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10 July 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

Eating cats and toasting dwarfs: Hellfire, the secret club parliament banned 31 years before it started

Comedian Tim FitzHigham looks into the dark history of the Hellfire Club, the only club in world history to be banned by an act of parliament.

By Tim Fitz Higham

Tim FitzHigham will be performing his show about the Hellfire Club at the Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Say the word “Hellfire” and many people will shrug. Some might drift into the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and 1968.  Put “Hellfire Club” into a search engine and make sure the image search is off; there’s a current organisation that hosts “adult swingers parties for discerning couples”.

I’ve spent a year plunged into the deepest recesses of the Hellfire Club and neither of the above have featured. What does appear is a crazier world than even Arthur Brown could have hoped for.

Walpurgis Eve 1752 was a vital date. Walpurgis is associated with witchcraft and the festival of Beltane. Witches, fire, Morris Men with faces disguised in black paint or ivy. It’s a pagan time of year. A time traditionally when the Christian church seemed to recede for a day and, more importantly, a night. 

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On Walpurgis Eve 1752, a Lord Flashheart-style British baronet fond of great wine, loose women and bull-whipping Catholics invited a very exclusive bunch of people (both men and women, unusual for a club at that time) to his home in Buckinghamshire. The bacchanalian orgy that followed passed into legend and the notorious Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood was born. But like many “facts” about this most secret club, the truth is slightly hidden from view.

Popularly defined, the Hellfire Club was simply an 18th-century drinking club devoted to deflowering maidens, eating cats and toasting dwarfs founded 1752 by Dashwood; a more aristocratic, more debauched version of paler imposters like the Bullingdon Club or the Dublin Street Irregulars. If it was as simple as that, why, and importantly how, did the British government pass a law banning the club in 1721, 31 years before it started? The Hellfire Club is the only club in world history to be outlawed by an act of parliament.

The foundation date has always worried me. So I dug further through snippets of gossip in newspapers, books, biographies, land transfer documents and the myriad web-sightings of Hellfire. This led me to 1719 being a more reliable foundation date for the Hellfire Club. If 1719 is accurate then it had only been going for two years before being outlawed. To have worried the establishment that much in just two years is quite an achievement. Dashwood was not the original founder of the club. It was apparently Philip, Duke of Wharton.

Wharton’s biographer said, “he’s two men: one a man of letters, and two; a drunkard, a rioter, an infidel and a rake”. I make that five men. Wharton was a legend. A man who sold his dukedom back to George I in order to finance declaring war on George I. He managed to line up Austria, Spain and Russia behind him to land thousands of troops and take Britain. To celebrate, he got drunk and told the secret plan to George I’s ambassador, causing Russia and Spain to get cold feet. He was only sober for one month of his life and that’s what killed him. But dig a little further and he’s not the founder of the Hellfire Club either.

Philip Wharton’s father “Honest Tom” Wharton in 1682 was at a meeting of the Hellfire Club convened by a mysterious Mr Bray. They got smashed, deflowered maidens and desecrated a church. This meeting took place a full 70 years before Dashwood “founded the Hellfire Club”.

Perhaps Hellfire is as old as some people suggest. An over-2000 year old cult dating back to before the meeting where Julius Caesar’s wife was deflowered. Just like Dashwood’s Club, this cult drank blood out of a cup from an alter table made by balancing a tray on a woman. Perhaps Hellfire was an ancient secret cult that only became public knowledge in the 17th and 18th centuries, as the men put in charge of it were insane. When a club is devoted to hell-raising, orgies and degeneracy, getting committee members is always going to be difficult.

The more I looked into Hellfire, the further into Freemasonry, the Illuminati (Dashwood was one of the “law of five” inner council of Illuminati), the foundations of America, France and the modern banking system I got.

But what was this insanely powerful club designed to protect? And how successful was it at protecting its secrets?

Before you back away from this article and fear for my health, all I can say is come and see what I found out before I get prevented from telling anyone anything more…

Tim FitzHigham is a British comedian and artist. He will be performing Hellfire at the Edinburgh Fringe:

VENUE: Pleasance Dome – Bristo Square                                

TIME: 6:40pm                                                         

DATES & PRICES: Previews: 30th July – 1st August @ £7

2nd-25th August (not 13th) @ £9.50 / £8.50 – £11 / £10

TICKETS: 0131 556 6550 /


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