was founded in 1752 and it used a number of names, such as “Knights of West Wycombe”, “The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe” and later, after moving their meetings to Medmenham Abbey, they became the “Monks of Medmenham”. But let’s not run ahead!

The first meeting was held on Walpurgis night (the night from 30th April to 1st May) on Dashwood’s estate in West Wycombe but it was a bit of a cock-up so it was moved to Medmenham Abbey by the river Thames. Dashwood rented the Abbey first then he bought it and rebuilt it in Gothic revival style. The Abbey required a different name, so the club was called the “Monks of Medmenham” or “Hellfire Club”.

Medmenham Abbey, Buckinghamshire

What did they do on the meetings?

Members of the club were mainly politicians with immoral views and values and influential aristocrats, all of them witty and carefree, who met twice a month and called themselves ‘brother’ and their leader ‘Abbot’. Brothers wore white attire and the Abbot was dressed in red during the meetings. Needless to say that female “guests” (prostitutes) referred to as ‘Nuns’ were also invited to these hedonistic orgies. One can guess what was going on beside gambling, drinking and eating…

One night ended with crying…

One meeting in 1763 ended with crying. As it happened, one member of the club, Sir Henry Vansittart, the Governor of Bengal brought his beloved baboon (that he bought in India) to the Abbey. Another member, the cross-eyed, radical journalist and MP for Aylesbury, John Wilkes thought it would be fun to dress the monkey up as the Devil and put it in a box. So he did. At the right moment, he released the animal which sprang out of the box on to the back of the famously corrupt and gambler First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich.

‘Spare me, gracious Devil’, he cried in terror. ‘Thou knowest, I was only fooling, I am not half as wicked as I pretended!’ And the earl fled the abbey into to night with the baboon on his back. The monkey was never seen again and nobody knows what happened to it. Lord Sandwich did return and he only retired from his duties in 1782.


The Hell-fire Club moved to the caves at West Wycombe and continued their orgies underground for a while, but the members slowly grew old and weary and began to prefer a quiet night and the club finally closed down in 1774.



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