The hell fire clubs were a satanic, or perhaps pseudo-satanic, extrapolation of the clubs frequented by young members of the aristocracy which engaged in often violent and sometimes murderous pranks against unfortunate victims with impunity because of their social standing and economic position. Drinking and whoring were also standard activities for these clubs. The hell fire clubs took the debauchery one step further by adding black masses and other satanic rites to their repertoire.
The Seventeenth century context in which the hell fire clubs were formed was the same as that which saw the creation and development of Grand Lodge, the umbrella body which would come to oversee a dramatic growth in the number of Masonic lodges so it is not surprising that there were overlaps in the memberships of the two types of organisation. The hell fire clubs took their generic name from that of one early example of their type. The Hell Fire Club was founded in 1719 by two prominent Freemasons; the Duke of Wharton and George Lee, the Earl of Litchfield. This club initially met in the Greyhound Tavern in London and later at another drinking hole called the George and Vulture.
Another Freemason and a close friend of the Duke of Wharton, the Earl of Rosse was instrumental behind establishing the Dublin Hell Fire Club. Rosse subsequently became the Grand Master of Ireland’s Freemasons.
By 1722 both the government (in 1919) and Grand Lodge had condemned the Hell Fire Club and similar societies for their disruptive activities and effectively driven the former underground. Nevertheless, despite his known association with the Hell Fire Club, Wharton was able to secure election as Grand Master of the English Grand Lodge and served in this position from 1722 to 1723.
Wharton’s period as Grand Master was undistinguished and he seems to have gained a reputation for being a liability. His support for Freemasonry continued for several years afterwards however and his most important contribution was perhaps in 1928 when, by virtue of establishing a lodge in Madrid he introduced the fraternity to Spain. In that same year Wharton, who was evidently spending much of his time on the continent, became the first Grand Master of Freemasonry in France.
Wharton’s relationship with Freemasonry appears to have blown hot and cold. Prior to becoming a Masonic ‘missionary’ in spain, Wharton probably founded and at the very least became a member of a rival fraternity known as the Society of Gormogons. The Gormogons were outspokenly anti-Masonic whilst parodying Freemasonry in their own activities.
Just as Freemasonry had its legend, so did the Gormogons, claiming to have been founded by the first Chinese Emperor. It was in fact probably founded in 1724. Freemasons who joined the Gormogons were expected to renounce Masonry and burn their Masonic apron and gloves immediately prior to their initiation into the Gormogons. Newspaper reports at the time claim that several Masons went through this process and at least one of these seems to have been Wharton.
The Gormogons met in the Castle Tavern, Fleet Street, London and claimed the Czar of Russia among their initiates. Despite much media hype at the time and speculation since the Gormogons seem to have been little more than an anti-Masonic prank. As such they set a pattern for hell fire club members ridiculing Freemasonry through stunts.
Wharton's love hate relationship with Freemasonry seems to have done him little harm in establishment circles as, in 1741, he became a Knight of the Garter.
The most well known of the Hell Fire Clubs was the Order of St. Francis, named after their charismatic founder Sir Francis Dashwood, member of Parliament and a Freemason. Dashwood, along with eleven others (collectively dubbed the Unholy Twelve) founded their club sometime in the mid 1740’s. From 1750 they met at a disused Cistercian abbey at Medmenham. Meetings began with a black mass and ended with an orgy with a variety of other dubious entertainments in between.
Dashwood’s Franciscans included many of the establishment figures of the day including a prime minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and at least one other cabinet minister. Aside from Dashwood amongst those who held duel membership with the Freemasons were the politician John Wilkes, the artist William Hogarth and the American polymath Benjamin Franklin.
Another Freemason and Franciscan was the intriguing Chevalier D’Eon. D’Eon was androgenous and provoked no end of curiosity in both France and Britain at the time. D’Eon exploited his reputation and as a result was able to move in high society. It was a dangerous game however. Such was the curiosity about his (or her) true nature and the intensity of debate surrounding it, that many began betting on D’Eon’s true sex and huge sums were soon riding on the result. Fearing that he would be kidnapped by those wishing to settle the debate (and possibly win their wagers) D’Eon sought protection and received it from no less a person than a Masonic Grand Master, Lord Ferrers, who held that post from 1762 to 1764.
D’Eon was actually a member of a French lodge L’Immortalite de l’Ordre. His membership of the Order of St. Francis appears to have been marginal but as someone who bucked sexual convention simply by being himself he was likely to always have been a welcome guest at the Order’s meetings.
One of the less priviledged members of the Order was Paul Whitehead. Whitehead was a writer and a satirist. In 1742 in collaboration with one Henry Carey, virtually unknown today but in fact the man who write the lyrics to the national anthem), Whitehead set up a parade of beggers, prostitutes and others, all wearing Masonic regalia to walk the proposed route of a Masonic procession immediately prior to the Masons themselves.
The effect of the bogus procession was just as Whitehead and Carey desired, much ridicule was heaped upon the fraternity with the media dubbing Whitehead and Carey’s procession the ‘scald and miserable Masons’. Similar stunts at Freemasonry’s expense were organised in the following years and so embarassed were the Masons that Whitehead and Carey’s joke and its aftermath would have a legacy lasting until today. In 1747 having suffered several years of ridicule Grand Lodge decreed that none of its members should participate in public processions wearing Masonic regalia. Ironically this measure, aimed at protecting the fraternity from ridicule, has only served to hide Freemasonry behind lodge doors and thus invite even more negative speculation about what Masons really do in their secret world.
A history produced by the United Grand Lodge of England for its 250th anniversary, Grand Lodge 1717-1967, cited the explanation for this prohibition, from a 1784 copy of the Constitutions:
“The occassion for this prudent regulation was, that some unfaithful brethren disappointed in their expectations of high offices and honours of the society, had joined a number of buffoons of the day, in a sceme to exhibit a mockery of the public procession to the grand feast.”
This might imply that Whitehead had been a Mason. If indeed Whitehead had been disappointed in his expectations of high office within Freemasonry, he need not have worried where the Order of St. Francis was concerned. Despite the presence of many Freemasons among their number already, Dashwood and the Franciscans heartily approved of Whitehead’s sense of humour and invited him to join the Order. Moreover Whitehead soon became the Order’s secretary.