The History Of The Hellfire Caves
The Hellfire Club
We can’t begin to dive into the twisted history of the Hellfire Caves – also called the West Wycombe Caves – without first looking at the Hellfire Club (sometimes called the “Hell-Fire Club”).
The Club was founded in 1718 by Sir Francis Dashwood. It had several earlier names:
- The Brotherhood of Sir Francis of Wycombe
- The Order of the Friars of St. Francis of West Wycombe
- The Order of Knights of West Wycombe
No matter the name, the Hellfire Club motto, “Fais ce que tu voudrais” translated from French, means “Do what thou wilt.”
The Club had politically and socially important members. The exact names of all the members have been lost to memory, but some noteworthy members were:
- Benjamin Franklin: It is disputed whether he was a member or just a close friend of Sir Francis… But we can’t help but wonder why one of the chambers is called “Benjamin Franklin’s Cave”
- William Hogarth: English painter
- Thomas Potter: British politician
- John Wilkes: Journalist, politician, magistrate and soldier
- Paul Whitehead: Poet
- John Montagu: 4th Earl of Sandwich
The clubhouse of this hellish brotherhood was always near West Wycombe, as this was the home town of Sir Francis. The first clubhouse was within the ruins of Medmenham Abbey, but after the completion of the Hellfire Caves, it became the final destination for the Club’s gatherings.
The Club got together twice a month and twice a year; they organized a big event which lasted about a week. It was all about having fun – often in a perverted way – with members bringing a lady to each event.
The Hellfire Caves
Before becoming what it is today, the Hellfire Caves were an open-cast chalk quarry dug into a West Wycombe hill. Sir Francis Dashwood, the quarry owner, wanted to extend the mining works to create more jobs. The West Wycombe village had an unemployment epidemic after harvest failures in the late 1740s.
He also wanted to provide more material for the planned road between High Wycombe and West Wycombe.
The Dashwood Mausoleum and a tunnel were added a few years later. It was a further effort of Sir Francis to relieve the poverty in the town and create rural employment opportunities.
He might have just continued to extend the quarry to achieve the same objectives, but Sir Francis had other ideas.
The tunnel was a quarter of a mile long, with chambers and passages. We can’t ask him his reasoning behind this elaborate project, but we can only assume it was a sense of mischief that made him do it.
The Hellfire Caves tunnel has a symbolic shape linked to the Eleusinian mysteries (religious rites) from Ancient Greece.
Chambers within the Caves
Walking in from the entrance hall, you will find, in order:
- Stewards Chamber
- Whitehead’s Cave
- Lord Sandwich’s Circle
- Banqueting Hall (rumoured to be the biggest man-made chalk cave ever created)
- Minor’s Cave
- The River Styx (more on that below)
- The Inner Temple
The purposes of each of these chambers have been lost to time… one can only imagine the frivolities that occurred here.
The River Styx
The Styx is a subterranean river towards the back of the tunnels. It was named after the River Styx in Greek Mythology, which separates Hades from the human world.
Beyond the river, the Inner Temple is located right beneath St. Laurence’s Church. Sir Francis created it like this purposely to signify Heaven above and Hell below.
The Dashwood Mausoleum
Right next to St. Laurence’s Church at the top of West Wycombe Hill Road is the Dashwood Mausoleum. It is a massive, enclosed private burial area dedicated to the Dashwood family. Special “brothers” to the family are also buried here. For example, Paul Whitehead, a member of the Club, had his heart buried here before it was stolen in 1829.
What happened in the caves?
No one really knows!
It is claimed that the Club performed dark, satanic rituals, but there is no real evidence. Others whisper that the tunnels hosted wild sex orgies, drinking and satanic rituals.
We know that the club members had to wear set costumes, and any ladies who dared visit had to dress like nuns.
Sir Francis removed all evidence of the Club in 1766, removing prints and name tags in the caves… But who knows how long the festivities continued in the darkness of the underground chambers beneath West Wycombe.
The Caves Haunted Happenings
Over the years, dozens of spooky happenings have been recorded in the caves beneath West Wycombe’s church.
Suki was a teenage barmaid who worked at the nearby George and Dragon Inn.
She got plenty of attention from male patrons, but her dream was to marry into high society. She had no interest in the boys who showered her with attention.
At the age of 17, she began seeing a wealthy aristocrat. She was thrilled when he sent her a message to meet him inside the caves! He also asked her to wear her most gorgeous dress… a wedding gown, perhaps?
Once she arrived at the caves, excited finally to realize her dream, she quickly discovered that three local boys had actually sent the note. They were upset that she rejected them, so they started teasing her.
Frustrated by their childish behaviour, Suki tossed rocks at the boys. One boy playfully threw a rock back, which fatally hit her head.
Forever tormented by her lost life, Suki haunts the caves in her beautiful wedding gown. Many visitors to the caves have seen her in the dark or heard her mournful crying.
Other ghostly phenomena
Local legend claims that Paul Whitehead’s ghost haunts the caves forever, searching for his stolen heart.
Benjamin Franklin is also said to haunt the dark chambers beneath the earth.
Visitors report sudden temperature drops while walking through a chamber or spot orbs and floating lights in the darkness.
One lone visitor suddenly felt icy hands gripping him while others heard voices coming out of the dark chalk and flint caverns ahead.
When approaching the Inner Temple, you can hear Gregorian chants drifting to you from deep within the hillside. It would appear that the ghostly Hellfire Club still operates to this day…
Are there ghost hunts at the Hellfire Caves?
Are there other haunted places in West Wycombe?
Apart from the Hellfire Caves, West Wycombe and High Wycombe have all kinds of haunted locations:
- Church of St Lawrence Hill
- Dashwood Mausoleum
- Loakes Road
- Wycombe Swan Theatre
Are you brave enough to face the ghosts at the Hellfire Caves? You can visit the caves and learn more about the dark history that shaped them.
Just make sure to take your EVP recorders along; you might hear the cries of Suki or chanting echoing off the cave walls!