Located in West Wycombe in the British county of Buckinghamshire, the Hellfire Caves have a notorious history and are reputed to conceal many mysteries. They are actually a manmade network of tunnels carved out the chalk and flint of West Wycombe Hill and were commissioned by Sir Francis Dashwood to be one of the secret meeting places of his libertine society.
There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that these chalk caves were by the members of the Knights of St. Francis as both a place of lewd entertainment and political intrigue. Certainly, many of the Knights went on to hold high office and Dashwood himself became Postmaster General a position that was often associated with spying.
What exactly went on in the caves is still a dark mystery, but they are said to be haunted by some very restless spirits.
Suki’s Ghost – The White Lady of the Caves
The story of Suki, the ghost bride of the Hellfire Caves, is an odd one. According to the legend written on a plaque in the tunnels Suki was a servant girl who was employed at the nearby Public House (pub/bar), the George and Dragon.
Apparently, she was most appealing and had high hopes of being noticed by the local squires and nobility. The plaque states that she desired to be a bride of an aristocrat. As such, she kept herself pure and rejected the propositions of the local lads who grew increasingly irritated by her manner. There came a day when a young and wealthy nobleman visited the George and Dragon and seemed quite taken with Suki who flirted “most seriously” with him.
After he departed, the angry local lads who had witnessed this interchange decided to teach Suki a lesson. Apparently, they wrote her a letter purportedly from the young man that she had just met. It stated that he wanted to elope with her and that she was to meet him in the caves in her wedding dress.
Suki did as she was asked and arrived at the caves to find that she had been tricked and it is said that “Stones were thrown”. It seems that one struck Suki on the head and she collapsed to the ground. Horrified at what they had done the young men carried her to the Inn, but she died during the night.
Her ghost is said to roam the caves and is also sometimes seen at the George and Dragon and many paranormal experts have claimed to have been able to make contact her.
Some researchers believe that the story of Suki is based on an incident that happened earlier during the time of Sir Francis Dashwood, when women were brought to the caves and encouraged to dress up and ‘play’ with the Friars. Something awful may have happened and poor Suki wound up dead and dumped at the nearby pub.
Benjamin Franklin is recognised as one of the founding fathers of America, but it is often overlooked – particularly in American histories – that he lived for a considerable part of his life in England and found it an agreeable place for a man of his talents.
As a man fascinated by science, freemasonry, politics, Europe, and history, it should be no surprise that he eventually became a close friend of Sir Francis Dashwood. Franklin travelled to Britain in 1757 having already established himself with both wealth and renown in the American Colonies. Some of his notable achievements before leaving America included his success with newspaper publishing, the foundation of the Union Fire Company, experiments with electricity and his appointment as Deputy Postmaster General for the Colonies.
Over the next two decades he would energetically engage with British society and become a member of the Friars (Knights) of St. Francis. There is actually a cave named for him as a token of respect. It has even been alleged that this was the very “chamber” that he used for more intimate engagements while taking part in the rituals and ceremonies of the Hellfire caves. There is a record that he officially visited them again in 1770 – possibly out of nostalgia or for some other purpose yet to be revealed.
Benjamin Franklin’s ghost is believed to haunt the caves where he took part in extraordinary things. Some say he is looking for something he lost or is still trying to hide something in the caves. Numerous visitors claim to have seen a man at the back of Franklin’s cave dressed in old fashioned clothes. Some American tourists apparently even claimed he looked like the man on the back of the $100 dollar bill. Franklin’s Ghost has also been seen in the nearby tunnels.
When Sir Francis formed his version of the Hellfire club – The Friars (Knights) of Sir Francis in 1746. it was Paul Whitehead who was appointed to manage the Order as both Secretary and Steward. Unfortunately, Whitehead had two characteristics for which history has never forgiven him. Firstly, he was drawn to the “rakes” and had a love of wine, women, and the erotic. Secondly, he wrote materials for which he was loved by the masses and hated by politicians. He soon became the record keeper for Dashwood’s ‘hellfire club’ and reputedly knew all the secrets.
Over the next thirty years it would be Paul Whitehead who would be the “fixer” for the various secret societies founded by Dashwood including the Monks of Medmenham.
His various duties appear to have included the procurement of prostitutes, political advisor, satirist, speech writing, keeper of the wine lists, blackmailer, researcher, and master of the minutes. It is likely that there has never before or again been a man who knew so many secrets about so many powerful British, European, and future American leaders. However, his most important role was to record the “Testament of St. Francis of West Wycombe”.
Whatever Paul Whitehead knew about the Monks of Medmenham, he was determined to keep it secret. A week before his death a messenger arrived at his house and delivered an important letter and then, three days before his death in 1774, he summoned the servants of his home, Colne Lodge, and ordered a great bonfire be built in the garden. It burnt as a “conflagration” for the next 76 hours as books and papers were piled onto it day and night. He is reputed to have said: “Neither history nor my critics shall judge me by my works. No man shall pick over my words and divine the sublime.” Once the last of his papers were ashes he took to his bed and within six hours was dead.
Bizarrely, his will stipulated that his body was to be left to medical science, but his heart was to be given to Sir Francis Dashwood and placed in an urn for which he bequeathed 50 Pounds for said purchase. His wish was duly carried out and a satirical procession of the Bucks Militia did deliver both the Urn and Paul Whitehead’s heart to the Mausoleum of Sir Francis Dashwood. There is a record in a 19th century pamphlet that visitors to the Mausoleum would open the urn and throw the shrivelled heart to each other until one day it was stolen by an Australian soldier.
Legend has it that the ghost of Paul Whitehead haunts the caves and hill until either his heart is returned, or the secret testimony of Sir Francis is revealed. Some visitors have claimed to have seen a man in old fashioned clothing shuffling around near the entrance and then staring at them before vanishing into the gloom.
The Floating Monk
This is a rarely seen apparition but seems to be a man dressed like a monk floating near to the Lord Sandwich circle.
The Chanting Friars & Mysterious Mists
You won’t ever see these ghosts but quite a few people to hear them. Visitors to the deepest part of the caves, where the inner circle of the hellfire club often met, sometimes hear strange chanting. Visitors are unable to make out the language, but some say that it sounds like Latin. Strange light mists have also been witnessed at the point where you cross the River Styx. Sometimes these just show up on photographs like the one above.