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Humbug: Elwes inspired the character Ebenezer Scrooge CREDIT: HERITAGE IMAGES

The Man Who Inspired Scrooge

“Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol..

Vast inherited wealth did nothing to deter one Georgian gentleman from his mission to be a legendary skinflint. John Elwes was an 18th century MP who was so notorious for scrimping and saving, he made Scrooge look extravagant. Mr. Elwes was a miser in the fullest acceptation of the term, and to obtain gold there was no sacrifice that he thought too great; yet he possessed qualities and traits of amiability, that won for him, in spite of his ruling vice, the respect and friendship of many worthy men.

There can be no better example of money not buying happiness than the fabulously wealthy but unbelievably stingy John Elwes, the man widely credited with inspiring the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol .

Elwes, seems to have learnt his miserable monetary tendencies from his family. His mother inherited about £100,000 when his father died in 1718, equivalent to a couple of hundred million today, but reputedly starved herself to death because she was too mean to fork out on mundane things such as personal well-being.

The greatest influence on young John’s stinginess, however, was his desire to impress his baronet uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes. Though a typically extravagant rich youth, John changed his ways to try to curry favour with Sir Harvey, an eye on his fabulous fortune.

John Elwes (1714-1789) was born John Meggot. He was orphaned at an early age. His father, a wealthy London brewer named Robert Meggot, was a respected Southwark brewer and died when the boy was only four. His grandfather was Sir George Meggot, MP for Southwark, His mother, Amy, was the granddaughter of Sir Gervase Elwes, 1st Baronet and MP for Suffolk.

His mother, Amy Elwes, died not too long after his father. When she died, the family fortune, an estimated £100,000 (about $29 million today), passed to her son. With her death, he inherited the family estate including Marcham Park at Marcham in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), purchased by his father in 1717.

John was educated the Westminster School, an exclusive boarding school in Westminster Abbey in London. He spent more than a decade there, then lived in Switzerland for a few years before returning to England. When he was in his twenties and thirties, Meggot gave little hint of the man he would become. He dressed well, spent money freely, and moved among London’s most fashionable circles. He developed a taste for French wines and fine dining. He was a skilled horseman and fox hunter, and he had a passion for gambling -he bet, and often lost, thousands of pounds in card games.

His maternal grandmother, Lady Isabella Hervey, happened to be a celebrated miser. He received a good education in the classics at Westminster School. After graduating he travelled to Geneva where he embraced his skill for horsemanship and love of the hunt. He was known as one of the best riders in Europe. It was at this time that he was introduced to Voltaire, to whom he was reported to bear a remarkable resemblance. However, Elwes was far more impressed with the quality of the horses at his riding school than by the genius of the French philosopher.

Unfortunately for Meggot the greatest influence on Elwes’ life was his miserly uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes, 2nd Baronet, of Stoke College and MP for Sudbury, whom Elwes obsequiously imitated to gain favour.

Hoarding money seems to have run in the family, at least on his mother’s side. If contemporary accounts are to be believed, Amy Elwes went to her early grave because she refused to dip into the family fortune to buy food, and literally starved herself to death. Her brother, Harvey, was a miser in his own right. He lived on a country estate inherited from his father’s side of the family, and though he would grow his inheritance to more than £250,000 ($72 million), he allowed the estate itself to fall into ruin. The manor house’s roof leaked, and rainwater stained the crumbling, mildewed walls. Broken windows were “repaired” with paper, and the furniture was infested with worms.

It will be as well to notice the memorable eccentricities of his uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes. On succeeding to the family estate, the knight became nominally possessed of some thousands a year, but really only of an income of one hundred pounds per annum. He said on his arrival at Stoke in Suffolk, the family seat, that never would he leave it until he had entirely cleared the paternal estate. For more than sixty years he lived there, almost alone; grasping, screwing, and scraping, to accumulate wealth. He received no visitors; he enjoyed no luxuries; and worst of all deprivations, he read no books! He was never seen with a volume in his hand; his scholarship was wholly devoted to the deciphering of old deeds, and in composing usurious bonds. In his housekeeping, like all misers, he was wretchedly penurious, and in his dress he would have suited admirably for one of Garrick’s most ludicrous characters. He wore a black velvet cap, which being vastly too large, constantly fell over his eyes; an old time-worn suit of dress clothes, with worsted stockings drawn over the knees; these garments cost him nothing, for he took them from an old chest, where they had lain ever since the gay days of his father, Sir Jarvas Elwes. When the weather was cold, Sir Harvey would walk briskly, backwards and forwards in his old hall, to save the expense of firing; and if a farmer came on business, he would strike a light in a tinder-box, which he always kept by him, and putting one solitary stick in the huge old-fashioned grate, would not add another till the first had been nearly consumed.

Rather than buy his own clothes, Uncle Harvey wore the old clothes of the dead relative who left him his fortune. And like his sister, he hated buying food; he spend his days wandering the estate hunting partridges and small game that he could eat for free. On cold evenings he kept warm by pacing back and forth in the great hall of his drafty mansion, rather than waste wood in a fire. Too cheap to marry, he lived like a hermit for more than 50 years “to avoid the expense of company.” Not surprisingly, he produced no heirs.

Sir Harvey usually had large sums of money in the house, amounting to three or four thousand pounds at a time. A set of desperate burglars, dreaded and known throughout the country as the Thackstead gang, hearing of this circumstance, formed a plan to rob him. The old house was easily invaded, and the two servants were gagged and threatened if they attempted resistance. They presented their pistols to Sir Harvey, and demanded his money; he gave them the key of a drawer, in which they found fifty guineas. They were dissatisfied, and threatened instantly to take his life if he did not deliver up his hoards. After many protestations of poverty, he at last submitted to the urgent necessity of the case, and pointed out the hiding-place of his treasure, in which were found twenty-seven hundred guineas. On quitting, they told him that they should leave a man behind, who would murder him if he called for assistance. Sir Harvey, with admirable simplicity quietly took out his watch and said, “Gentlemen, I do not want to take any of you, therefore I will give you twenty minutes to escape.”

When this gang of thieves some years afterwards were captured, Sir Harvey refused to appear against them; and when urged to go to Chelmsford to identify them, he would reply, “No, no! I have lost my money, and now you want me to lose my time also.”

Since Harvey had no children, John hoped to inherit his uncle’s fortune. That’s why, in 1751, he changed his last name from Meggot to to Elwes -to assure his uncle that the family name would survive him. That’s also why Elwes visited his uncle regularly and pretended to share his miserly ways. Before arriving at his uncle’s estate -where the meals were certain to be meager- he’d drop in on friends and fill up on their food. Then he’d stop at a roadside inn to change out of his fashionable clothes and into the tattered garments he kept for that purpose, and continued to his uncle’s.

For dinner Elwes and Uncle Harvey ate whatever fish, partridges, or other small game Harvey had managed to kill that day. As they ate they talked about money and how others wasted it. “There they would sit -saving souls! – with a single stick upon the fire and worth one glass of wine, occasionally, betwixt them, talking of the extravagance of the time,” Elwes friend and biographer Edward Topham wrote. “When evening shut, they would retire to rest -as ‘going to bed saved candle light.'”

John’s years of toadying paid off: When Harvey died in September 1763, he left his nephew, now in his late forties, his entire fortune. John Elwes was now worth over £350,000, the equivalent of more than $100 million today. By then Elwes had assumed most of his uncle’s habits, but not all of them. He still had expensive tastes, and as long as someone else paid the bill, he happily indulged them, gorging himself at other people’s tables as he warmed himself for free by their fires. He loved to gamble huge sums of money in card games, he gladly lent huge sums to friends and associates when asked, no matter how frivolous the purpose. If a borrower defaulted, Elwes never demanded repayment, explaining that “it was impossible to ask a gentleman for money.”

But where his own comfort and material well-being were concerned, Elwes would not part with a penny. Where once he dressed in rags only to impress his uncle, he now wore them all the time, and never cleaned his shoes -that might wear them out faster. Friends said he looked “like a prisoner confined for debt.”

He went to bed when darkness fell so as to save on candles. He began wearing only ragged clothes, including a beggar’s cast-off wig he found in a hedge and wore for two weeks. His clothes were so dilapidated that many mistook him for a common street beggar, and would put a penny into his hand as they passed. To avoid paying for a coach he would walk in the rain, and then sit in wet clothes to save the cost of a fire to dry them. His house was full of expensive furniture but also moulding food. He would eat putrefied game before allowing new food to be bought.

Like his uncle, Elwes allowed his estates to fall into ruin. Rather than spend the money for repairs he allowed his spacious country mansion to become uninhabitable. A near relative once stayed at his home in the country, but the bedroom was in such a poor state that the relative was awakened in the night by rain pouring on him from the roof. After searching in vain for a bell, the relative was forced to move his bed several times, until he found a place where he could remain dry. On remarking the circumstance to Elwes in the morning, the latter said: “Ay! I don’t mind it myself… that is a nice corner in the rain!”

He refused to buy a carriage and wondered how anyone could think he could afford one. Riding a horse was cheaper, especially the way he did it: before setting off on a journey, he’d fill his pockets with hardboiled eggs so he wouldn’t have to pay for meals in taverns. He rode in the soft dirt by the side of the road rather than on the road itself, so that he wouldn’t have to buy horseshoes for his horses. He travelled hours out of the way to avoid toll roads. If he needed to stop for the night, he’d find a spot by the side of the road that had lots of grass (so that his horse could eat for free) and sleep beneath a tree to save the price of a room at an inn.

He even “complained bitterly of the birds robbing him of so much hay with which to build their nests.” Even Elwes’ health was limited by expense. In common with many misers, he distrusted physicians, preferring to treat himself in order to save paying for one. He once badly cut both legs while walking home in the dark, but would only allow the apothecary to treat one, wagering his fee that the untreated limb would heal first. Elwes won by a fortnight and the doctor had to forfeit his fee. He also bore a wound from a hunting accident. Legend has it that one day he was out shooting with a gentleman who was a particularly bad shot. This same man accidentally fired through a hedge, lodging several shot in the miser’s cheek. With great embarrassment and concern, the gentleman approached Elwes to apologize. But Elwes, anticipating the apology, held out his hand, and said:

“My dear sir, I congratulate you on improving; I thought you would hit something in time.”

Elwes’ mania for frugality extended to his own family. He had two sons out of wedlock (because marriage cost money) and refused to pay for their education. “Putting things into people’s heads,” he explained, “was the sure way to take money out of their pockets.”

Ebenezer Scrooge — John Elwes

In 1772 with the help of Lord Craven he became a Member of Parliament for Berkshire (his election expenses amounted to a mere eighteen pence- on a meal for himself) and won the election. He entered the House of Commons in a by-election as a compromise candidate to replace Thomas Craven, which began the first of three terms. He held his seat unopposed until he stood down at the 1784 election.

Politics didn’t change him, though. During his 12 years in office, Elwes dressed as shabbily as the ever had. He walked everywhere, even in the rain, to save the cost of sharing a coach with other MPs. He looked so destitute tramping around London that people often stopped him on the street to force pennies into his hand. If he arrived home drenched from a downpour, like his Uncle Harvey he’d sit in his wet clothes rather than light a fire.

Elwes sat with either party according to his whim, and he never once rose to address the House of Commons. Fellow members mockingly observed that since he possessed only one suit, they could never accuse him of being a “turncoat.”

The post did, however, cause Elwes to frequently travel to London. This journey was accomplished on a poor lean horse, the route chosen being always the one whereby he could avoid turnpike tolls. He was known to put a hard-boiled egg in his pocket, and midway on his journey would sit under some hedge and eat his egg or sleep. After 12 years he retired rather than face the prospect of laying out any money to retain his seat.

Yet even though Elwes lived so frugally, he continued to lend generously to friends and invest int heir speculative ventures. In all, its estimated that he lost some £150,000 in bad loans and investments. No matter: His fortune kept growing. By the mid 1780s, he was worth nearly £1,000,000 (about $290 million).

In 1784 Elwes retired from Parliament rather than spend even a pittance on what would have been certain re-election. With the distraction of public office gone from his life, his penny-pinching intensified. His diet suffered most of all. On one occasion he ate a dead bird that a rat had dragged out of a river; on another, he caught a fish with a partially eaten smaller fish in its stomach. “Aye! This was killing two birds with one stone!” he said, then ate them both.

On those rare occasion when Elwes bought lamb or other meat from the butcher, he bought the entire animal to get the best price, and then ate every bit of it. In an age before refrigeration, this meant the often ate meat that had reached “the last stage of putrefaction,” a friend wrote. “Meat that walked about on his plate, would he continue to eat, rather than have new things killed before the old provision was finished.”

If a stableboy put out hay for a visitor’s horse, Elwes would sneak out and remove it. In his last years he had no fixed abode and frequently shifted his residence between his unrented London properties in the neighbourhood of Marylebone.

Elwes had inherited several properties in London, and he added to their number until he owned more than 100. Keeping them rented took work, and yet for all the time Elwes spent in London, he never set up a household for himself. He and the old woman who served as his cook and maid stayed in whichever of his properties was vacant, but only as long as it took to find a tenant. Their household possessions were limited to a bed for himself and one for the maid, a table, and a couple of chairs. When a tenant was found, sometimes after Elwes and his maid had spent just a night or two in the place, they packed their things and moved to another vacant property. This same housekeeper was known to frequently catch colds because there were never any fires and often no glass in the windows.

This practice nearly cost Elwes his life when he fell desperately ill in one of these houses and no one could find him. Only by chance was he rescued. His nephew, Colonel Timms, who wanted to see him, inquired in vain at Elwes’s banker’s and at other places. A pot boy recollected having seen an “old beggar” go into a stable at one of Elwes’s uninhabited houses in Great Marlborough Street and lock the door behind him. Timms knocked at the door, but when no one answered, sent for a blacksmith and had the lock forced.

“In the lower part (of the house) all was shut and silent, but on ascending the stairs they heard the moans of a person seemingly in distress. They went to the chamber, and there on an old pallet bed they found Mr. Elwes, apparently in the agonies of death. For some time he seemed quite insensible.”

He remained in this condition until some “cordials” could be administered by a neighbouring apothecary. After he had sufficiently recovered, Elwes stated that he believed he had been ill for “two or three days”, and that there was an “old woman” in the house, but for some reason or other, she had “not been near him”; that she had “been ill herself”, but that he supposed she must have “recovered” and “gone away”. Upon searching the premises, however, Timms and the apothecary found the woman stretched lifeless on the floor, having apparently been dead for a few days.

Elwes recovered physically from the ordeal, but his mental state, already declining due to his penurious lifestyle and advancing age, got worse. His obsession with money narrowed until he became fixated on the change he had in his pocket. He’d wrap each coin in a piece of paper and hide it somewhere in his rooms, then stay up half the night wandering the house in an agitated state, trying to remember where he’d hidden the coins. In time he came to believe that the change was all the money he had in the world. Terrified of dying penniless, he often woke in the middle of the night screaming at imaginary thieves: “I will keep my money, I will! Nobody shall rob me of my property.”

Marcham Park, formerly in Berkshire, from the north east.

Towards the end of his life Elwes grew feverish and restless. He was suffering from delusion, fearing that he would die in poverty. In the night he was heard struggling with imaginary robbers, crying: “I will keep my money! I will! Don’t rob me! Oh, don’t!” When asked who was there?, Elwes would reply: “Sir, I beg your pardon, my name is Elwes, I have been unfortunate enough to be robbed in this house, which I believe is mine, of all the money I have in the world of five guineas and a half, and half a crown.” The family doctor was sent for, and, looking at the dying miser, was heard to remark:

“That man, with his original strength of constitution, and lifelong habits of temperance, might have lived twenty years longer, but for his continual anxiety about money.”

Even his barrister, who drew up his will, was forced to undertake his writings in the firelight by the dying man’s bedside in order to save the cost of a candle.

The famed miser was also known to sleep in the same worn garments he wore during the day. He was discovered one morning between the sheets with his tattered shoes on his feet, an old torn hat on his head, and a stick in his hand. It was in this condition he died on 26 November 1789. His burial took place in Stoke-by-Clare.

“I hope I have left you what you wish,” he told one of his sons before he died. He probably did: Each of them inherited nearly £500,000 (almost £1bn today).

As far as anyone knows, neither of them ever became a miser.

The following summary of his character, by his friend and biographer, Mr. Topham:

“…his public character lives after him pure and without stain. In private life, he was chiefly an enemy to himself. To others, he lent much; to himself, he denied everything. But in the pursuit of his property, or in the recovery of it, I have it not in my remembrance one unkind thing that ever was done by him.”

Elwes died in 1789 and his legacy includes the Georgian buildings he financed in London, he spent a fortune on the redevelopment of London’s West End, funding many buildings that still stand todayBesides being a member of Parliament, Elwes’s accomplishments include financing the construction of a significant amount of Georgian London, including Portman Place, Portman Square, and parts of Oxford Circus Piccadilly, Baker Street and Marylebone

Edward Topham was fascinated by his friend’s odd lifestyle, and in 1790 he wrote The Life of the Late John Elwes, Esquire. The book was a bestseller, with 12 printings by 1805. Its success inspired other books and articles, and Elwes’ name soon became a household word, one synonymous with penny-pinching.

‘During the life time of Mr. Elwes’, states Edward Topham, journalist and playwright, ‘I said to him, more than once, “I would write his life.” His answer was—“there is nothing in it, sir, worth mentioning.”’ But Topham persisted, and produced, in the words of Horace Walpole, ‘one of the most amusing anecdotal books in the English language’; it went through 12 editions; and made ‘Elwes the miser’ into a stereotype and legend—he appears under this description in the DNB, and even in the British Museum catalogue of manuscripts. The biography is written with a professed moral purpose—to demonstrate ‘the perfect vanity of unused wealth’; and having traced avarice as a family failing of the Elweses, deals with it in John Elwes with abundant repetition and elaboration. Here is a typical passage:

In the penury of Mr. Elwes there was something that seemed like a judgement from heaven. All earthly comforts he voluntarily denied himself: he would walk home in the rain, in London, sooner than pay a shilling for a coach: he would sit in wet clothes sooner than have a fire to dry them: he would eat his provisions in the last stage of putrefaction sooner than have afresh joint from the butcher’s; and he wore a wig for above a fortnight, which I saw him pick up out of a rut in a lane where we were riding.

Yet he was generally credited with other qualities not usually associated with the qualities of a miser: he was a daring rider, keeping a remarkable stable of hunters; he was gentle and courteous, and would put himself to considerable inconvenience to help others; he would lend money but never on usurious terms; and at one time he ‘played deep’, but became disinclined to it ‘from paying always, and not always being paid’. ‘His avarice’, says Topham, ‘consisted not in hard-heartedness, but in self-denial.’ There was austerity in his character, and a probity which commanded respect. The Gentleman’s Magazine wrote about him in its obituary notice: ‘In such high estimation was he held for his love of justice, that numberless disputes among his constituents and others were left to his sole arbitrement.’And similarly Topham states that his qualities as a magistrate earned him the offer of election to Parliament for the county.

Charles Dickens knew the story and mentioned Elwes both in letters and in his 1865 novel Our Mutual Friend. Though he apparently never said so explicitly, Dickens is widely believed to have modelled Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser in A Christmas Carol, on Elwes. The artwork in the first edition of the story, published in 1843, bears this out: Dickens worked closely with his illustrators to create images of his characters that were exactly as he envisioned them -and the illustrations of Ebenezer Scrooge bear a striking resemblance to John Elwes. Elwes was also thought to have inspired the character of John Scarfe in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel The Miser’s Daughter.

The life of the late John Elwes, esquire; member in three successive parliaments for Berkshire … By Edward Topham

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