Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog
was published in 1889 and has become one of the minor classics
of English Literature.
Jerome and his two friends, Harris and George decide to take a rowing holiday along
the River Thames and begin their adventure at Waterloo Station where they offer the
driver of the Exeter Mail half-a-crown to be the 11.15 to Kingston. After arriving
at Hampton Court, where inevitably they get lost in the maze, they arrive in Marlow.
The River Thames just touches Buckinghamshire; from Marlow up to Henley it forms
a natural county boundary and Jerome thought Marlow 'one of the pleasantest river
centres I know of. It is a bustling lively little town ... there are many quaint
nooks and corners to be found in it.'
They pass under Marlow Bridge where traditionally any bargee travelling under this
bridge was met with the retort: 'Who ate puppy pie?' This is a reference to a baker
in Marlow who, frustrated with bargees trying to swindle him by complaining that
his meat pies weren't sufficiently filled, baked them a pie filled with recently
Once past Marlow Jerome finds 'nestling by a sweet corner of the stream' the remains
of Medmenham Abbey. The Abbey was once home to an order of Cistercian monks - the
' white monks'.
The Cistercians broke away from the Benedictines founded by Saint Robert of Molesme
at Citeaux, and in 1098 persuaded the Abbott to let them leave and adhere to a stricter
observance of the Benedictine order.
They led a secluded, communal life with strict rules on silence and diet. However
they were an innovative and resourceful order, introducing many pioneering methods
in sheep farming, iron working, salt making, fishing and fresh water drainage systems
before being ejected by Henry VIII in 1538.
In 1745 the Member of Parliament for West Wycombe and Chancellor of the Exchequer,
Sir Francis Dashwod, founded the Franciscans of Medmenham, or the Knights of Saint
Francis of West Wickham in the restored building. The group were more famously known
as one of the The Hell Fire Clubs.
Walls that once heard only prayer now echoes to satanic rites, alcohol and sexual
excesses. The stories of Black Masses and orgies grew more widespread. The walls
were painted with lurid scenes of Bacchanalian depravity and above the doors was
engraved the motto: 'Fay ce que voudras' or, 'Do as you please'.
Although rumours of their activities outstripped the reality there was no doubt that
members of the Hell Fire Club took physical pleasures to the limit. But it is difficult
to know how far down the road of depravity the members trod. Their existence was
no secret, people all around knew of their activities and Charles Dickens Jnr says
in his Dictionary of the Thames that 'they lived at a time when drunkeness and profanity
were considered to be amongst the gentlemanly virtues and probably ... they were
not much worse than other people.'