When Charles Dickens created the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, he created the embodiment of miserliness, a scornful and spite filled misanthrope whose only pleasures were his ample earnings and the misery of those around him. Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’ most iconic character, so much so that his catchphrase ‘Bah, Humbug!’ has become the seasonal slogan of anyone not overly fond of the most wonderful time of the year.
However, how much of Scrooge was Dickens’ creation, and how much was art imitating life? It has been suggested that the inspiration for Scrooge came largely from one John Elwes, a man so unfeasibly miserly that, despite being a millionaire in modern money, he once fought a rat for a moorhen so that he didn’t have to spend money on food.
John Elwes, born Meggott (as seen in our Parish records here) in 1714 was born into money. His Grandfathers on both sides were MPs and his father a successful brewer. When John was four years old his father died, and John was left the first of his massive inheritances. Although money ran through the family, miserliness was apparently also a hereditary trait. John’s mother, despite being fantastically wealthy, allegedly starved to death through a desire to save money on buying food.
Another miser in John’s life was Sir Harvey Elwes, his uncle and the man whose name he would eventually take. John idolised Sir Harvey and admired his thriftiness despite the vast resources he had at hand. When Sir Harvey died, John was the chief beneficiary in his will, receiving the equivalent of around £20,000,000.
John’s behaviour became increasingly outrageous. He was known to go to bed as soon as it grew dark in order to save candles. He would walk in the rain to save on carriages and sit in wet clothes so as not to have to light a fire. John’s clothes were held together by threads, including the wig he found in a hedge and insisted on wearing for weeks.
Despite being so incredibly tight with spending on himself – eating rotten meat rather than shelling out on new food was another trick – John’s generosity was renowned. He financed a number of building developments in London that still stand today, including Portman Place. He was quick to lend money and never asked for repayment, deeming asking for such things below a gentleman. In fact, for a man who retired from being an MP after 12 years as he didn’t want to spend money on being re-elected, John was appalling at managing his spending on anything but himself.
John Elwes died after a short illness, leaving the modern equivalent of somewhere in the region of £30,000,000 to his two illegitimate sons. Although Elwes Snr never had his Scrooge-esque epiphany, his son George grew up to surpass the generosity of Dickens’ reformed villain. We’ve found the will of George Elwes in our records, which states that £1500 be given to the poor children of the parish, ‘disposed of yearly in Christmas Week’. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future clearly just needed more than a generation to sort the Elwes family out.