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Portrait of Francis Dashwood

The Hellfire Club: British high-society's most exclusive and scandalous group

Image: Francis Dashwood was the founder of the second incarnation of the Hellfire Club | Public Domain

The real Hellfire Club was a very different beast from the after-school Dungeons & Dragons club depicted in the fourth series of Stranger Things. Founded in London in 1718, the Hellfire Club’s aristocratic membership of rakes, roustabouts and ne’er-do-wells were more interested in drinking, gambling, fornicating and sticking two fingers up at the religious establishment than they were in sitting around playing games. Unless, of course, the game happened to be five-card Brag with copious amounts of booze and prostitutes thrown in for good measure.

The first Hellfire Club

The first Hellfire Club was founded by a young aristocrat by the name of Philip Wharton. Wharton led something of a double life in Georgian high society. On the one hand, he was a celebrated ‘man of letters’, a friend of King George I and a capable and popular politician; on the other, he was a drunkard, a womaniser and a blasphemer. Indeed, riotous behaviour and cocking a snook to polite society seemed to run in Wharton’s family. His father, Thomas, had been a notorious rake in the 1680s, once breaking into a church and urinating up a font.

The members of Wharton’s club remain unconfirmed to this day, but it’s generally agreed that his friends and fellow roustabouts Trevor Hill, 1st Viscount of Hillsborough, George Henry Lee, 2nd Earl of Lichfield and Sir Ed O’Brien were likely amongst its members. Hill was a gambling addict and booze hound who blew a fortune on horse racing. He was once part of a party that was chased down and whipped by a carter who took exception to Hill and his chums riding around the countryside with a group of naked ladies. O’Brien, meanwhile, lived an extravagant lifestyle and, like Lee, was a gambling addict, blowing the family fortune his grandfather had carefully built up on wine, women and horses.

Wharton’s Hellfire Club was described as a ‘satirical gentlemen’s club’ that delighted in mocking religion - a scandalous thing to do at the time. Members - which included some women, which was highly unusual for the time - met in various locations across London, sometimes in inns and sometimes in private dwellings. They dressed up as religious figures, drank copious amounts of booze and gorged themselves to the point of vomiting, feasting on dishes with provocative names such as ‘Holy Ghost Pie’ and ‘Devil’s Loin’. Drunkenness was the order of the day, as was gambling, fornicating and lashings and lashings of blasphemy. A night at the Hellfire Club was quite unlike any other on offer in London at that time.

Eventually, Wharton was forced to disband his club when his enemies in parliament persuaded King George to pass a bill outlawing ‘horrid impieties’. The bill was aimed squarely at curtailing the blasphemous activities of the Hellfire and its debauched members. After its disbandment, Wharton carried on his hellraising ways, racking up enormous debts that he had no hope of ever paying back. He drank himself to death at the age of 33 in 1731. He may have been dead, but his club was soon back in business.

The Hellfire Club rides again

The second incarnation of the Hellfire Club came into being in 1732, a year after Wharton’s untimely death. At the helm this time around was Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer. Dashwood was a notorious rake and prankster who had once impersonated King Charles XII of Sweden at the Russian court when Charles was Russia’s great enemy. He had also tried to seduce the Russian Tsarina Anne, and he had been banned from the Papal States, all while still in his late teens and early 20s.

Dashwood’s new club was originally restricted to 12 members, all of whom were his close friends and drinking buddies. Among them were Thomas Potter, a notorious rake and assumed author of a scandalous, filthy parody of Alexander Pope’s celebrated poem, Essay on Man, and John Montagu, the earl who gave his name to the sandwich. The club quickly expanded, eventually counting amongst its members Frederick, Prince of Wales, the famously enormous George Bubb Dodington, the satirist and artist William Hogarth and even the American revolutionary and scientist, Benjamin Franklin. It has been suggested that Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress was inspired by a member of Dashwood’s club.

Dashwood’s new club was never actually called the Hellfire Club in his lifetime. Instead, he called it the ‘Knights of St. Francis’. Like Wharton before him, Dashwood’s aim was to mock the absurdities of the Christian religion, in particular monastic orders. Unlike a real monastery, Dashwood’s unholy order dedicated itself to ‘convivial gaiety, unrestrained hilarity, and social felicity in lieu of the austerities and abstemiousness there practised’. It was a roaring success.

Based at Medmenham Abbey in Buckinghamshire (and later in a series of purpose-built tunnels under the abbey), activities at the club included excessive drinking, entertaining prostitutes, eating vast quantities of food and passing around pornographic material. Dressed in monks’ habits, members performed pagan rituals which were described as ‘obscene parodies of religious rites’, addressed one another as ‘brother’, and performed mock sacrifices to the gods Bacchus, Venus and Dionysus. Contrary to 19th-century accounts, no records exist that the group practised devil worship and human sacrifice; the club was mainly an excuse to get blind drunk, eat far too much, have sex and take the mickey out of religion.

Sadly, the fun and games came to an end after a scandal involving member John Wilkes and his possession of seditious literature threw an unwanted spotlight on the debauched activities of Dashwood’s club. As some of the leading lights of 18th-century political and cultural life, the club’s members couldn’t afford to have their careers tarnished by association, and they all quickly withdrew. It was over by 1766.

Dashwood died after a long illness in December 1781. As had been the case with Wharton before him, the ideology of the Hellfire Club did not completely die with him. Another revival, the Phoenix Society, was founded in the 1780s, though it was a shadow of the clubs Wharton and Dashwood had presided over.

The Hellfire’s Legacy

The Hellfire Clubs of Philip Wharton and Francis Dashwood continue to hold sway over the popular imagination long after they ceased to exist. Rumours of satanic rituals and devil worship have persisted down the centuries, and the real and imagined exploits of the clubs’ members have inspired characters and situations in works of fiction from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, to the X-Men comics and the aforementioned Stranger Things.

With its sacrilegious rituals, its worship of the pagan gods and its members’ appetites for excessive drunkenness and debauchery, it’s no surprise that the Hellfire Club continues to fuel the imagination hundreds of years after the last hand of cards was played and the last drop of drink was drunk.