Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hellfire Club

Hellfire Club
Frat boys don't have a lock on hard partying. Check out 18th century English nobility and learn something!
Each new generation thinks they were the ones that invented debauchery, and can't possibly imagine that people who - A.) lived a long time ago, B.) were, in most cases, older, and, C.) were widely respected, upstanding members of society, - could possibly have anything to teach them in the ways of sex, drunkenness, and mockery of established authority.

They would be wrong.

The Hellfire Club was a secret society comprised nobility and other high society folks who liked to get together and raise a little hell - figuratively speaking of course - but since this was 18th century England, some outsiders took it much too literally.
Harmless Beginnings
The Hellfire Club originated as a simple way to mock organized religion, which was a trendy thing to do in 1719 London. The Duke of Wharton gathered a few friends, both male and (gasp!) female, to form a parody of a gentleman's club - only instead of billiards and cards, this club held tongue-in-cheek 'religious' ceremonies and feasted on erotically named foods.

There was nothing blasphemous about their activities - it was all in good fun, and meant to shock more than seriously critique. It wasn't even meant to be secret, but the club had to resort to holding meetings at members homes because its female members wouldn't be admitted to pubs. This exclusivity and invisibility allowed rumors to swirl, and the Duke's political enemies eventually used it as ammunition to roust him from Parliament. In the end, he traded one secret society for another, becoming a rapidly rising Freemason.
Hellfire Reborn
In the mid 18th century, another club began meeting at an inn in London. Founded by Sir Francis Dashwood and the Earl of Sandwich, it was called The Order of the Knights of Saint Francis and would grow to become the new incarnation of the Hellfire Club in time.

Initially limited to twelve members (again, all nobility and high society - oh yeah, and Benjamin Franklin), membership grew as the club came into its own. Its popularity, no doubt, was brought about by its philosophy and motto, 'Do what thou wilt.' And boy, did they!
Secret Caves
Medmenham abbey
Medmenham abbey
Dashwood eventually leased Medmenham Abbey, and had a series of caves carved out beneath the main building to provide a place for the club to meet. To be fair, the phrase 'series of caves' doesn't do it justice - it was a labyrinthine network of tunnels branching out from a pre-existing central cave, culminating in a moderately sized cavern where the meetings were held. Each underground passage included secluded grottoes and other nooks and crannies where one (or two, or more!) could find a few moments of privacy, but the main event was always held in the main room.
Religious Views
Ear of dionysius
Ear of dionysius
Even today, religious groups call the Hellfire Club satanic. Although no records were kept, information gleaned from letters between members and artifacts at the Abbey give no reason to assume Satan worship was at the heart of the club. Those accusations were likely founded in part because of the name, and in part because of the orgies, which were associated with blasphemous activities.

Former members claimed Pagan worship, and statues of Venus, Daphne, Bacchus and Dionysius have been found at the site, but the extent of Paganism isn't clear. Religious mockery was still a big part of the point of the club, and Pagan imagery may have just been a way to poke at the church just a little bit harder.
Activities
Meetings of this new Hellfire Club were unlike any club meeting you're familiar with (or maybe not, in which case, mazel tov). The members (all male) called themselves monks, and every meeting was supplied with a number of 'nuns', or prostitutes, to help move the festivities along.

They drank too much, ate too much, and took part in orgies that would make Caligula blush - and at the end of the night, they would straighten their powdered wigs and go back to their homes, families, and Parliament seats.
The Decline
Like its predecessor, the newer, harder-partying Hellfire Club was brought down by political opponents looking to wrest power from members. They couldn't be arrested for any club-related activities, but their memberships figured largely to discredit them when charged with otherwise non-sticky charges - seriously, at least three members were jailed for publishing-related offenses, and it wasn't even pornography.
The club was over by 1766, but the caves and the Abbey still stand. You can take a tour through the infamous caves, but beware - it's said that they're haunted. By whom? Who knows? The ghosts of good times past?