The original Hell Fire Club was founded in 1741 by the Duke of Wharton, a Knight of the Garter, the Earl of Lichfield and Lord Hillsborough. It was one of the numerous decadent societies of 18th Century England (another being the Knucklebone Club of Blackheath a private 'golf club' of ill repute). But the Hell Fire Club was unique for two reasons, one was the fact it combined this decadence with elements of the pagan revival of the period, and more importantly its members were key figures in the aristocracy and ruling elite.
The pagan revival of this age was in part due to the healthy sexual libertinage of the time, and was one that had recieved 'spiritual sanction' through the discovery of a crypto-pagan cult of Priapus in the Catholic Church of northern Italy. Priapism became all the rage following this and Priapic cults of pagan sexual abandon (unlike the more symbolic phallus worship in some Italian churches) arose in England amongst the affluent who had contact with Italian decadence from their trips abroad. The Hell Fire Club was one such cult for the ruling class.
This society also had close links to English and Italian Freemasonry, particularly the ancient aristocratic masonry of those irregular lodges not aligned to the Grand Lodge of England. A faction that played a leading role in the Jacobite conspiracies of the period, and would later reemerge as Templar Masonry and similar higher degree systems. A key figure in this world was Sir Francis Dashwood a colleague of Hillsborough and member of the Florence Lodge (a lodge, founded by Charles Sackville, a companion of Wharton's and fellow Knight of the Garter, that worked closely with the British secret service in spying on exiled Jacobites). The precise alliances in these political games is difficult to assess. Dashwood was a staunch anti-Catholic Protestant, loyal statesman and British patriot, but a close friend and oe time ally of the the aristocratic Jacobites.
Dashwood quickly rose to fame in the British establishment and fostered a network of masonic friends through his Dilettanti Society, a group organising decadent orgies for the rich in a London club (one that survives today as an elite drinking club). But his main claim to fame came with the decline of the original Hell Fire Club and his creation of its replacement, the Friars of St Francis, sometimes refered to as the masonic Hell Fire Club (1746-1780). It was this that is now popularly refered to as THE Hell Fire Club
Dashwood's Hell Fire Club differed from its predecessor in two respects, firstly its paganism was more elaborate and secondly it was more political. Dashwood's paganism was goddess centred and seems to have combined a continuation of Priapic decadence with a genuine attempt to recreate the Eleusinian mysteries . He was also a neo-Druid (until expelled from the order in 1743). Politically he was a libertarian elitist like his decadent forebears, affirming rights of aristocratic privilege, but where as Wharton had fostered hereditary rights and the values of the old aristocracy, Dashwood, the son of a middle class businessman who married into the nobility, replaced these with the values of an upwardly mobile bourgeois new aristocracy.
This Hellfire Club was originally based at Dashwood's home in West Wycombe, first in a special room decorated as a Masonic temple, then in caves under his vast garden, a garden landscaped with erotic imagery, whose cave entrance took the form of a huge vagina! Later in 1751 he purchased Medmenham Abbey near Marlow on the Thames and converted the former Cistercian house (a monastic order allied to the Knights Templar)into a gothic folly. Its gardens filled with statues of classical deities, most notably Venus and Priapus. Here the Hell Fire Club allegedly held the 'black mass', and hired prostitutes dressed as nuns for its ever more exteme decadence.
Members of this club, his 'mad monks' at one time included the Prince of Wales, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prime Minister the Earl of Bute, the Earl of Sandwich, Benjamin Franklin and John Wilkes (a radical left MP and Mayor of London, who was the British representice of the American Revolutionary group the Son's of Liberty). The latter, being the most anarchic of the group and a notorious prankster, was responsible for many escapades and scandals at the club. Though following a major scandal (in which he was publically condemned by his hypocritical associates) he left declaring the club hid an inner political core that aimed to 'deprive the American people of its democratic rights.'
It seems that the group was actively involved with events around the American Revolution, but their precise role remains a mystery. Some speculate they supported the American Independence movement (along with irregular Masonic groups), but wanted to create a parallel elite in American society that would maintain it as a conservative ally and prevent 'dangerous' radical ideas spreading. It is also likely that they wanted to create in America the kind of society that was meeting stiff resistance in Britain. This would have been just a continuation of the British elites involvement in the evolution of America.