Today we’re a quick look at the spooky legacy of the Hellfire Caves. There’s so much to unpack in the club’s history that to write a concise history would take a week’s worth of posts in itself. So, before we get into satanic baboons in the future, I thought we’d take a look at the strange legends that surround one of Britain’s most stunning man-made cave systems.
The Hellfire Caves of Buckinghamshire are a familiar haunt for many modern ghost hunters and have a sinister history to match. The caves are man-made features, excavated between 1748 and 1752 on the order of Francis Dashwood, the co-founder of the Hellfire Club from which the caves get their name.
While the caves were briefly used as a chalk mine for building purposes, the exploits of the Hellfire club have had a far more lasting cultural impact. The club’s motto, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, was indicative of their activities, which included pseudo-satanic rituals, black magic, prostitution and nun-themed sex parties. According to Horace Walpole (politician and a father of Gothic Fiction), members of the Hellfire Club practised a pagan belief system, dedicating themselves to Venus and Bacchus, the goddess and god of sex, love and excess. Sadly, all nihilistic things must come to an end and the club was dissolved in 1776.
However, the paranormal legacy of the club was all but beginning. Two ghosts of note are recorded as haunting the caves.
In the late 18th century, 16-year-old Sukie (also known as Suki or Suzanna) was a barmaid at the local George and Dragon pub. She was also renowned for her beauty. Suki had aspirations above her station and refused the local boys that tried for her hand in marriage. She was holding out for an aristocrat and against all odds, one day a Lord passed through the doors of the pub. She was quite taken with his upper-class ways and the two seemed smitten with one another. After the Lord left, a letter arrived for the young girl. It was the Lord, professing his love and his desire to elope with her immediately. She was to wear her finest dress and meet him at the Hellfire Caves that night, so that they could be wed and elope together. Suki borrowed her mother’s wedding dress and keenly ran to the caves to meet her man.
As she approached the entrance to the caves, a voice beckoned her deeper and deeper until she reached the banqueting hall. What met the poor girl was not a love-struck lord, but three local boys whose affections she had spurned. If they couldn’t have her, she was rotten and had to be punished. They had sent the letter and led her into the caves as a way to humiliate her. In doing so, they wanted to show the poor girl that no Lord would ever love her, and destroy the confidence they believed she should never have developed.
Suki was suitably embarrassed and heartbroken to boot. Through tears, she picked up stones from the cave floor and threw them at the cruel boys. The boys retaliated, but threw a stone too large; a rock. It cracked the poor barmaid’s head and she fell to the floor immediately. It’s said that as Suki fell, she dropped her candle and as the boys ran, they took the last of the light with them, leaving Suki to die alone and in darkness.
Whether Suki died instantly or was left to slowly die on the cave floors is unclear, but the legends following her death report that her spirit remains trapped within the caves, wandering in her mother’s wedding dress, searching for her lost love to finally come and marry her.
The other spirit said to wander the Hellfire Cave systems has a far less tragic and romantic back story. The spirit of Paul Whitehead, satirist and former secretary of the Hellfire Club is said to join Suki, not searching for love, but for something a little closer to home.
Paul Whitehead was a central figure in the Hellfire Club, organising and noting all entertainment and ‘goings on’, all of which he seemed to enjoy greatly. Before his death, Whitehead burned most of his papers and the Hellfire Club’s records with it, leaving the finer points of the subterranean brothel lost to time. As a lasting symbol of thanks to Lord Dashwood, Whitehead made sure that his heart was cut out and sent to his house, whereby it was buried in a mausoleum on the estate following a very elaborate funeral.
Visions of Whitehead’s ghost were first recorded in 1781 whereby staff reported seeing the steward in the grounds of the house, waving onlookers to join him. In 1839, Whitehead’s heart was stolen by a visiting overseas soldier and since then, those who have seen his apparition, claim to have seen him wandering, searching for his lost heart.
The Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe continue to attract thousands of visitors every year, with the stories of Suki and Whitehead exciting generations of new visitors as they wander in darkness throughout eternity.
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