Entrance to the Hellfire Caves
The Hellfire Caves, more formally known as the West Wycombe Caves, are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns which extend a quarter of a mile underground in Buckinghamshire. They are to be found above the village of West Wycombe, at the southern edge of the Chiltern Hills near High Wycombe.
The caves were excavated between 1748 and 1752 for the infamous Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer (2nd Baronet), founder of the Dilettanti Society and co-founder and leader of the notorious Hellfire Club, whose meetings were held in the caves. The caves have been operating as a tourist attraction since 1951.
Location and layout
The caves run deep into the hillside above West Wycombe village and directly beneath St Lawrence's Church and Mausoleum (which were also constructed by Sir Francis Dashwood around the same time the caves were excavated). West Wycombe Park, ancestral seat of the Dashwood family and also a National Trust property, lies directly across the valley. The caves' striking entrance, designed as the façade of a mock gothic church and built from flint and chalk mortar, which was erected in around 1752, can be viewed directly from West Wycombe House.
The unusual design of the caves was much inspired by Sir Francis Dashwood's visits to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria and other areas of the Ottoman Empire during his Grand Tour. The caves extend a quarter of a mile underground, with the individual caves or "chambers" connected by a series of long, narrow tunnels and passageways.
A route through the underground chambers proceeds, from the Entrance Hall, to the Steward's Chamber and Whitehead's Cave, through Lord Sandwich's Circle (named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich), Franklin's Cave (named after Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Dashwood who visited West Wycombe), 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 named the Styx, lies the final cave, the Inner Temple, where the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held, and which is said to lie 300 feet directly beneath the church on top of West Wycombe hill. 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.
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. This theory is not mentioned in National Trust literature and is allegedly refuted by the Dashwood family.
The theory that the caves resulted from flint mining is also questionable because the Chiltern 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.
Alteration and extension
A chalk mine of supposedly ancient origin is believed to have existed above West Wycombe for centuries.
During the late 1740s, to try to combat local poverty, Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project to supply chalk for a straight three-mile road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe (then on the busy London-Oxford road, now the A40). Local farm workers, impoverished by a succession of droughts and failed harvests, were employed at one shilling a day, enough to sustain a family in the Georgian era, to tunnel beneath ground and mine chalk and flint. The chalk was used to build the West Wycombe-High Wycombe road and also houses in the village and the church and Mausoleum. Considering that they were all dug by hand, the caves are often regarded as an incredible feat of engineering.
The Hellfire Club
The caves were used as a meeting place for Sir Francis Dashwood's notorious Hellfire Club, whose 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. The Hellfire Club had previously used Medmenham Abbey, 8 miles away from West Wycombe on the River Thames, as a meeting place, but the caves at West Wycombe were used for meetings in the 1750s and early 1760s.
At the time, Sir Francis' club was not known as the Hellfire Club - this name was given much later. His club used other names, such as The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, Order of Knights of West Wycombe, and The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of West Wycombe.
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.
Meetings occurred twice a month, with an AGM lasting a week or more in June or September. Many rumours of black magic, satanic rituals and orgies were in circulation during the life of the club. Dashwood's club meetings often included mock rituals, pornographic materials, much drinking, wenching and banqueting. The early 1760s saw the downfall of Dashwood's exclusive club, and The Hellfire Club had been dissolved by 1766.
After the demise of the Hellfire Club and Sir Francis Dashwood's death in 1781, the caves were disused from 1780 to the late 1940s, and fell into disrepair.
During the Second World War plans were made to use the caves as a large air-raid shelter if nearby towns were bombed, but Buckinghamshire's rural position meant that High Wycombe and surrounding towns were not an enemy target, 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 the late Sir Francis Dashwood (11th Baronet), who used the profit earned to refurbish the dilapidated West Wycombe Park.
West Wycombe Caves have had over two million visitors since they reopened in 1951.
Legends of hauntings
In a place with so scandalous a history, many local ghost stories have been woven around the West Wycombe Caves.
One tale is of the ghost of Paul Whitehead, a close friend of Sir Francis Dashwood, who had been the Secretary and Steward to the Hellfire Club. When he died in 1774, as his will requested, his heart be placed in an elegant marble urn (costing £50) in the Mausoleum at West Wycombe by Sir Francis Dashwood. It was sometimes taken out to display to visitors, but was allegedly stolen in 1829 by an Australian soldier. Legend holds that the ghost of Whitehead haunts West Wycombe Caves and Hill, searching for his heart.
Another well-attested local legend is the tale of Sukie, the White Lady: Sukie (short for Susan) was a 16 year old maid at the local George and Dragon Inn in the late 18th or early 19th century. She was apparently by far the most appealing of the serving staff, and many local men vied for the girl's affections. But Sukie had ambitions to marry into society, and rejected the advances of all her local admirers. She began dating a local aristocrat, and one day she got a message, apparently from her lover, asking her to meet him in the caves one night wearing her best white dress as a wedding gown. She arrived in candlelight and in her white dress, but it was a hoax by three village boys. She threw stones in fury at her laughing tormentors, but when one of the boys threw one back, she was knocked unconscious. Shocked at what they had done, the boys carried her back to her bed in the inn, but she died during the night. The caves and inn are reputed to be haunted by her ghost, and many staff and visitors have reported sighting a girl in a wedding dress wandering the passageways.
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