TOWERS, ERIC. DASHWOOD: THE MAN AND THE MYTH - Well-researched debunking of the myth of the Hellfire Club. (1999: Sir Francis Dashwood and his friends were Tories, though liberal ones, and their political enemies the Whigs, chief among them John Wilkes, were the source for much of the legend. Towers' biography is probably closer to the truth. Darn. In any case, Dashwood was a progressive politician who argued for tax relief for colonial America prior to the Revolution. John Wilkes had a reputation for loving liberty, but probably just loved mobs and hated Tories. During the 1788 Gordon's Gin riots, though, he ordered troops to fire on the mobs. The town of Wilkes-Barre PA is partly named after him.)
(2000 note: In an issue of Gnosis some years ago, editor Jay Kinney theorized that Dashwood & co. were actually Catholics, and his enemies built their legends on the pomp of their services. This is plausible in a time of anti-Catholic paranoia sparked by Titus Oates' "Popish Plot" of 1679 and various Scotish revolts that culminated in the French backed invasion of 1745. In that context, secret burials of the love children of Jesuits and nuns were believable.
SUSTER, GERALD. THE HELL-FIRE FRIARS: SEX, POLITICS & RELIGION (Robson Books, London, 2000). At last--someone who did his homework. According to Suster, Towers was correct about Dashwood being a benign figure but tried to wish away the paganism. Dashwood and his friends tried to establish an enlightened monarchy around Frederick, the Prince of Wales, son of King George II. Dashwood hoped to engineer a spiritual revival, along classical Greek lines, to fill a religious vacuum created by the Church of England. As head of this established pagan church, Frederick would have borne the same mystical aura that Elizabeth I had two centuries earlier. It was an honest effort, and state paganism could certainly have been more fun than state Christianity.
Unfortunately, Frederick died of a sore throat in 1750, possibly as a complication of being hit by a polo ball, and one wonders whether he would have played his assigned role if he'd actually become king. Dashwood and friends, who were political progressives, were slam-dunked on the American colonial question by the reactionary King George III and Lord North. Public allegations of pagan orgies were true but, misrepresented, provided much political ammunition against Dashwood. His group was actually called the Monks of St. Francis. The Hell-Fire Club name belonged to various groups of well-born rowdies, the earliest of which existed in the 1730s.
Suster makes a good case based on social and historical context, the known facts about Dashwood and his friends, and the scant direct evidence of Dashwood's order. Worth searching for.