The Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe
The Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns in Buckinghamshire, England, made famous by their sordid past. They are named after the infamous Hellfire Club, made up of high-ranking members of society, noblemen, and politicians, who are believed to have engaged in pagan rituals, orgies, and black magic deep within the subterranean chambers beneath West Wycombe. Nevertheless, the caves are a place where myth and reality are so entangled that it is difficult to separate one from the other.
According to accepted accounts, English politician Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project in 1748 to supply chalk for a 5 kilometre road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. This was supposedly in attempt to combat local poverty by providing jobs to farm workers who were impoverished by a succession of droughts and failed harvests. The workers were employed at one shilling per day (enough to sustain a family in the Georgian era) to mine chalk and flint on his estate. Considering they were all dug by hand, the caves are often regarded as an incredible feat of engineering.
However, the theory that the caves were dug out for mining is questionable because the Chiltern Hills flint bed overlays the chalk escarpment and does not have to be mined, except by means of small open flint dells, of which there are many in the area. Could it be that Sir Francis had another reason for creating the underground network of rooms?
Inside the Hellfire Caves. Credit: Neil Rickards. Source: Wikipedia
The Hellfire Club
In addition to being a politician, Sir Francis Dashwood established the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, a private members club which later became known as the Hellfire Club. The club became the playground for “persons of quality”, which included members of the British aristocracy, politicians, and other elite members of society, including William Hogarth, John Wilkes, Thomas Potter and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Though not believed to have been a member, Benjamin Franklin was a close friend of Dashwood and visited the caves on more than one occasion.
The club motto was Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), a philosophy of life later used by Aleister Crowley. Legend has it that members engaged in numerous illicit activities including sex parties, drinking, wenching, and mock rituals. It is no wonder Sir Francis was looking for somewhere private to hold his meetings.
According to Horace Walpole (1717-1797), 4th Earl of Orford was an English art historian, antiquarian and Whig politician, the members' "practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits." Dashwood's garden at West Wycombe contained numerous statues and shrines to different gods; Daphne and Flora, Priapus and the previously mentioned Venus and Dionysus.
Layout of the Caves
The grand entrance of the Hellfire caves was designed as the façade of a mock gothic church and built from flint and chalk mortar, which was erected in around 1752. Both the entrance and the layout of the subterranean network were inspired by Sir Francis Dashwood's visits to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria and other areas of the Ottoman Empire during his Grand Tour.
Entrance to the Hellfire Caves. Photo source.
The caves extend 400 metres underground, running deep into the hillside above West Wycombe village and directly below St Lawrence’s Church and Mausoleum. The individual chambers are connected by a series of narrow tunnels and passageways, leading visitors from the Entrance Hall, to the Steward’s Chamber and Whitehead’s Cave, through Lord Sandwich’s Circle, Franklin’s Cave, the Banqueting Hall (allegedly the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world), the Triangle, to the Miner’s Cave; and finally, across a subterranean river name the Styx, to the Inner Temple, where the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held, and which is said to lie directly beneath St Lawrence’s Church.
In Greek mythology, the River Styx separated the mortal world from Hades, and the subterranean position of the Inner Temple directly beneath St Lawrence's Church was supposed to signify Heaven and Hell.
The River Styx in the Hellfire Caves (stalagmites and stalactites were later added for decoration once the caves became a tourist attraction). Photo source.
An alternative viewpoint was advanced by Daniel P. Mannix in his book about The Hellfire Club. This theory suggests that the caves had been intentionally created by Dashwood according to a sexual design. The design begins at the 'womb' of the Banqueting Hall, leading to rebirth through the female triangle, followed by baptism in the River Styx and the pleasures thereafter of the Inner Temple.
Layout of the Hellfire Caves. Image source.
The early 1760s saw the downfall of Dashwood's exclusive club, and by 1766, the Hellfire Club was dissolved. Following the death of Sir Francis in 1781, the caves feel into disrepair and were not used again until World War II when plans were made to use the caves as an air-raid shelter, but the area was never targeted and so the plans were not carried out. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the caves were renovated and turned into a local visitor attraction by a member of the Dashwood family, who used the profit earned to refurbish the dilapidated West Wycombe Park. The caves continue to operate as a tourist attraction and have had over two million visitors since they reopened in 1951.
Featured image: Chalk tunnel carving The Mysterious Lord Kelley Credit: Hellfirecaves.co.uk
History of the Caves – Hellfirecaves.co.uk
The Hell-Fire Caves – West Wycombe Estate
Hell-Fire Caves – West Wycombe Village
The Hellfire Caves – Aquiziam
The Hellfire Club Tunnels and Caves, West Wycombe – Blather.net