Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Hell Fire Club and Freemasonry by Dr David Harrison

Sir Francis Dashwood
The frontispiece of the first edition of the Constitutions, in 1723, engraved by the Freemason John Pine, celebrates the historical meeting in which the Duke of Wharton became Grand Master. This was a powerful image, showing the newly written Constitutions being passed to Wharton, by the previous Grand Master, the Duke of Montagu.  In the print, Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers is situated to the right, looking on from the sidelines, servant like.

Wharton was a Jacobite Freemason, who, according to various traditions, may also have been the first French Grand Master, in 1728.  He became the Grand Master of the new English Premier/Modern Grand Lodge, in 1722, but was subsequently accused of trying to ‘capture Freemasonry for the Jacobites’ and was dismissed, in 1723.[i]

Desaguliers had come into direct conflict with Wharton, and the early history of Grand Lodge, as written in later editions of the Constitutions, puts Wharton across negatively, inciting him as over ambitious, and reciting an incident, where he was proclaimed Grand Master, without the consent of Grand Lodge. Wharton had proclaimed himself as Grand Master in an irregular lodge, without the proper ceremonials, coming directly into conflict with the Grand Lodge oligarchy who disowned Wharton’s authority.  It was only through the intervention of the Duke of Montagu, that Wharton was officially accepted as Grand Master.[ii]

Wharton was also a political ally of William Cowper, during this period, so he was not without friends within Freemasonry,[iii] but his career in the new Grand Lodge ended abruptly on 24th June, 1723, when Lord Dalkeith was elected Grand Master, stating that ‘after some dispute, the Duke of Wharton left the Hall without any ceremony’.[iv]

After his dramatic exit from the Premier/Modern Grand Lodge, Wharton founded the Schemers Club in 1724, which, in keeping with his mischievous nature, was dedicated to the ‘advancement of flirtation’.  He had also co-founded the infamous Hell Fire Club, around 1719, which included other Freemasons as participants, such as the Jacobite Earl of Litchfield.

Wharton’s untimely death at the age of 33, in 1731, was seen as the ultimate penalty for his excessive indulgence in vice, and his foolish support for the Jacobites. Wharton’s close friend Phillip Lloyd, was a member of the Horn Tavern Lodge, and like Wharton, he was a Tory and a member of the Schemers. After Wharton had left England, Lloyd decided to switch his support to Walpole, who subsequently sent him to France to offer Wharton a pardon.[v]  Wharton rejected the offer, ultimately becoming the sad epitome of a political genius, seduced by the evil Jacobites.

Wharton’s Hell Fire Club came to an abrupt end in 1721, when Walpole’s government brought a Proclamation against the ‘obscene’ club, swiftly closing it down.  They failed to convict anyone for being a member, and imitations of the club subsequently blossomed, notably in Dublin, where a Hell Fire Club, founded by the notorious Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse, gambled, whored and supposedly dabbled in the occult, until the 1780s.[vi]  Parsons was also Grand Master of Ireland in 1725.

There was also the infamous club, which Sir Francis Dashwood created, which met at Medmenham Abbey and at West Wycomb, which incidentally was only given the name of the Hell Fire Club long after its demise.  Scottish style Hell Fire clubs also appeared, notably the Beggar’s Benison Club, which was founded near Fife in 1732 and, like Dashwood’s club, only attained notoriety, much later.[vii]


Sir Francis Dashwood, Hell Fire, the Masonic Room and West Wycombe

Dashwood became personally involved in the design of his mansion at West Wycombe, which had two Palladian porticos and boasted a number of small temples within the estate. The Hall also had a mysterious ‘Masonic Room’, which is still a private family room, though, as the name suggests, strong traditions of Masonic-like secret societies were present within the family.  However, there are no records which link Dashwood to Freemasonry.  Erstwhile members of Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club, also known as the Monks of Medmenham, who were Freemasons, include Benjamin Franklin, who was known to have stayed with Dashwood at his mansion at West Wycomb, and John Wilkes, the MP who was exiled due to his libellous essay in No.45 of The North Briton.[viii]

In the early 1740s, mock processions were organised by opponents of the new Grand Lodge; this ‘Mock Masonry’ ridiculing the procession to the Grand Feast through London, which was discontinued in April 1745. The ‘mock’ processions unsurprisingly ended around the same time.  One of the instigators of ‘Mock Masonry’ was the erstwhile poet Paul Whitehead, who was an associate of Hogarth, and also a member of Dashwood’s, Hell Fire Club.  It has been suggested that Whitehead may have been a Freemason himself who had failed to acquire a much-desired office.[ix]

There is no written evidence that has yet come to light, suggesting that the ‘Masonic Room’ was used for Masonic meetings, but it certainly celebrates the symbolism of Freemasonry, with the 18th century plastered ceiling of the room decorated with prominent Masonic imagery, such as the compasses.  This ceiling decoration is very similar to that of the library at Shugborough Hall, in Staffordshire, with the compasses featuring as a prominent symbol there.

Shugborough Hall was owned by Thomas Anson, a friend and associate of Dashwood, both sharing a fascination of the classical architecture of the ancients.  Thomas Anson also co-founded the Dillettanti Society and the Divan Club with Dashwood, and introduced the infamous Shepherds Monument to his gardens, which, like the monuments around Medmenham and West Wycombe, displayed Classical and Masonic overtones, presenting a ‘secret puzzle’ in the form of an encrypted Latin code.  The Dillettanti Society was established especially for young gentlemen who had been on the Grand Tour, with the aim of studying the architecture and the artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome, Dashwood obviously drawing from his experiences on the Tour.

Dashwood had the famous caves constructed in the 1740s, where he could hold his secret meetings and weekend parties, the labyrinth-like-caves leading to a chamber called the Inner Temple, which was situated directly beneath the local Church of St. Lawrence.  The interior of the church was copied from the Sun Temple at Palmyra, which was built in the third century AD, and a golden ball was placed on top of the tower of the church by Dashwood.  A mausoleum was also constructed near the church.

The entrance to the caves is dominated by a Gothic folly, imitating a ruined monastery, though two pillars stand above the entrance itself, creating a curious reminder of the Classical influence.  Before one reached the Inner Temple, they would have to cross a water channel, which symbolised the River Styx, which was the river that supposedly separated our world from the underworld.  Dashwood’s caves are also reminiscent of the caverns described by Bacon in his New Atlantis, where the investigations of Solomon’s House were pursued and secret knowledge was sought.  Dashwood’s caves may have influenced other folly-like tunnels, such as the tunnels in Liverpool created by Joseph Williamson after the Napoleonic Wars.  Williamson’s tunnels also have a central ‘banqueting hall’, and there are local traditions of Williamson using the tunnels to meet his cohorts.

Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club had met at the Gothic, Medmenham Abbey, which was a mediaeval structure that had been rebuilt.  This rebuilding, had been directed by Dashwood himself, who had classical temples and naked statues erected in the ‘pleasure gardens’, and had secret caves dug, in a similar fashion to the caves he would construct at West Wycombe. There was a Roman Room, in which hung portraits of famous prostitutes, and two marble pillars were constructed, reminiscent at a glance to the two pillars of Boaz and Jachin, except in this case, the pillars at Medmenham Abbey were adorned with pornographic ‘bastard Latin’ inscriptions.

The Abbey was the scene of secret sexual and ritualistic enjoyment by the Monks of Medmenham, with prostitutes and local girls, who were dressed as nuns. Dashwood’s ‘Monks’ indulged themselves accordingly.[x]  The Hell Fire gatherings finally moved to West Wycombe, supposedly after complaints by the suspicious locals.

These ritualistic parties, set within a landscape that celebrated the divinity of architecture, embodied the celebration of Nature, and the Deistic and enlightened spirit of natural pleasures, reflecting the Roman orgies of antiquity.  It seems that radicalism during the 18th century was entwined with a rebellious attitude towards tradition attitudes of morality; the Hell Fire Club, symbolising a fashionable celebration of liberty.  Dashwood’s gatherings certainly influenced other outrageous clubs to be founded at other country estates, such as the Demoniacks, which met at John Hall Stevenson’s Skelton Castle, in Yorkshire, which he renamed Crazy Castle, reflecting the antics that the club got up to there.

The practices of the Hell Fire Club and Freemasonry seem poles apart; though at the core of Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club was the ethos of liberty, the praise of architecture, and the enlightened vision of the eighteenth century mind.  The fact that a small number of the ‘Monks’ were (or may have been) Freemasons only produces a tentative connection, but the spirit and essence of the various Hell Fire Clubs that were founded in the eighteenth century, give an insight into the fashion to create clubs anywhere and for any reason.  Freemasonry certainly formed a part of this ‘clubbing’ fashion during this period, and was certainly an influence on some of the members.

The entrance to the 'Hell Fire' caves

The Dashwood Mausoleum

St Lawrence's Church

The picturesque village of West Wycombe

[i] See Margaret Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981).
[ii] James Anderson, Constitutions of the Ancient & Honourable Fraternity of Free & Accepted Masons, (London: G. Kearsly, 1769), p.203-5.
[iii] See G. Treasure, ‘Cowper, William, first earl of Cowper, (1665-1723)’, DNB, 2004.
[iv]Anderson, Constitutions, (London: 1769), p.203-5. Also see A. Whitaker, History of No.4 The Royal Somerset House and Inverness Lodge, (London: Bernard Quaritch Ltd., 1928), p.12.
[v] M. Blackett-Ord, Hell-Fire Duke: The Life of the Duke of Wharton, (Berkshire: The Kensall Press, 1982), pp.199-200. Also see Whitaker, History of No.4 The Royal Somerset House and Inverness Lodge, p.9.
[vi] See J. Kelly, ‘Parsons, Lawrence, second earl of Rosse, (1758-1841)’, DNB, 2004. The third earl of Rosse, William Parsons, was the celebrated astronomer.
[vii] See David Stevenson, The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and Their Rituals, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001).
[viii] George Rudé, Wilkes and Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p.19.
[ix] W.J. Chetwode Crawley, ‘Mock Masonry In The Eighteenth Century’, AQC, Vol.XVIII, (1905), pp.128-46.
[x] See Geoffrey Ashe, The Hell Fire Clubs, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000).

This article is copyright to Dr David Harrison, 2014.
The above article first appeared in The Square, 2014.

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