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The HellFire Club

The Hellfire Club was the popular name for what is supposed to have been an exclusive English club established by Sir Francis Dashwood which met irregularly from 1746[citation needed] to around 1760 as an extension to his Society of Dilettanti. There is no evidence that they referred to themselves by this name, rather it is likely they used the names of a number of mockingly religious titles, beginning with the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe. Other titles used included the Order of Knights of West Wycombe and later, the Monks of Medmenham. Other clubs using the name "Hellfire Club" were set up throughout the 18th century, most notably the "Hell-Fire Club" founded around 1719 in London by Philip, Duke of Wharton.

The members addressed each other as "Brothers" and Dashwood as "Abbot". Female "guests" (prostitutes) were "Nuns". Unlike the more determined Satanists of the 1720s the club motto was Fait ce que vouldras (Do what thou wilt) from François Rabelais, later used by Aleister Crowley. 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 neighborhood of the complexion of those hermits."

Meeting Place and Initial Members

According to tradition, the first gathering of this "unholy sodality" was in May of 1746 at the George and Vulture public house in Castle Court, near Lombard Street, City of London. This meeting-place, however, has been ascribed to several other of the Hellfire Clubs, so it must be treated as anecdotal. Later it met on Dashwood's properties at West Wycombe Caves and at Medmenham Abbey, beside the Thames. The membership was initially limited to twelve but soon increased. Of the original twelve, some are regularly identified: Dashwood, Robert Vansittart, Thomas Potter the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Francis Duffield, Edward Thompson and Paul Whitehead. Benjamin Franklin is said to have occasionally attended the club's meetings[citation needed] as a non-member. The name George Bubb Dodington, a fabulously corpulent man in his 60s, is often cited. Though hardly a gentleman, William Hogarth[citation needed] has been associated with the club.

Fire and Rebuilding

The George and Vulture Pub, a notorious meeting place, burned down in 1749, possibly as a direct result of a club meeting. It was rebuilt shortly thereafter and survives as a city chop house off Cornhill. Dickens lived and wrote here for a period of time. The Pickwick Club still meets there to this day. After a hiatus, meetings were resumed at members' homes. Dashwood built a temple in the grounds of his West Wycombe home and nearby 'catacombs' were excavated. The first meeting at Wycombe was held on Walpurgis Night, 1752; a much larger meeting, it was something of a failure and no large-scale meetings were held there again. Despite this and the factionalising of the club Dashwood acquired the ruins of Medmenham Abbey in 1755[citation needed], which was rebuilt by the architect Nicholas Revett in the style of the 18th century Gothic revival. It is thought that William Hogarth may have executed murals for this building; none, however, survive.

Later Years

The list of supposed members is immense; among the more probable candidates are John Wilkes and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Whatever the nature (the existence, even) of such club, there is no question that several events in the early 1760s prevented further activities on the part of Dashwood.

The first was the rise of the Earl of Bute and the Tory party to power following the accession of George III in 1760. In 1762 Bute appointed Dashwood his Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite Dashwood's being widely held to be incapable of understanding "a bar bill of five figures". (Dashwood resigned the post the next year, having raised a tax on cider which caused near-riots.) The second was the publication (1762-5) of Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea by Charles Johnstone, in which Lord Sandwich was ridiculed as having mistaken a monkey for the Devil, supposedly during a rite of the club. The third was the attempted arrest and prosecution of John Wilkes for seditious libel against the King in the notorious issue 45 of his The North Briton in early 1763. During a search authorised by a General warrant a version of The Essay on Woman was discovered set up on the press of a printer whom Wilkes had almost certainly used. This scurrilous, blasphemous, libellous pornographic skit, principally written by Thomas Potter which can from internal evidence be dated to around 1755, was subsequently to be used by the Government as the means by which to destroy Wilkes as a public figure.

References in popular culture

The Hellfire Clubs of popular culture tend to be based on Dashwood's rather than any of the others.

The Hellfire Club (1961) is a film featuring Peter Cushing.
A recreation of the Hellfire Club is the focus of an episode of The Avengers, called "A Touch of Brimstone", notorious for Diana Rigg's risqué outfit. Peter Wyngarde, the main guest-star of the episode, has an official fan club also named after the club.

The suspense of Olivier Assayas's film Demonlover (2002) partly regards The Hellfire Club both as a critical element and as a metaphorical border between reality and virtual world.

British comedy programme Blackadder refers to the club in Blackadder the Third, with Prince George making numerous comments about spending time at 'The Naughty Hellfire Club'.

The Doctor Who Audio Drama Minuet in Hell (produced by Big Finish) features a modern-day Hellfire Club based in the USA, while the original Club features in the eighth Doctor novel The Adventuress of Henrietta Street.

In the episode "The Call of the Yeti" in the second series of The Mighty Boosh, Naboo has a conversation with another Shaman, during which they recall a night out at "Wycombe caves".

In Australia, formerly connected Hellfire Clubs with a BDSM theme were founded in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane by underground film director and producer Richard Wolstencroft. The only remaining Hellfire Club, in Sydney is run by Craig Donarski and Wet Set Editor Jackie McMillan. [1]

The Hellfire Club is a Marvel Comics supervillain organization. The group is based in a modern time version of the original club, that has become a sort of gentlemen club for the rich and powerful.

The Hellfire Club is the title of a 1996 novel by Peter Straub.

Kathy Reichs's novel Fatal Voyage involves a Hellfire Club spinoff in the US begun in the early 20th century by Prentice Dashwood, a descendant of Sir Francis. This group, which calls itself H&F, practices ritual cannibalism to impart wisdom to its leaders. According to the novel, the group met its demise in 2001.

The Hellfire Club is presented in Karen Moline's novel Belladonna as a secret society flourishing well into the 1950s and involved in the auctioning of young women.

Diana Gabaldon's short story "Hellfire", written in 1998, was the first of her Lord John Grey mystery stories set in 18th century London. While trying to solve a murder mystery, Lord John finds himself being initiated into the Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey.

There have been an electronica band and a country band called The Hellfire Club, as well as one band called The Little Hellfire Club, another called The Infamous Hellfire Club, and yet another called The Electric Hellfire Club.

There is also a UK NU-NRG group called Hellfire Club consisting of Baby Doc and SJ, usually releasing tracks on the Resist/React Label.

Horrorcore Rap Artists Tommie and Phatty Smallz of Robinson, Illinois, Go under the name "The Hellfire Club" , Hellfire Club is the title of the sixth studio album by the German power metal band, Edguy, released in 2004.

Hard NRG VII, also called The Hellfire Club, is an album by DJ Proteus. The album also contains a track called "The Hellfire Club".

The Hellfire Club appears in the comic "Histoire Secrete" along with an appearance of Dr. John Dee, although it is clearly anachronistic since the story took place in 1666.

Goth rock act The Electric Hellfire Club have claimed to be a modern version of the society.

A new Hellfire Club, will be up and running as of the 1st of may 2008, it's President is Malcolm Tearle, an Alchemist of some note, a Wing Chun Kung Fu Master, also head of the family line of 'Freeman Witchcraft.' Malcolm is also a practing Hatha and Tantric Yogi. His aim in setting up the 'Watford Hellfire Club,' is to 'bring fun and knowledge back into the club, and of course some daring do's and the spice of life.


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