Sir Francis Dashwood
Colourful aristocrat who owned the West Wycombe Estate and founded the Hellfire Club. Lived at West Wycombe Park.
Link with the Chilterns
Lived at West Wycombe Park
11 December 1781
Sir Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer, created the house and grounds that can be seen today at West Wycombe Park. He led a very full life, founding the notorious Hellfire Club but also pursuing a political career which led to him being Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762-1763.
He was very influenced by the Grand Tour of Europe which he undertook in 1726. He travelled widely during his life and spent much time in Italy where he acquired a passionate interest in the art and culture of classical antiquity. He also acquired a taste for high living and in 1732 he was one of the founders of the Society of Dilettanti. The Society promoted classical art in England, but was also a dining club for wealthy gentlemen with Sir Francis helping to establish its reputation for excess.
Sir Francis’ travels inspired him to make improvements at West Wycombe Park. A group of classical buildings, including Venus’s Temple, was erected in the garden between 1745 and 1748. From the late 1740s major modifications were made to the house which gradually transformed it from a redbrick pile into a Palladian-style villa. A double colonnade was added to the south front, and an elaborate portico supported by pillars was added to the east end of the house. Inside some of the ceilings were painted with frescos by an Italian artist.
In the early 1750s Sir Francis burrowed chalk out of West Wycombe Hill to provide the materials for straightening the main road (now the A40) which runs alongside West Wycombe Park. The resulting caves in the hill were extended and became a curious addition to the estate. They are now called the Hellfire Caves and are open to the public. The tower of the church on West Wycombe Hill was rebuilt in 1752 and a large golden globe placed on top of it.
Sir Francis’ libertine side was expressed in his formation of the Hellfire Club, a private club populated by many of his cronies, which was properly known as the Monks of Medmenham. From about 1750 they held their meetings at Medmenham Abbey on the Thames. There is much exaggerated legend about their activities but they may well have indulged in mock-religious ceremonies and certainly ate and drank a great deal. There were many rumours about devil worship taking place but no evidence to support this.
Contrasting with his private pursuit of excess, Sir Francis devoted much time to public service. He was an MP for some years and held the post of joint-Postmaster General from 1766 until his death.
Improvements to the park and house at West Wycombe continued throughout his life. In 1774 a statue of William Penn was placed on the roof of the Sawmill. It is possible this was in part inspired by the regular visits of Benjamin Franklin, who was a good friend of Sir Francis and enjoyed the intelligent conversation of his well-travelled and worldly-wise host.
Sir Francis Dashwood died in 1781 at the age of 73 and was buried in the Mausoleum next to the Church of St Lawrence on West Wycombe Hill.
More information on the Hell-Fire Caves.
What you can visit
West Wycombe House and Park is owned by the National Trust and is open to visit in the summer.
West Wycombe village is also owned by the National Trust and has cottages and inns dating from the 16th-18th centuries. It also has a number of interesting shops.
The Church of St Lawrence and the Dashwood Mausoleum on the top of West Wycombe Hill are free to visit.
The Hell-Fire Caves under West Wycombe Hill are a visitor attraction open all year round where you can wander through caves and tunnels and learn all about the legends of the Hellfire Club.