Well, at least he didn’t die poor

Me and money, we don’t exactly get along. This suits us both fine – it avoids me, and when it can’t, I do my best to get rid of it as soon as possible. While looking for financial advice, preferably advice that doesn’t involve stepping into a bank, I came across the strange story of John Elwes, MP.

Elwes, with some money.

Elwes, with some money.

Elwes is quite a significant figure in the history of London, being responsible for the development of much of the West End. He was known to be a remarkably generous moneylender, and never chased his debts. He became an MP for Berkshire and ran unopposed for twelve years, stepping down entirely voluntarily. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that he was possibly the biggest miser in the world ever.

Despite his remarkable wealth, inherited as a result of his family’s Southwark brewery, he begrudged spending the merest penny on his own comfort. His estates were allowed to fall into disrepair because he refused to fork out to fix them. He owned one coat, which he had found in a hole in the wall of his house and which was home to a fine colony of mould. See that wig he’s wearing? It was found in the gutter. He would sleep in a hedge rather than pay for lodgings and walk across the city in the rain rather than pay for a cab (and he wouldn’t pay for a fire to dry himself when he arrived at his destination, either). He was reluctant to pay for doctors’ fees, and on one occasion when he injured both legs, he only paid to have one treated – and bet the doctor his fee that the untreated one would heal faster. He won, by the way. When he had to ride – a task at which he was, incidentally, very accomplished – he would only ride along the grassy verges for fear of wearing the horse’s shoes out.

His dining habits were frankly nauseating. He was, as you might imagine, terrified of wasting food, and would commonly dine on meat that was crawling with maggots. On one occasion, a friend was grossed out when he lunched on a two-month-old pancake in his pocket (his mouldy pocket, don’t forget). Rather than invest in a hearty tavern meal, when he travelled he would take a boiled egg and eat it along the way. Remember I said he retired from politics after twelve years? Because if he’d stayed any longer, he’d have had to pay for his seat.

His habits seem to have been inherited from his family. His mother, for instance, died of malnutrition. He would often share a glass of wine with his uncle. That is, a single glass of wine between them. In his younger days, Elwes would visit his uncle dressed in rags for fear of being disowned by the old man.

In his later years, unsurprisingly, he became ridiculously paranoid about being robbed, and when he finally popped his clogs at the age of fifty-nine, his physician suggested that it was purely the stress of this paranoia that had killed him. Unlike most Georgian gentlemen, he didn’t spend his days forcing beef and claret into every orifice, and so potentially could have lived far longer if he hadn’t been such a nutjob.

He had two sons, whom he refused to educate for fear that they might think spending money was a good idea. Nevertheless, on his passing they earned his entire fortune of £750,000. I like to think they went out and got roaring drunk and then had a slap-up meal, but history sadly does not record.

It’s commonly suggested that John Elwes was the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge. If so, it’s interesting that Dickens, a man never known to shy away from a caricature, had to tone Elwes down to make him even vaguely believable.

All of a sudden, I don’t feel so bad about my overdraft.



Filed under 18th century, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, Waterloo and Southwark, West End

3 responses to “Well, at least he didn’t die poor

  1. Pingback: Ebenezer Scrooge versus Sweeney Todd versus Big Ben « London Particulars

  2. Pingback: Fagin is a problem, isn’t he? « London Particulars

  3. Pingback: “A most infamous, vile scoundrel.” | London Particulars

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