The Hellfire Caves (also known as the West Wycombe Caves) are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns which extend a quarter of a mile (500 metres) underground. They are situated above the village of West Wycombe, at the southern edge of the Chiltern Hills near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, Southeast England.
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.
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 dil
apidated West Wycombe Park.