Any mention of satanic orgies makes most people’s ears prick up. And so it was with mine.
I heard about the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe where such practices had taken place and duly paid a visit. The caves, excavated between 1748 and 1752 for Sir Francis Dashwood, were used as a meeting place for his notorious Hellfire Club.
Members included various politically and socially important 18th century figures such as 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 who visited the caves on more than one occasion.
Underground Statue at the Hellfire Caves (Scott Wylie)
According to Horace Walpole, 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.
Many rumours of black magic, satanic rituals and orgies were in circulation during the life of the club. Club meetings often included mock rituals, pornographic materials, much drinking, wenching and banqueting. The early 1760s saw the downfall of Dashwood’s exclusive club but its tantalising premise caught my imagination and I decided to incorporate a secret society, orgies and all, into Belle Vue.
So the Mephisto Club was born…