The hellfire caves were originally made for Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe hall. Dashwood was the leader of a notorious hellfire club known as the Knights of St Francis who would meet secretly and perform rituals mocking the popular religions of the time. There would also be excessive drinking and casual fornication with prostitutes and the equivalent of 18th-century groupies.
The entrance to the caves is designed like a church, and the tunnels spread out under the hill linking many chambers, mazes and even an underground river. Ironically, there is a real church built on top of the hill.
As you wander deeper into the caves, you’ll suddenly notice that there are strange faces, skulls and imps carved into the stones and chalk of the walls. Once you realise that they are there, you start to see them everywhere. There are those that claim that the senior members of the club were expected to carve their faces into the wall as part of the ceremony mocking the statues of saints found in churches.
There is the suggestion that these were made by the original flint miners, but this is unlikely. The reality is that life was pretty harsh for the common folk back in 1751 and after a back-breaking day of shovelling and hauling chalk to the surface the last thing on your mind is to carve some random faces. (But … who knows for sure.) It’s also worth noting that carvings such as these do not exist in other such quarries.
The truth is that nobody really knows what took place both at the caves and at Medmenham Abbey and it is now widely believed that all the records were burnt by Paul Whitehead (along with his own works) three days before he died.
However, if you read authors such as Daniel Mannix then these caves were a hotbed of demon worship, human sacrifice, and the seduction of virgins. If you read other sources, then you will perceive a different view. Libertines and radical liberalism amongst the upper-classes were all part of the rich but drunken tapestry of life in the 1700’s. Secret societies were all the rage and the “must-have” accessory of the time. In addition, prostitution and mistress-keeping was a far more accepted activity then than it is today.