A few months ago, I blogged about the most exclusive and famous (or infamous) gentleman's clubs of Regency England - and I promised you all I'd get to the Hellfire Club. My apologies for my tardiness (which is something no member of such a club likely ever said), but I've finally found time to research a little more on this for you guys.
The first thing I found out, was that The Hellfire Club was not one organisation, but several. In fact the first of the hellfire clubs was founded in 1718, so well before the Regency period began. The founder was Philip, Duke of Wharton who took for his group the motto 'Do as they wilt'. It sounds better in the Latin: Fais ce que tu voudras and is apparently a quote from Rabelais's Theleme, a scandalous novel featuring a fictional abbey where equally scandalous 'rituals' took place. Ah writers - inspiration to the debauched, as well as the divine.
The Duke of Wharton's Hellfire Club:
Wharton's club was set up as a satirical comment on the staid and correct gentleman's clubs of the time. The president was 'the Devil', and activites included mock-religious rites involving dishes such as 'Holy Ghost Pie' and 'Breast of Venus'. Meetings were held at members' homes because - in a huge departure from propriety for the time - membership included both men and women, and women could not be seen in taverns. Further scandal ensued when the club defined its meeting days as Sundays, in a direct and deliberate challenge to the Church. The members did nothing that could be called satanic, thought their activities were clearly blasphemous. Meetings were attended in fancy dress, usually Biblical characters.
It must be remembered that blasphemy was a trend at the time, and if these descriptions sound like a bunch of grown adults coming together to make fun of 'proper morality' in a childish way, then I can only say I agree with you. That said, Wharton's Club was never intended to offend - but he clearly did because in 1721 the King (George I), put forth a bill to parliament forbidding 'horrid impieties'. It was common knowledge that this was aimed at the Hellfire Club. Wharton also found himself in political trouble for his joke that had clearly gone too far. It isn't certain when his club disbanded, but by 1722 he became Grand Master of the Freemasons.
The Scot’s hold fire:
The Scots hold the record for the longest-lasting club of this ilk, though it wasn’t officially known as a Hellfire Club. Founded in 1730, The Beggar’s Benison is described as ‘a likeminded sex and drinking club’. It began in Anstruther. Additional chapters sprang up in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The Scots had the good sense to confer an honour art membership on the Prince of Wales in 1783 - the man who would become the Regent less than a decade later, and eventually King a George IV. This lent the club some favour and likely protected it from further scrutiny.
In fact, so touched was the honorary royal member, that he gifted the club a snuff box filled with his mistress’s pubic hair. It does not say which mistress, but suffice it to say, this was a club that greatly appealed to the Regent (I’m betting it was Mrs Fitzherbert.)
The return of British Hellfire:
The first British Hellfire Club may have ended quietly, but you know what they say: you can’t keep a good rake down. Enter Sir Francis Dashwood, and his equally interesting friend, the Earl of Sandwich. These gentlemen (among others who were smart enough not to leave their names for posterity) met regularly at an inn throughout the 1730s.
In 1746 these gentlemen of the peerage founded the Order of the Knights of St Francis. It’s rumoured that Benjamin Franklin was a member of the order, and attended meetings in 1758, so the club had at least a lifespan of a decade. I’m going to devote a post to this one in September because it’s a much longer story.