John Montagu was a man with a highly interesting lifestyle. While his name is now more commonly associated with food, his life was full of dealings that were considerably… darker. The 4th Earl of Sandwich, is credited with the creation of the culinary masterpiece that is the sandwich. This father of sandwiches was a politician, a soldier, a husband and a father, and on the weekends, he was a member of a club rumoured to be involved with black magic and the Devil.
The Hellfire Club was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood for distinguished gentlemen to engage in immoral acts considered unacceptable by society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the members were politicians.
The Earl of Sandwich and his fellow members met in the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The caves were built by the founder of the club, Sir Francis Dashwood. There are a number of caverns in the man-made cave system. The Entrance Hall leads to the Steward’s Chamber and Whitehead’s Cave. Next are Lord Sandwich’s Circle and Franklin’s Cave (named after John Montagu and Benjamin Franklin respectively). Then there is the banqueting hall, rumoured to be the largest man-made chalk cavern in the world. After a few more caves, the path crosses a subterranean river known as the Styx, after the mythological Greek river separating the mortal world from Hades. Beyond the Styx is the final cave, known as the Inner Temple. Club meetings were held in the Inner Temple, which lies 300 feet beneath the church on top of West Wycombe hill.
Under the auspices of their motto, Fais ce que to voudras (Do what thou wilt), the club was accused of engaging in acts that were distinctly pagan. Mock sacrilegious rituals, wild drinking and banqueting, and sex parties were common activities for the club. The club’s library reportedly had the largest collection of pornography in England at the time. There were even rumours of Black Masses and Satan worship. Seemingly no taboo was considered off-limits to the adventurous group.However, much of the group’s activities remain hidden to the modern explorer. In the three days before his death, the club’s secretary and steward Paul Whitehead may have burned all of the club’s records. According to his will, his heart was placed in an urn at the caves and was sometimes shown to visitors until it was stolen in 1829. It has been claimed that Whitehead’s ghost still haunts the caves.
Alongside their potential hedonism, members of the club were known to be fond of practical jokes – often with dire consequences. For example, a young maid known as Sukie was (possibly) accidentally killed during one of these jokes. It is rumoured that the caves are still haunted by her ghost. On another occasion, John Montagu and Francis Dashwood attended a church service in a nearby village. While there, John released a small monkey. Believing that Satan was in their very midst the congregation fled in horror.
John Montagu is known to be one of the 12 original members of the club, but there were other equally famous members, both known and suspected. Robert Vansittart, a judge who was friends with Samuel Johnson (creator of one of the most influential English dictionaries). British politician John Wilkes, a distant relative of John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln’s assassin) and namesake of the Wilkes-Barre region in Pennsylvania, was a suspected member. Benjamin Franklin may have been a member. He attended several meetings in 1758, and had an entire cave named after him. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, perhaps most famous for introducing smallpox inoculation to the Western world after learning about it while traveling the Ottoman Empire, was also a guest of the club.
John Montagu is credited with the creation of the sandwich and is cited as frequently requesting salted beef between slices of bread from servants while gambling. It has been suggested that other members of the club would then shout that they wanted “the same as Sandwich!” From this it has been argued, the modern meaning of sandwich was derived. The next time you bite into a sandwich, remember its devious origins.
Much about the club remains shrouded in secrecy, the truth burned by Paul Whitehead, or obscured by hyperbolic media attacks by political rivals of the members. The exact nature of the club’s Satanic practices may forever be a mystery, but you can still visit the caves to this day. There were several other clubs of a similar nature, though Dashwood’s is by far the most infamous. Many of the clubs were associated with bad behaviour, devilish dealings, and haunted halls. Only one served sandwiches for Satan.
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Researched and Written by: Sam Gardiner