Ever since I wrote about the Calves Head Club back in January, I’ve been hoping to find a day when I could squeeze in a post about Hell Fire clubs. Today seems like a pretty good opportunity, as the original one was outlawed by Parliament on April 28th 1721.
The Hell Fire Club and its offspring were really a product of the Enlightenment. It was rather fashionable to mock the Anglican Church and its rituals and that seems to be what the Hell Fire Club was all about. Historically, we are talking about a time when there was a lot of concern that the Catholics might just sweep in and take over the throne. It was also just after the South Sea Bubble happened. A lot of people had lost a great deal of money investing in a company that never did anything or made any money. There were those who saw this as a punishment from God and they thought ridiculing Him in mock ceremonies, that probably involved Devil worship, was only going to make things worse.
Philip Wharton, the first Duke of Wharton had Catholic leanings himself. He had lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble. He had lost £120,000. When you consider that a decent wage would have been about £200 a year, you can see what an enormous sum it was. Wharton was not contrite though. He positively celebrated it. He hired musicians and a hearse and he held a public funeral for the South Sea Company. It was Wharton who started the Hell Fire Club.
The Hell Fire Club members probably didn’t really worship the Devil. It was a bit of a joke which was designed to shock the outside world. They met on Sundays, sometimes in taverns and sometimes in private residences, where ladies would also be able to attend. They claimed their president was the Devil. They dressed as biblical characters and feasted on ‘Holy Ghost Pie’ which was a sort of mock sacrament. They also ate ‘Breasts of Venus’, two roast pigeons with a cherry on the top, and ‘Devil’s Loins’, roast beef cut into the shape of buttocks. There was also ‘Hell Fire Punch’, but we don’t really know what that was. If any club member died, they became the club’s ‘Ambassador in Hell’. When their activities came to public attention it caused a sensation. The idea of a secret and blasphemous society, right in the middle of London that involved members of Parliament caused just the right amount of moral outrage and prurient interest to make it fascinating. Of course, here in the UK we know exactly what that is like. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, simple type ‘David Cameron’ and ‘pig’s head’ into a search engine and press go.
It really became a problem when it was rumoured that one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting was a member. This is what the London Gazette had to report:
“His Majesty having received Information, which gives great Reason to suspect that there have lately been and still are, in and about the City of London and Westminster, certain scandalous Clubs or Societies of young Persons who meet together in a most impious and blasphemous Manner, insult the most sacred Principles of our Holy Religion, affront Almighty God himself, and corrupt the Minds and Morals of one another…”
The concern was that they would: ‘Increase and draw down the “Vengeance of God upon this Nation”. The society was wound up by order of King George I. Wharton became a Mason instead. By 1723, he was its Grand Master. But crushing one society did not prevent others from springing up. In the 1730s, Sir Francis Dashwood and the Earl of Sandwich belonged to a sort of Hell Fire club that met at a tavern called the ‘The George and Vulture’ in the City of London. Dashwood was very fond of themed clubs. He had been a member of the ‘Dilettanti Society’ for people who had been to Rome. They sat about in togas and discussed all things Roman. Then there was the ‘Divan Club’ for people who had visited the Ottoman Empire. Here, they wore turbans and pretended to be Turkish. It was all really just an excuse for lots and lots of drinking though.
Some time in the 1750s he founded a club which was known as the ‘Knights of Saint Francis’ or the ‘Monks of Medmenham’ who met at Medmenham Abbey near West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. He had the ruined abbey rebuilt and the natural caves underneath it enlarged. There was a sign above the entrance in stained glass which read “Fay ce que voudras” a quote from Rabelais which means ‘do what thou wilt’. There were, apparently, murals drawn by William Hogarth and the caves were decorated with mythological themes and phallic symbols. We don’t particularly know what they did there. They referred to themselves as monks and their mistresses and courtesans that were invited to the celebrations were called nuns. We know they were quite fond of Greek and Roman gods, because there were a lot of statues, particularly to Venus and Bacchus so it was probably mainly about sex and drinking.
Rumours of sacrifice and satanic worship were attached to their activities and those of other clubs founded elsewhere in the British Isles. Particularly in later, more prudent times. Robert Chambers had quite a lot to say about them in his ‘Book of Days’ entry for April 28th. Mostly he talks about those that took place in Ireland. Writing in 1869, he tells us: “Their toasts were blasphemous beyond modern belief.” He had heard that they were so awful that sometimes people would die after drinking them. Not from any supernatural causes, but from the ‘moral strain’. He described a drink called ‘scaltheen’ which was a mixture of whiskey and butter. Very difficult to make but lovely if you got it right, horrible if you didn’t. This is the picture he paint for us:
“…they drank burning scaltheen, standing in impious bravado before blazing fires, till, the marrow melting their wicked bones, they fell down dead upon the floor… there was an unaccountable, but unmistakeable smell of brim-stone at their wakes; …the very horses evinced a reluctance to draw the hearses containing their wretched bodies to the grave. “
Robert also tells us about a black cat that belonged to a club in Dublin, probably Montpellier Hill. The cat attended the meetings and was always served first at dinner. Woe betide anyone who said anything rude about the cat. He tells us about a curate who was invited to a meeting. He went along and was jeered at whilst he tried to say grace. Then, when the cat was served first, he asked why. They told him that it was out of respect because the cat was the oldest individual there. The curate replied that he could well believe it, and that it was not a cat but ‘the imp of darkness’. The members wanted to put him to death for this insult but he begged to be allowed to say a prayer first. But instead of a prayer, he recited an exorcism. The cat assumed it’s demon shape and flew away, taking the roof of the club house with it. Everyone was very sorry, they immediately dissolved their club and became Christians. The King was so pleased when he heard about it that he made the curate a bishop.
Robert didn’t really believe this story any more than I do. He mentioned other, wilder stories that he didn’t feel were suitable to print A quick search turned up a tale about a woman who was rolled down a hill in a burning barrel and the body of a dwarf that was found buried under the floor of the kitchen in nearby Killakee House in 1971. Probably, the truth is that, like Cameron and his pig they were just wild young men with far too much money. The bizarre things that eighteenth century politicians did for fun really shouldn’t seem better than things we hear about those in the twenty-first century. But somehow, they are. Even when they are worse.