The first Hellfire Club was founded in 1719 at the George and Vulture tavern in the City of London by Philip Wharton a popular and powerful politician, who had inherited considerable wealth and power when he was about the age most people are learning to drive. Both well educated and intelligent, Wharton entered the Irish House of Lords when he was just aged eighteen years and made himself an influential leader of the pro-Catholic Jacobites. Hoping to make an ally of Wharton, the Hanoverian King George elevated him from Marquess to Duke, making him the first man outside the ruling family raised to a dukedom before he was legally an adult. Young, rich, and rebellious, Wharton wanted a gentleman’s club with more libertine rules. His club admitted women as members, something unheard of at the time. He also encouraged free speech, even blasphemy. After his first born son died of small pox before his first birthday, Wharton’s passion for blasphemy escalated to a degree that the King put forward a Bill against “horrid impieties” forcing the club to disband in 1721.
Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despenser, would not have been more than thirteen years old when Wharton’s Hellfire Club was shutdown by the King. Nevertheless, he claimed to have been a member and given the libertine nature of the club it is quite possible. Dashwood is a fascinating character, who was a powerful conservative politician and the mastermind behind the archetypal Hell Fire Club. Fully aware that no one could actually keep a secret in London, Dashwood purchased an estate outside the city called Whycombe Abbey. There, he commissioned the construction of Neo-Classical follies and Gothic catacombs complete with a pagan chapel where he would host clandestine rituals for a select circle of friends. Dashwood held the first official meeting of what would become his own Hell Fire Club on Saint Walpurgist Night 1752. Twelve of the most debauched members of Parliament and the aristocracy joined Dashwood’s club as full members, but members could invite guests and even the American Statesman Benjamin Franklin was reputed to have dined in their grotto.
Many historians believe Wharton’s club was entirely satirical, but, Dashwood reveled in blasphemy most earnestly. As a youth touring Italy, he dressed himself as Mephistopheles and, disguised under a cloak, infiltrated a Mass in a Catholic church, leaping onto the altar brandishing a whip and terrorizing the priests and congregation before escaping into the streets. While there are those who suggest that Dashwood was a crypto-Catholic, his associates were self-confirmed Atheists, Anti-theists, and outright Satanists. In his lifetime, Dashwood was at the absolute peak of the social hierarchy just below the level of the royal family. Thus, he left clear instructions that the executors of his Last Will and Testament burn all of his private papers upon his death. Whatever documents that might have defined Dashwood’s personal beliefs were destroyed and to date no secret copies have been discovered. We can only assume that he would not have left the order for their destruction unless they contained evidence of crimes for which he could be condemned from beyond the grave. There are purely political reasons that Dashwood might have wanted his papers burned, it is possible he was double-dealing with the American revolutionaries; or, Continental Jacobites; or, he could just as easily have been that sincere in his blasphemous beliefs.
Surviving members of the Whycombe Abbey Hell Fire Club affirmed that the mockery of both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church was an essential aspect of Dashwood’s elaborate Bacchanals. Some attested to having participated in full high church Black Masses, complete with printed hymnals, sacrilegious music, and sex workers dressed as nuns. Just as Dashwood’s personal diaries have been lost, we have no confirmed narratives from any of the young women who found themselves at his parties. Surviving records do show that these women worked for one “Mrs. Brimstone” but we can only speculate about who she was in life, or the lived experiences of these women. Sex work back then was not substantially different from today, and it is important to recognize that whether or not they were consenting, these women and girls were there to be exploited for the entertainment of wealthy men. With no primary records to reveal Dashwood’s own mind, we can’t know if he was an insightful occultist ahead of his time, or just an 18th Century Jeffery Epstein.
The Hell Fire Clubs existed to facilitate an opportunity for men bound by the rigid demands of their very privileged positions to escape their duty-bound reality. One of the reasons we know what we do of the club’s activities is a result of certain members’ efforts at blackmailing one another for political advantage. Officially, Francis Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club disbanded decades before his death in 1781. The archetype of an aristocratic secret society of blasphemers and extremists left an indelible impression upon European culture going forward. In the hills outside Dublin, an Anglo-Irish settler styled the 1st Earl of Rosse formed his own Hell Fire Club that met at the Mount Pelier Lodge, a medieval hall once owned by none other than Philip Duke of Wharton.
Richard Parsons was a contemporary of both Wharton and Dashwood, and no doubt his Hell Fire Club was intentionally following their model. Parsons was the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, and his occultist bona fides are somewhat more well documented than those of his London based counterparts. A 1735 painting hanging in the National Gallery of Ireland depicts five more men under the title “Hell Fire Club, Dublin” and from the biographies of these men we can construct a vague picture of how the Dublin Hell Fire Club differed from the London predecessors. Colonel Henry Ponsonby commanded a regiment of redcoats securing the English occupation; the 1st Earl of Carhampton, was an Anglo-Irish nobleman who sat in the English House of Commons nicknamed “King of Hell” for his rakish exploits; and, the 4th Baron Barry of Santry, was the only member of the Irish House of Lords to be convicted of murder by his peers.
In England, the Hell Fire Clubs were formed of men who were rebelling against the puritanical austerity of the Protestant ruling class. The Dublin Hell Fire Club was composed of powerful English colonizers. The native Irish were fiercely Catholic, and resentfully resistant to Protestantism and Freemasonry. Parsons made the choice to compound the fear and discontent of the locals by adding Satanism to his resume of offenses. To this day rumors persist around Dublin that the Mont Pelier Lodge is haunted by Devils summoned in unholy liturgies two hundred years ago. It is said that Parsons and his lodge-mates venerated a black cat during their Satanic rituals, and implied by some that these cats were given in grizzly sacrifice at the conclusion of the rites. Even more horrifying, it was believed they had kidnapped a hunchbacked boy from the town so they could torture him and then release him to hunt across the enclosed estate like an animal.
Archaeological excavations of ash pits on the grounds of the old lodge have uncovered a disturbing concentration of cats bones in layers dated to the mid 18th Century when the Hell Fire Club was active. Skeptics can assert these could be nothing more than the remnants of stewed rabbits, a popular dish at any rural shooting lodge. It takes an expert eye to distinguish between cats and rabbits once they have been cremated. Whether they were eating game and throwing the bones on the fire, or engaging in blasphemy on the most unspeakable level, they left an environmental impact. In the early 20th Century, workmen on the estate were shocked to unearth a human skeleton far from any marked burial ground. Appearing to be about two hundred years old, when reassembled it was determined to belong to a boy about ten years of age with a crooked spine.
Wharton and Parsons both being Freemasons is a kernel of truth that has sprouted thousands of conspiracy theories. Anywhere the Masons set up a new lodge, Anti-Masonic conspiracy theories would follow. In 1823 an American named William Morgan announced his intention to publish a book he called The Secrets of the Freemasons. On or about September 11th of that same year Morgan would disappear, becoming one of the foundational unsolved mysteries of U.S. history. Today it is generally accepted that Morgan was murdered for betraying the oath of secrecy to which all Masons are sworn.
We commonly think of blasphemy as the mere act of mocking religion. In reality blasphemy is the destruction of the shibboleths that fragment humanity. In the Hell Fire Clubs we can see how blasphemy was at once a tool for the liberation of people from backward superstition and a weapon used to oppress the superstitious people and hold them back.
This was a quite interesting read. Very good!
Thank you, Raven. Glad you enjoyed it.
I have to admit, as a kid, I longed to know where The Hellfire Club could be found! After all, they got Jean up in, for a 10 year-old, some very interesting outfits!
I was about the same age the first time I read about the Hell Fire Club in a library book. Can’t help wonder if they really went extinct in the late 18th Century, or just got better at keeping their secrets.