Faces carved into the sides of the damp and dripping chalky surfaces of Buckinghamshire’s West Wycombe’s Hell-Fire Caves seem to challenge you to dare stumble upon their dark and dirty secrets.
For it was down in these caves that the sinful and dubious ‘playground’ of the Hell-Fire Club of England was carefully constructed to challenge the morality of the church’s Christian teachings.
The Church of St. Lawrence is literally perched upon a hill of some considerable dimensions, three hundred feet directly above the dank cave depths of the Hell-fire club’s inner temple of sinful depravity.
Indeed, the church boasts a golden ball of heavenly observation rising up into the blue skies in a direct, no-nonsense contrast, to the creation of the ember-glowing Hell directly below.
While there are many stories and legends, often mixed and muddled, about Hell-Fire Clubs, in and around London, this one, in these West Wycombe caves, had a special ‘twinning’ with a nearby twelfth century Cistercian Abbey, Medmenham Abbey, under the leadership of Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781).
So, before the caves became the Hell-Fire Club’s preferred den of depravity, these so-called ’eminent’ men would meet at Medmenham Abbey (a little over six miles outside of West Wycombe on the banks of the River Thames) to ensure they lived up to a certain club motto, ie: “Fay ce que voudras” – translated as “Do as you please”.
This set the scene for rumours and torrid tales of drinking, womanizing and devil worship. With Sir Francis acted as a perverse “Prior of the Abbey” where, in their worship of Satan, Sir Francis was known to administer the Sacrament to his tame baboon. (Source: Hell-fire Francis by Ronald Fuller, 1939.)
The Times newspaper put it succinctly describing the club as representing “a coterie of profane wits and politicians” (who) “made a mockery of monastic rites at Medmenham to cloak their sins.” (Source: The Times Newspaper 29th March 1920, p.17)
But I need to get you back to the symbolic essences of the West Wycombe caves and to a certain Paul Whitehead.
Firstly, we need to know that the caves were a by-product of Sir Francis’s generous concern to provide well-paid labouring work for his local constituents to build a decent road into High Wycombe and boost the local economy.
However, they were a by-product with a purpose because their intricate design was no accident and there are claims that under the cover of providing this much needed work, Sir Francis harbored ulterior motives of a dark and sinister kind.
Why were the caves cut in a way that replicated symbolic features deeply embedded in classical mythology and ancient Athenian cults linked to mysticism?
But then aren’t all wealthy aristocrats entitled to a folly or two? This one, however, was to become inextricably linked to Satanism and moral turpitude.
Devil faces and demon heads are still to be found carved deep into the chalky passageways. He even created an underground river Styx, a symbolic boundary separating the world of the mortal from the world of the immortal.
Sir Francis situated his ‘Inner Temple’ across the river and at the deepest point in the caves – its direct location under the church above symbolizing Heaven and Hades – a direct mockery of the church’s role as it sat above their sinful reveries, the congregation worshiping Christ on high, while down below they were revering the Devil.
Sir Francis had managed to do what no other man had ever done. He had designed and built his own heaven and hell, one directly above the other as it was meant to be.
The magnificent Gothic flint and gated entrance hall, led down a long passage, past small and intimate chambers to a wondrous banqueting hall. The Club’s famous Rosicrucian crystal lamp with its serpent of pure gold, symbolizing eternity, hung from the centre of the ceiling, throwing a mystical glow over the cavorting and feasting.
From here runs a clever triangular path system, said to have a sexual symbolism and leads on further down to the river Styx. Here there is a ‘cursing well’ filled with ‘unholy’ water, to ‘baptize’ new members into this exclusive Satanist club before taking them by boat across the Styx to the so-called Inner Temple.
Here it is claimed dark-art ceremonies would be held which required young girls to sacrifice their virginity to selected members of the Club. This was overseen by prostitutes dressed as nuns (so-called dollymops) in the orgiastic build-up to the ultimate sacrifice of the innocents directly beneath the holy church on the hill above, thereby mocking Christianity both symbolically and in reality.
An important ‘player’ on the scene, who would become significant in establishing the supernatural pedigree of the Hell-Fire caves, was the poet and satirist Paul Whitehead (1710-1774)
Whitehead was a key part of the original Medmenham Abbey days of which The Times newspaper said, “Into the circle also came Paul Whitehead as Steward of the unholy order to chalk the score of the blasphemous revellers behind the abbey door.” (ibid, p.17)
It was claimed that the ‘monks’ would be scored by Whitehead on their drinking ability, many consuming bottles of port and claret in vast numbers. According to Daniel P. Mannix’s study; The Hell-Fire Club : Orgies were their pleasure: Politics their pastime (1961), cocktails with names such as ‘Strip me Naked‘, ‘Lay me down Softly’, and ‘Gin and Sin‘, were also popular.
He recounts how even roast beef would be served under the name, ‘Devil’s Loins’, – expertly cut into the shape of large buttocks and served with bread called ‘Holy Ghost Pye’.
Paul Whitehead as Steward was the central figure, all such entertainment being arranged and recorded in the Club’s accounts. The so-called ‘Cellar book’ detailed all the members’ consumption of alcohol for later settlement. Plenty has been written about Sir Francis Dashwood, but very little about Whitehead who is central to this story.
Of Whitehead’s character, it is clear that he was a very controversial figure, one contemporary, Sir John Hawkins, commenting that, “In his conversation there was little to praise; it was desultory, vociferous and profane.” (Source: The Twickenham Museum).
The reaction to Whitehead’s presence at social gatherings outside his secret life at the Hell-Fire Club is wonderfully documented by Dr. Samuel Johnson, who describes the reaction of a revered writer, translator, poet and member of the Bluestocking Circle, Mrs. Elizabeth Carter 1717- 1806) who, in letter to a friend,recounted:
” I must tell you that the celebrated Mr. Paul Whitehead has been at Deal with a family where I often visit; and it was my fate to once be in his company, much against my will; for having naturally a strong antipathy to wit, as some people have to a cat, I at first fairly run away to avoid it. However, at last I was dragged in and condemned by my perverse misfortune to hear part of a satire just ready for the press. Considered as poetry and wit, it had some extremely fine strokes: but the vile practice of exalting some characters and abusing others, without any colour of truth or justice, has something shocking in it that the finest genius in the world, cannot, I think, take from the horror of, and I had much ado to sit with any kind of patience to hear it out. Surely there is nothing more provoking than to see fine talents so wretchedly misapplied.“
(Source: The Works of English Poets by Dr. Samuel Johnson, Vol. XVI, 1810, footnote on pp.201/2)
If only Mrs. Carter had known what he really got up to at Medmenham and West Wycombe!
This leads us to the heart of this blog, literally.
Whitehead’s health was rapidly deteriorating, which was not surprising given his secret life-style described by Dr. Johnson as “..sensual indulgence unparalleled in the annals of infamy” (ibid, p. 200.)
Just after Christmas 1774, Whitehead knew he was dying and spent feverish days burning his life’s work and – it is claimed – Hell-Fire club records (of what Johnson called a ‘refined brothel’) in his fire-grate at his London lodgings in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.
Whitehead died on 30th December 1774 at his Twickenham home – Colne Lodge and was buried at St. Mary’s church in Teddington.
BUT, not all of him was buried. Whereas Tony Bennett had left his heart in San Francisco – Paul Whitehead left his heart in West Wycombe, ie: to Sir Francis Dashwood (now Lord de Despencer).
As dictated in Whitehead’s will, his heart was cut out and dispatched to his Lordship as a symbol of ‘heartfelt’ gratitude and with a request that it is buried ‘in some corner of his mausoleum’ at West Wycombe.
In contrast to the modest funeral of Whitehead’s body at St. Mary’s Church, Sir Francis Dashwood honored his steward with a three hour funeral of Whitehead’s heart, ensconced in a marble urn, carried three times around the mausoleum by soldiers of the Bucks Militia, while the St. Lawrence church choir sang a hymn especially composed for the solemn occasion. As the urn was placed into its alcove, what critics referred to as ‘solemn mockery’ was read aloud to the specially invited guests:
From Earth to Heaven Whitehead’s soul is fled:
Refulgent glories beam around his head!
His Muse concording with resounding strings,
Gives Angels words to praise the King of kings.
It was in 1781 that the first supernatural events began which are claimed to continue to this day. Household staff at West Wycombe Park, home to an increasingly frail Sir Francis, were scared witless on seeing the ghost of Paul Whitehead in the grounds, looking towards the house and beckoning observers to join him.
Lady Austin, Dashwood’s sister wrote to a friend,
“There are few, if any, of his lordship’s numerous household who have not seen him (the ghost) sometimes in the Park, sometimes in the garden as well as in the house by day and night.“
Sir Francis Dashwood died in December that same year, and the ghost sightings ended. However, there is a BUT!
Tourists to the open mausoleum complex (as pictured above) were keen to visit the ‘heart of Whitehead’ and were even allowed to touch it, so mysterious was its reputation. In 1839, Whitehead’s heart was stolen from its urn. It was suspected to have been an Australian soldier taking it as a souvenir!
From that time onward, the ghost of Whitehead has been seen many times in both the mausoleum and now the caves, apparently desperately searching for his heart.
Tourists, to this very day, who know nothing of the Whitehead ghost story, report his sighting on a regular basis alongside other sightings of the ghost of a young bride called Sukie – but that’s another ghost for another blog.
Meanwhile, if you cannot pay the caves a visit in person, you can take a virtual tour of the infamous caves and its supernatural associations courtesy of this link
Heartfelt wishes to you all.