Eighteenth-century Europe was a period in which clubs and societies abounded. In an age before that most modern types of entertainment, the moving screen of cinema and television, many people spent their leisure time either in taverns or pubs.
But for the upper class of British society, there was an increasingly snobbish desire to establish societal houses where individuals could socialize with each other on a membership basis.
Easily the most famous of these eighteenth-century clubs was that of the Freemasons, who, in a longstanding conspiracy theory, have variously been deemed to be pulling the strings of the economic and political world down to the present day. But there was an equally controversial fraternal society established in Britain during the eighteenth century: the Hellfire Club.
The First Hellfire Club
There is some dispute as to where the first Hellfire Club emerged from, with differing interpretations suggesting various origins in both England and Ireland. One of the more common erroneous suggestions is that it was first founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, a notorious English rake of the early eighteenth century from a wealthy family. He became a Chancellor of the British Exchequer in later life.
Dashwood did indeed set up what he called (to quote) ‘A cultural interest organization.’ The qualifications for joining at the time were that one simply needed to have visited Italy in what was known by British upper-class society as the Grand Tour and spend most of their waking hours partially or severely intoxicated.
This was somewhat akin to modern fraternal societies in some universities where there is a heavy emphasis on heavy drinking culture. But, Dashwood did not establish the Hellfire Club. Rather the organization he was responsible for was a closely aligned group called the Dilettanti Society.
While Dashwood has often mistakenly been perceived as the founder of the Hellfire Club, there is a growing consensus that the first Hellfire Club was established by Philip, the first Duke of Wharton in England, in 1719.
He was a highly controversial character, a libertine who was given to excessive consumption of alcohol and a rejection of the typical social mores of the mid-eighteenth century. He attracted other members of the British nobility to his wayward lifestyle. However, in 1721, just two years after its initial establishment in England, the Hellfire Club was prohibited by order of King George I. Consequently, the Hellfire Club moved its activities to a considerable extent across the Irish Sea to Ireland. As such, the origins of the Hellfire Club, which survived this earlier ban, largely lie in the smaller of the two islands on the Atlantic Archipelago.
Moving to Ireland
Ireland had long been the most recalcitrant part of the British Empire. English colonization of the neighboring island began in the late twelfth century. It continued fitfully for over four centuries before the Irish lordship was fully conquered in the early seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, a governing class of ethnically English Protestants, known as the Protestant Ascendancy, had come to dominate the island in the form of cultural, economic, and social apartheid.
They were very wealthy and had lots of time on their hands. In this context, a branch of the Hellfire Club emerged near the capital of Dublin about twenty years after Wharton had established the first Hellfire Club in England.
The members of the Irish Hellfire Club were rumored to engage in Satanic rituals while becoming severely intoxicated on a beverage known as scaltheen, a mix of hot whiskey and melted butter.
The attendees were even said to leave an empty chair for the Devil! Occasionally, their meetings were held in Dublin, at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill in the shadow of Dublin Castle, the seat of the British government in Ireland. Curiously enough, the Eagle Tavern also served as a meeting point for the Freemasons and other secret societies of the time, such as the Hanover Club, highlighting the manner in which such societies were central to upper-middle-class society in the Age of the Enlightenment.
Eventually, however, the Irish Hellfire Club made their base of operations at a secluded country lodge towards the top of the Wicklow Mountains, a significant mountain range to the south of Dublin city. Called Montpelier Hill, the lodge here was sold in the early 1730s to one of the heads of the Irish branch of the Hellfire Club, William Connolly, by Lord Wharton, the founder of the English Hellfire Club and became the meeting place for the Irish Hellfire Club. Wharton attended sporadically despite largely being based out of England.
Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club
However, perhaps the most notorious Hellfire Club to emerge in the eighteenth century was founded by a figure we’ve seen already. In 1755 Sir Francis Dashwood, who had founded the Dilettanti Society many years earlier, decided to set up a new branch of the Hellfire Club at the remains of an old Cistercian monastery on the outskirts of London on the banks of the River Thames.
This branch made the society as notorious as it became as Dashwood and his associates continued the tradition of heavy drinking and debauchery that had characterized the earlier Dilettanti Society. They became well-known amongst the British upper-class for their drunkenness and immoral behavior. As was the case in Wharton’s group and the Irish branch twenty years earlier, it was reviled for its alleged Satanic-rituals.
The Hellfire Club survived well beyond the first incarnations established by Wharton in the 1710s, Connolly, and others in Ireland in the 1720s, and Dashwood near London in the 1750s. In 1781, for instance, Dashwood’s nephew, Joseph Anderson, set up the Phoenix Society at Oxford, which was effectively a new version of the Hellfire Club under a different name.
This continues to be a part of university life at Oxford over 240 years later. Similarly, the Hellfire Club is still in existence in Ireland and has associations with Trinity College, Dublin, and University College, Dublin. Thus, the link between these hard-drinking high societies of the eighteenth century and college fraternities of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries remains strong.
Patrick Woodland, ‘Dashwood, Sir Francis’, in Brian Harrison and H.C.G. Matthew (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 60 Vols. (Oxford, 2004).
Geoffrey Ashe, The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality (London, 2005); Evelyn Lord, The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies (New Haven, Connecticut, 2008); Will Thomas, The Hellfire Conspiracy (London, 2007).
James Kelly and Martin Powell (eds), Clubs and Societies in Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin, 2010); David Ryan, Blasphemers and Blackguards: The Irish Hellfire Clubs (Dublin, 2012).