The following article is from the Bathroom Reader Institute's newest book: Uncle John's Fully Loaded 25th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.
One of the hallmarks of the work of 19th-century author Charles Dickens is his oddball characters and their fanciful names: Uriah Heep, Martin Chuzzlewit, Lady Honorie Dedlock, Pip Pirrip, Abel Magwich, Miss LaCreevy, and Bardle the Beedle, to name a few. Perhaps Dickens' best-known character is Ebenezer Scrooge, from A Christmas Carol -who, it turns out, was inspired by a real person.
John Elwes (1714-1789) was born John Meggot. He was orphaned at an early age. His father, a wealthy London brewer named Robert Meggot, died when the boy was only four. His mother, Amy Elwes, followed not too long afterward. When she died, the family fortune, an estimated £100,000 (about $29 million today), passed to her son.
John was educated the 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.
THE FAMILY WAY
Unfortunately for Meggot, 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.
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.
DINNERS WITH UNCLE HARVEY
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.'"
THE FAMILY FOOTSTEPS
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."
DON'T MIND IF I DON'T
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."
Like his uncle, Elwes allowed his estates to fall into ruin. 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 traveled 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.
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."
MISER OF PARLIAMENT
In 1774 Elwes was offered a chance to succeed a retiring Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons, and accepted …provided he wouldn't have to spend money on his campaign. He spent just 18 pence -on a meal for himself- and won the 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.
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).
A MOVEABLE FEAST
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."
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.
The constant moving almost cost Elwes his life. Once when he and his maid both fell deathly ill at the same time, nobody knew where they were. Luckily for Elwes, his nephew went looking for him and found a boy who's seen "a poor man" enter one of Elwes' properties on Great Marlborough Street. The nephew rushed there and found Elwes near death. He was too late to save the maid: her body was found in another room; she'd been dead for two or three days.
CASH ON HAND
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."
In November 1789, Elwes fell ill and took to his bed. He died eight days later. "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 ($145 million) .
As far as anyone knows, neither of them ever became a miser.
A LITERARY INSPIRATION
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.
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 modeled 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.
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The article above was reprinted with permission from the Bathroom Institute's newest book, Uncle John's Fully Loaded 25th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.
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