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Sir Francis Dashwood
The Hell-Fire Clubs
WHILE anti-masons will point at the Hell-Fire Club as an example of masonic immorality, and conspiracy theorists will see the Club as an exercise in political mechination, there are few facts to support either opinion.
The practices and philosophies of the several Hell-Fire Clubs would certainly appear to be antithical to those of Freemasonry. Where Freemasonry taught moderation, the Hell-Fire Clubs promoted excess; while Freemasonry bound its members to obey the moral law and to be lawful citizens, the Hell-Fire Clubs encouraged drunkenness, debauchery and a disregard for social convention.
What then, is the association with Freemasonry? First, the reputed founder of the pre-eminent London Hell-Fire Club, Philip, Duke of Wharton, was Grand Master of England in 1722-23. Second, the reputed founder of the Dublin Hell-Fire Club, Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, was twice Grand Master of Ireland, in 1725 and 1730.
Superficially damning, it must be noted that Wharton soon fell out with Freemasonry, while neither Wharton nor Rosse had any influence on the beliefs and practices of Freemasonry. One could suggest that they were elected Grand Masters mainly due to the freemasons' wish to identify their society with the aristocracy—and any aristocrat would do.
The context of time and place
The early eighteenth century was a time of political stability—one could almost say stagnation—in England and there were few social outlets for dissent. London street gangs—window breakers, scowerers—the most famous of which were the Mohocks—were first mentioned in Steele’s Spectator and John Gay’s Trivia in March of 1712.
Politically, malcontent Whigs stifled by the mass of Sir Robert Walpole Whigs which had stifled other political forms of revolt or opposition, ironically encouraged revolt through outrageous behaviour. "Walpole’s system continued to prevent the rise of a political opposition in the modern sense. Cliques could be formed to oppose him on particular measures. Journalists could assail and lampoon him, as in the post-Whartonian paper The Craftsman. Beyond that, his web of patronage was too strong." [p. 91.]1
The Mohocks, and the stereotypical rakes who emerged from this street gang unruliness, were gentleman of talent and nominal breeding who drank, gamed and wenched with flamboyance. The sons of landed gentry, merchants and minor aristocracy, they had free time, and the means to enjoy it. It was out of this leisure time that the club was born. The club, more formal than any Mohock fraternity, developed from the coffee-house to the Kit-Cat Club. Ned Ward, in his Secret History of Clubs (1709) described thirty-two clubs in London, most of them informal tavern coteries which soon faded away.
Wharton’s Hell-Fire Club
Little is known of the first Hell-Fire Club. "Wharton’s Hell-Fire Club venture probably began in 1720." "It is uncertain whether Wharton—or whoever did start the Hell-Fire Club—picked up the idea from any earlier body. Ned Ward, in his Secret History of Clubs, has a tale of an Atheistical Club in the reign of Anne." [p. 52.] On 28 April, 1721, George I issued an Order in Council, directed at the Hell-Fire Club, suppressing "immorality and profaneness". An anonymously written pamphlet "The Hell-Fire Club kept by a Society of Blasphemers." hailed the club’s downfall with poetic bombast. "When the ban fell in 1721, Wharton made a speech in the Lords denying that he was a patron of blasphemy." [p. 53.]
Either there were three societies—the Hell-Fire Club and two others like it—or one, but they met at three houses, one in Westminster, one in Conduit Street near Hanover Square and one at Somerset House. The total membership amounted to forty-odd. The ban was not for alleged orgies but for blasphemy: they came to meetings dressed "as revered figures from the Bible, or saints, and played them for laughs. They staged mock rituals making fun of Christian dogmas such as the Tinity." [p. 49.]
"...an organized display of aristocratic scorn towards Christianity, meaning the Church of England, was more seditious and heavily charged than might appear." [p. 49.] But there is nothing to suggest that this club indulged in orgies, satanism or occult ritual.2
Philip, Duke of Wharton
The Hell-Fire Club president was Philip, Duke of Wharton, who had contacts if not sympathies with the Jacobite exiles in France. His view was that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had been betrayed: England was saddled with a permanent army, press censorship, a corrupt Parliament and a Church servile to outsiders from Hanover.
Wharton, potentially the spokesman of the dissentient Whigs who resisted, or wanted to resist, Sir Robert Walpole, started a twice-weekly paper, the True Briton on 3 June, 1723. It’s purpose was to indict the Walpole regime. It set in motion the political idea that the Whig magnate’s stranglehold over parliament must be broken to allow true liberty and freedom from patronage. Lack of funds and the withdrawal of his printer, Samual Richardson, led to the 17 February, 1724 issue, No. 74, being the last.
Wharton ran a second club at Twickenham called the Schemers early in 1723, dedicated to amorous rather than blasphemous persuits. Wharton left England in 1725, first to Vienna, then Madrid where he gained an appointment as a Colonel in the Spanish army. Indicted for treason in England, Wharton drifted to France in 1728. Creditors drove him back to Spain where he died in a Bernardine monastery in 1731.
Wharton’s unrestrained sex life, his flouting of Protestant respectability, his crazy spending, his serio-comic Jacobitism all made him a legend that lived on in the minds of later rebels, and in literature. It was believed at the time that Edward Young in his major work, Night Thoughts used Wharton as the model for his protype infidel, Lorenzo. Samuel Richardson, in Clarissa Harlow, was also believed to have used his memories of Wharton in creating the character of a rake named Lovelace,
The others
Ireland and Scotland
In Ireland "a wave of blasphemy swept over the small close-knit world of the Anglo-Irish." [p. 59.] In Ireland the Hell-Fire clubs were obviously inspired by Wharton but they tended to be more harmful, flirting with crime and an ill-informed devil-worship. "Some hardly did more than revive the London Mohock violence at a higher social level." [p. 60.]
Limerick had a Hell-Fire Club as did Dublin from about 1735. In Dublin records are unclear if there was one club meeting in several locations or several distinct clubs. It’s founders were Richard Parsons, first Earl of Rosse and Colonel Jack St Leger, a relative of the Hon. Elizabeth St Leger.
A picture by James Worsdale in the Irish National Gallery shows Lord Santry, Simon Luttrell "the wicked madman", Colonels Clements, Ponsonby and St George, all members of the Dublin Hell-Fire Club which held orgies at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill, at Daly’s Club on College Green, and at a hunting lodge on Montpelier Hill until the lodge burnt down and they relocated to the Killakee Dower House farther down the same hill. They gathered to drink hot scaltheen, a mixture of whisky and butter laced with brimstone, and to toast Satan. Rumours of orgies, black masses and mock crucifixions are just that: rumours. Black magic was enjoying a vogue on the Continent. "Magic, at any rate, did spread to the rakish set in Britain and Ireland, taking a dark tinge. Traces of the Hell-Fire revival in Britain are scanty, but such as they are, they carry a more satanic stamp than before." [p. 63.]
Edinburgh had at least one club that arranged pacts with the Devil. An Oxford Hell-Fire Club is supposed to have flourished for several decades, one of the few references being in a pamphlet published in 1763 attacking a clergyman named John Kedgell and accusing him of membership.
Appalling Club
The Hon. Alan Dermot founded an Appalling Club in 1738, a group of seven who called themselves the Everlastings. The last member died November 2, 1766 and all that remained of the club was its minute book, formerly said to have been in the possession of the Masters of Jesus College, Cambridge.
George and Vulture
In the 1730s a Hell-Fire Club met at the George and Vulture Inn in London. Thomas De Quincey records one story concerning an unnamed lord who tied a man to a spit, roasting him, presumably at the George and Vulture. Hogarth’s Charity in the Cellar, painted about 1739, is presumed to be the same club, but the case is weak. The five depicted are identifiable and can be connected with two other alleged members, the Earl of Sandwich and Sir Francis Dashwood. [p. 65.]
Prince of Wales, Frederick, son of George II and Queen Caroline, arrived in England in December 1728. Known as Fred, or (to his family) Fritz, his English and education were shaky. "There is a story that he joined a Hell-Fire Club, presumably the one at the George and Vulture." [p. 93.]
Dashwood formed the Society of Dilettanti in 1732 with about 40 members. Some may have been members of Wharton’s Hell-Fire Club. They met on the first Sunday at the Bedford Head Tavern in Covent Garden and later at another tavern in Palace Yard. The seal of the society was a staff with coiled serpents [p. 100-01.] William Hogarth was never close to the Dilettanti but knew Dashwood through the Society of Beefsteaks3, of which he was a founding member. He drew "Sir Francis Dashwood at his Devotions" for Viscount Boyne, another Dilettante. [p. 101.] Martin Foulkes, Deputy Grand Master (1724-25), was a member of the Dilettanti (AQC vol. ci (1988) p. 189.)
Divan Club
John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-92, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783
John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich—reputed creator of the sandwich—is unreliably named a member of the Hell-Fire Club at the George and Vulture but was a Dilettante. He and Dashwood formed the short-lived Divan Club in 1744. [p. 102.]
Sir Francis Dashwood
Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baronet (1708 - 1781/12/11)—his Grand Tour of the Continent exposing him to Catholicism and Jacobitism—arrived in London too late for the original Hell-Fire Club. He may have joined the Hell-Fire Club at the George and Vulture. There is no record of his joining Freemasonry.4
Dashwood withdrew from his Jacobite sympathies and was elected Member of Parliament for New Romney in 1741. He sponsored George Bubb Dodington’s election to the Dilettanti in 1742 and joined the shadow court of Prince Frederick. [p. 104.]
Although there is a large room at the top of Dashwood’s family home, West Wycombe House in Buckinghamshire, that the family called the Masonic Room, there is no reason to believe it was ever used for masonic meetings.
The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe
"Sir Francis Dashwood’s scandalous Permissive Society at Medmenham is one of the most intriguing of eighteenth-century puzzles. Its origins, its activities, even its existence, have been subjects of dispute and the wildest guesswork. Today it is commonly referred to by a name borrowed from its Whartonian ancestory and never used at the time, either by members or by outsiders. It is remembered not only as a Hell-Fire Club but as the Hell-Fire Club, eclipsing the rest. This is a kind of question-begging which disguises a mystery. Some historians survey the club’s career and see nothing but harmless jollifications. Others see devil-worship and gilded vice. Others scent a conspiracy that tried to take over the government and, briefly, succeeded—a conspiracy supplying keys to major events, such as the American War of Independence." [p. 111.]
Its full and correct title in its heyday seems to have been 'The Order' (or 'Brotherhood') 'of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe.' Sutter also notes other ascriptions: The Knights, or the Friars, of St. Francis of Wycombe. Others called them the Hell-Fire Friars.
The order has no documented history. The story must be pieced together from a few hostile accounts from the 1760s, one of them clearly fictional, and from clues left in poems and correspondence. [p. 119.] Dashwood’s West Wycombe House was their meeting place originally. Meetings in the revamped Abbey appear to have started in 1752.
Members of the Order
While a reliable membership list is impossible to compile5, some of the members were only marginally political, some were country neighbours, some were Dilettanti, Divan or Beefsteak, One or two may have belonged to the now defunct George and Vulture Hell-Fire Club.
Mr. Clarke
Sir Francis Dashwood
Sir John Dashwood-King was the founder’s half-brother
John D'Aubrey (possibly)
George Bubb Dodington, Baron Melcombe (1691-1762)
Francis Duffield, the Abbey’s landlord
George Augustus Selwyn (August 11, 1719 - January 25, 1791), society wit and man-about-town
Sir Thomas Stapleton was a cousin of Dashwood’s
Dr. Thomas Thompson
John Tucker was an MP and mayor of Weymouth in 1754
John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich
Thomas Potter, an MP and younger son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury.
Arthur Vanssittart, MP for Berkshire
Robert Vanssittart, friend of Whitehead and Hogarth
Henry Vanssittart, later Governor of Bengal
Paul Whitehead (1710 - December 1774) [p. 120-22.]
The origins of the Order are obscure. A certain Sir Miles Stapylton (d. 1752) has been claimed as a member so it predates 1752. there is a vague rumour the Prince was a member. Rumour attributes membership to Lyttelton, a companion of the poet James Thomson (d. 1748) who would certainly have come into the story so we can set the society’s origin after 1748. Presumably a founder-member, George Bubb Dodington’s diary has a number of notable gaps, beginning on May 20, 1750. [p. 113.]
Paul Whitehead
The Chevalier d'Eon has been rumoured—on weak authority—to have been a member. His examination on May 24, 1771 to settle the question of his sex was at Medmenham Abbey. [p. 170.] Hogarth may have been a member although his role as public moralist suggests his presence may be attributed to his friendship with Dashwood, Whitehead and Robert Vanssittart. [p. 123.] Lord Bute, Prince George’s Groom of the Stole—chief officer of the household—was rumoured to be a member of the order but proof is lacking. [p. 137.] By the later 1750s the senior members were losing interest and a younger crowd was joining. To this group belongs the reputed membership of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was Dashwood’s guest at West Wycombe. [p. 140.] As a member of the Beefsteaks, John Wilkes joined the Medmanhamites in 1758. [p. 141.] There are about thirty more alleged members: artists Guiseppe Borgnis and Nicholas Revett, Lord Lyttelton, the Earl of Orford, Henry Lovibond Collins, and William Douglas, later Duke of Queensberry.
An inner circle of thirteen is claimed. The membership was middle-aged and there was a turnover with a distinct second generation drifting in after 1757, including John Wilkes, Charles Churchill, Robert Lloyd and Dr. Benjamin Bates. Visitors such as Horace Walpole, unconnected to the order’s activities, were frequent.
Politics of the Order
Had Sir Francis Dashwood any deeper purpose than parodying Christianity with drunken orgies? The author of The Fruit Shop, published in the 1760s, talks of "ambitious machinations". [p. 131.]
Dodington committed himself to Prince Frederick as Treasurer of the Chambers early in March of 1749. [p. 115.] On March 20, 1751 Frederick died of pleurisy. In attendence were Dr. Thomas Thompson, almost certainly a pseudo-Franciscan, and a poet, Paul Whitehead, who was certainly a psuedo-Franciscan. [p. 115.]
"Medmenham in the earlier years was a freakish remnant of Frederick’s shadow court, without the Prince. Yet if it was not an active political centre, the main reason was not necessarily that the will was lacking—rather, that very little activity was going on anywhere. English politics had settled into an aimless lull." "Politics had not essentially altered for thirty years. A clique of veterans still clung to power. The King was old, so were his chief ministers, but no replacements were in sight." [p. 134.]
Dodington no longer had a focal point for any active government opposition and lost his seat on 17 April, 1754 after holding it for over thirty years. [p. 116.]
With no shadow court for the opposition to gather in, and no political goals to pursue, all that was left were dilettants and rakes. The driving force for the group became Dashwood.
"In 1756, Prince George being eighteen, his grandfather the King set him up in an establishment of his own. " "Once again Bolingbroke’s Patriot King seemed a possibility." Prince George might do what the Duke of Wharton had been the first to demand: he might restore what the opposition insisted was the true Constitution. [p. 134.]
"The Bute Ministry was largely a Medmenhamite creation" [p. 153.] Bute became Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury in 1762. Dashwood was Treasurer of the Chamber and in 1762 was made Chancellor of the Exchequor. Paul Whitehead became deputy Treasurer of the Chamber, while William Douglas was Lord of the Bedchamber and a Knight of the Thistle [p. 152.]
John Wilkes started the North Briton on June 6, 1762 to undermine Bute’s government as he had not received any appointments from Bute [p. 153.] He began leaking information on Medmenham from January 1763. [p. 158.]
Bute resigned on April 8, 1763. Dashwood was made Baron Le Despenser on April 19, 1763 and retired to West Wycombe. [p. 157.]
Wilkes was discredited when the Earl of March uncovered press sheets of a private printing of the late Thomas Potter’s salacious Essay on Woman, in Three Epistles [London : Printed for the author, 1763], incorporating additional mock-scholarly notes by Wilkes, and on 15 November, 1763, Parliament moved to condemn the North Briton No. 45 [p. 163.]
Wilkes escaped to France before Christmas. He was expelled from Parliament on January 16, 1764 and by November 1764 a sentence of outlawry was passed against him. [p. 164.] He returned in 1768 to be re-elected as MP for Middlesex four times. [p. 181.]
Although Wilkes was out of the way, the Medmenhamite Ministry was finished. The "Patriot King" Prince George would never be accepted as a non-partisan patron of liberty.
Activities of the Order
Six miles from West Wycombe was the remains of a twelfth century Cistercian house. Sometime in 1751 Dashwood signed a lease and began rebuilding. [p. 118.] Meetings took place twice a month with annual week long meeting, possibly around the end of June, although other references are to September. [p. 125.]
The actual activities of the order are unknown although a mockery of Christianity in general and popery in particular, combined with a good deal of sexual innuendo, seems to have set the tone. The chief ceremony was the reception of new members. [p. 126.] Paul Whitehead, secretary-treasurer of the order, and a poet of republican and atheistic tendencies, planned their ritual. He once organized a procession of tramps and beggers to travesty an annual masonic parade. [p. 120-21.]4 John Wilkes, who was never an inner circle member, claimed that the rites were "English Eleusinian Mysteries". [p. 127.] Actual devil worship is not mentioned in any of the more trustworthy materials while Sir Nathaniel Wraxall’s claims, in his Historical Memoirs (1815), of black baptisms and other lurid descriptions are hearsay. [p. 128.] The tradition of a satanic cult has no basis beyond perhaps the odd séance. The local people at the time noticed nothing sinister other than the periodic importation of women and wine. Edward Thompson’s version is that Dashwood, Stapleton, Whitehead, Wilkes and others performed rites to ridicule Catholicism
Friars continued to meet in Medmenham at least until August 1764 or March 1766 [p. 166.] A revival in September and July of 1770, noted in the celler-sheets, appears to be the end of the Brotherhood [p. 170.] A stubborn tradition tells of continuing meetings in the caves under West Wycombe Hill, but the cavernous rooms were eerie and dank, not appropriate for revelry, drinking parties or orgies. [p. 168.] The order may have met in the Church of St. Lawrence overlooking West Wycombe, but facilities were cramped.
Later Hell-Fire Clubs
A friend of Dashwood’s, the anti-Catholic John Hall Stevenson, inherited Skelton Castle inland from Saltburn, rechristened it Crazy Castle and established The Demoniacs. (Sutter calls them Demoniacks.) He appointed Dashwood as Privy Counciller and practiced parody-baptisms, assembling meetings to drink, gamble and swap dirty stories. Joseph Sterne soon ceased to attend, and on Stevenson’s death the club faded away.
A revival of the Irish Hell-Fire Club was denounced in the 12 March, 1771 Freeman’s Journal where it was referred to as "The Holy Fathers." This group lasted about thirty years. [p. 184.]
A late member of this group was Thomas "Buck" Whaley (1766-1800) son of "Burn-Chapel" Whaley who was reputed to have been president of the old Dublin Hell-Fire Club. Thomas, as ringleader, returned to Montpelier Hill and organized satanic and homosexual parties. His death marked the decline of the club. [p. 185.]
An Oxford Hell-Fire Club is alleged to have been suppressed about 1780. Byron held a meeting at Newstead Abbey in 1809. Oxford’s third Hell-Fire Club may never have existed but may only be part of the mythology of a later body, the Phoenix Club of Brasenose, which claimed to have risen from the ashes of a Hell-Fire Club whose chairman dropped dead in 1828. [p. 185.]
The myth-making
The anonymous The Fruit Shop, dedicated to Stearne, hinted at politics behind the Medmenham façade and depicted an "underground sect of philogynists" as a movement that had been active for centuries and continued to exist. [p. 184.] It is impossible to know if it was a work of fiction or records a link between the English societies and an alleged movement in France.
John Hall Stevenson published a versified collection of stories as Crazy Tales. He also published The Confessions of Sir F--- of Medmenham and of the Lady Mary, his wife, a pastiche of accusations of incest and abortion. [p. 183.]
Thomas De Quincey (1774-1829) opens his essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts with an allusion to a "Society for the Promotion of Vice" by which he means Medmenham. [p. 226.]
Charles Johnstone’s Chrystal (1760-65 4 vol) includes a description of Wilkes and Medmenham in 1762. This description has often been taken—without justification—as fact. [p. 178.]
In sum, the stories of witchcraft and satanism cannot be substantiated and appear to be folklore, the stories of violence are isolated, and all that remains is sexual and alcoholic excess combined with a parody of Christianity.

1.Square bracketed page numbers refer to the main source for this webpage: The Hell-Fire Clubs, A History of Anti-Morality, Geoffrey Ashe. Gloucestershire : Sutton Publishing Limited, 2000 (first published in 1974 by W.H. Allen & Co Ltd.) ISBN: 0 7509 2402 0 250p.
2. Mannix promoted the satanic interpretation of Wharton’s Hell-Fire Club and the Friars of St. Francis but fails to back up this or any of his claims with citations, references or bibliography. The Hell Fire club, Daniel P[ratt]. Mannix (1911-1972). New York : Ballantine Books Inc., 1960 [copyright 1959, Fawcett Publications, Inc.] pb. 186p.
3.See The Life and Death of the Sublime Society of Beef-steaks, Walter Arnold, 1871.
4.Correspondence from John Hamill, cited by Gerald Suster, The Hell-Fire Friars. London : Robson Books, 2000. p. 163.
5.The Hellfire Club, Daniel P. Mannix. New York : ibooks, inc., 2001 : "Since the secretary of the Hell-Fire Club burned the club's records the day before his death, there is no absolute proof that Franklin (or anyone else for that matter.) was a member." Also see : The lives of the Rakes: Volume IV, The Hell Fire Club, E. Beresford Chancellor M.A., F.S.A.. London : Philip Allan & Co. Quality Court, 1925. Chancellor divides the membership into an inferior order and superior order, with Sir Francis Dashwood, Sir Thomas Stapleton, Sir John Dashwood, John Wilkes, Charles Churchill, Paul Whitehead, Robert Lloyd, George Bubb-Dodington, Benjamin Bates, George Augustus Selwyn, Sir William Stanhope, John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich and Sir John D'Aubrey in the latter and Henry Lovibond Collins, Sir James Dashwood-King and Thomas Potter in the former. Chancellor cites the diary of Mrs. Lybbe Powys, edited by Mrs. Cleminson. pp. 9-10, 253. Chancellor is also highly dependent on the questionable authority of Charles Johnstone’s Chrystal.
6.The Scald-Miserables processions organized by Paul Whitehead and Esquire Carey (surgeon to the Prince of Wales and masonic Grand Steward in 1740) were held on March 19, April 27 and May 2, 1741, although the last may not have been their work. There is a print by Antoine Benoist (1721, Soissons, France - 1770, London) entitled A Geometrical View of the Grand Procession of the Scald Miserable Masons, designed as they were drawn up over against Somerset House in the Strand, on the 27th day of April, Anno 1742. See Histoire pittoresque de la francmaçonnerie..., F. T. Bègue Clavel. Paris : 1843. Horace Walpole reports that the Prince promptly dismissed Carey from his post. Cited by E. Beresford Chancellor, The lives of the Rakes: Volume IV, The Hell Fire Club. London : Philip Allan & Co. Quality Court, 1925. 256p 15x22cm p. 149. Also see Chetwode Crawley, Ars Quatuor Cornatorum, "Mock Masonry in the 18th century. vol. xviii, pp. 129-46.
Mannix claims that the procession included prostitutes and was arranged to proceed a real masonic parade. He doesn't give a date but is probably referring to the 27 April procession which coincided with the masonic March of Procession on their annual Feast Day. As for all his claims, Mannix provides no citations or sources. The Hell Fire Club, pp. 52-53.


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