The Rather Haunted ”Hell Fire Caves”!

West Wycombe Caves (also known as the Hell-Fire 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.

They were excavated between 1748 and 1752 for the infamous Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer (2nd Baronet), founder of the Dilettanti Society and co-founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, whose meetings were held in the caves.[1]

They have been operating as a tourist attraction since 1951 and have attracted over 2 million visitors since their reopening.

The caves run deep into the hillside above West Wycombe village and directly beneath St Lawrence’s Church and Mausoleum (which were also constructed by Sir Francis Dashwood around the same time the caves were excavated). West Wycombe Park, ancestral seat of the Dashwood family and also a National Trust property, lies directly across the valley. The caves’ striking entrance, designed as the façade of a mock gothic church and built from flint and chalk mortar, which was erected in around 1752, can be viewed directly from West Wycombe House.

Design and Layout
The unusual design of the caves was much inspired by Sir Francis Dashwood’s visits to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria and other areas of the Ottoman Empire during his Grand Tour. The caves extend a quarter of a mile (400 metres) underground, with the individual caves or “chambers” connected by a series of long, narrow tunnels and passageways.

A route through the underground chambers proceeds, from the Entrance Hall, to the Steward’s Chamber and Whitehead’s Cave, through Lord Sandwich’s Circle (named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich), Franklin’s Cave (named after Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Dashwood who visited West Wycombe), the Banqueting Hall (allegedly the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world), the Triangle, to the Miner’s Cave; and finally, across a subterranean river named the Styx, lies the final cave, the Inner Temple, where the meetings of the Hellfire Club were held, and which is said to lie 300 feet (90 metres) directly beneath the church on top of West Wycombe hill. In Greek mythology, the River Styx separated the mortal world from Hades, and the subterranean position of the Inner Temple directly beneath St Lawrence’s Church was supposed to signify Heaven and Hell.

An alternative viewpoint was advanced by Daniel P. Mannix in his book about The Hellfire Club. This theory suggests that the caves had been intentionally created by Dashwood according to a sexual design. The design begins at the ‘womb’ of the Banqueting Hall, leading to rebirth through the female triangle, followed by baptism in the River Styx and the pleasures thereafter of the Inner Temple. This theory is not mentioned in National Trust literature and is allegedly refuted by the Dashwood family. The theory that the caves resulted from flint mining is also questionable because the Chiltern Hills flint bed overlays the chalk escarpment and does not have to be mined, except by means of small open flint dells, of which there are many in the area.

History of the Caves
Alteration and extension of the CavesA chalk mine of supposedly ancient origin is believed to have existed above West Wycombe for centuries.

During the late 1740s, to try to combat local poverty, Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project to supply chalk for a straight three mile (5 km) road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe (then on the busy London-Oxford road, now the A40). Local farm workers, impoverished by a succession of droughts and failed harvests, were employed at one shilling per day (enough to sustain a family in the Georgian era) to tunnel beneath ground and mine chalk and flint. The chalk was used to build the West Wycombe-High Wycombe road and also houses in the village and the church and Mausoleum. Considering they were all dug by hand, the caves are often regarded as an incredible feat of engineering.

The Hellfire Club
18th century Italianate home of Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the notorious Hellfire Club.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. Though not believed to have been a member, Benjamin Franklin was a close friend of Dashwood who visited the caves on more than one occasion. The Hellfire Club had previously used Medmenham Abbey, 8 miles (13 km) away from West Wycombe on the River Thames, as a meeting place, but the caves at West Wycombe were used for meetings in the 1750s and early 1760s.

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. The members addressed each other as “Brothers” and the leader, who changed regularly, as “Abbot”. During meetings members supposedly wore ritual clothing: white trousers, jacket and cap; while the “Abbot” wore a red ensemble of the same style. Many rumours of black magic, satanic rituals and orgies were in circulation during the life of the club. Other clubs, especially in Ireland and Scotland, were rumoured to take part in far more dubious activities. Rumours saw female “guests” (a euphemism for prostitutes) referred to as “nuns”. Dashwood’s club meetings often included mock rituals, pornographic materials, much drinking, wenching and banqueting.

Downfall of the Hellfire Club
The early 1760s saw the downfall of Dashwood’s exclusive club.

In 1762 the Earl of Bute appointed Dashwood his Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite Dashwood being widely thought to be incapable of understanding “a bar bill of five figures”. Dashwood resigned the post the next year, having raised a tax on cider which caused near-riots. Dashwood now sat in the House of Lords after succeeding to the title of Baron Le Despencer.

In 1763 the authorities tried to arrest John Wilkes for seditious libel against the King in the notorious issue No. 45 of his The North Briton in 1763. During a search authorised by a General Warrant (possibly set up by Sandwich, who wanted to get rid of Wilkes), a version of The Essay on Woman was discovered set up on the press of a printer whom Wilkes had almost certainly used. The work was almost certainly principally written by Thomas Potter, and from internal evidence can be dated to around 1755. It was scurrilous, blasphemous, libellous, and pornographic, unquestionably illegal under the laws of the time, and the Government subsequently used it to drive Wilkes into exile.

Between 1760 and 1765 Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea by Charles Johnstone was published. It contained stories easily identified with the doings of the Hellfire Club, in one of which Lord Sandwich was ridiculed as having mistaken a monkey for the Devil. This book sparked the association between the Medmenham Monks and the Hellfire Club. By this time, many of the Friars were either dead or too far away for the Club to continue as it did before.

The Hellfire Club was finished by 1766.

Disuse and re-use as a tourist attraction
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 dilapidated West Wycombe Park.

West Wycombe Caves have had over 2 million visitors since they reopened in 1951, and continue to be a popular attraction today.

There has been much paranormal interest and many ghost stories about the West Wycombe caves. The two most common of these are as follows:

Paul Whitehead
Paul Whitehead, a close friend of Sir Francis Dashwood, had been the Secretary and Steward to the Hellfire Club. When he died in 1774, as his will requested, his heart was placed in an elegant marble urn (costing £50) in the Mausoleum at West Wycombe by Sir Francis Dashwood. It was sometimes taken out to display to visitors, but was allegedly stolen in 1829 by an Australian soldier. Legend holds that the ghost of Whitehead haunts West Wycombe Caves and Hill, searching for his heart. Numerous visitors and staff have reported seeing a man in old-fashioned clothing wandering the passageways. When faced he is said to vanish into thin air.

The White Lady
Another well-attested local legend is the tale of Sukie, the White Lady: Sukie (short for Susan) was a 16 year old maid at the local George and Dragon Inn in the late 18th or early 19th century. She was apparently by far the most appealing of the serving staff, and many local men vied for the girl’s affections. But Sukie had ambitions to marry into society, and rejected the advances of all her local admirers. She began dating a local aristocrat, and one day she got a message, apparently from her lover, asking her to meet him in the caves one night wearing her best white dress as a wedding gown. She arrived in candlelight and in her white dress, but it was a hoax by three village boys. She threw stones in fury at her laughing tormentors, but when one of the boys threw one back, she was knocked unconscious. Shocked at what they had done, the boys carried her back to her bed in the inn, but she died during the night. The caves and inn are reputed to be haunted by her ghost, and many staff and visitors have reported sighting a girl in a wedding dress wandering the passageways.

West Wycombe Caves on TV
In 2004 and 2007 West Wycombe Caves were visited by British and American paranormal reality TV shows Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters. Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures visited the site in 2012 as part of the episode, “Hellfire Cave.” The caves were also featured on Great British Ghosts in January 2012.


About Andrew

Co-founder & lead investigator of Paranormal Encounters. I've experienced the paranormal all my life, having encountered ghosts, angels and demons. I live in a haunted house and when not exploring and researching the unknown, I enjoy single malt Scotch whisky & potato chips (though not necessarily at the same time).