I have been struggling to find a suitable candidate for my letter E so I return John Elwes, an English eccentric who was noted for his extravagant generosity on the one hand and his extreme miserliness on the other that made him the model for one of the best-known characters of fiction.
He was born John Meggott in 1714, the son of a successful and wealthy brewer Robert Meggott and Amy Elwes whose surname he would eventually adopt.
His father died when Elwes was four years old and left his mother £100,000, or around £9 million today, and she is said to have starved herself to death because she was too mean to spend it. Whether this is true or not, the Elwes family had a reputation for miserliness, although it was not a trait exhibited by the younger Elwes, at least not at first.
After leaving Westminster School where he had been a good classical scholar he was sent to Geneva to complete his education and there he met the young Voltaire to whom he was said a remarkable resemblance.
But Elwes wasn’t interested in the ideas of his contemporary and much preferred the riding school and he became known as one of the boldest and best horsemen in Europe. He also had a fondness for gambling and moved in the most fashionable circles.
The change in his character came about when he returned from Europe and was introduced to his uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes, who himself had reputation for meanness. Although he had a personal fortune of £250,000, Sir Harvey’s annual expenditure was just £100.
Paying for food was painful for him and he ate little except fish and partridge that could be caught on his own property. He had few friends because he hated the expense of entertaining and his clothes came from an ancient chest that once belonged to his great-great-grandfather.
The young Elwes entertained hopes of inheriting Sir Harvey’s wealth and endeavoured to please the old man. Whenever he visited he would stop off at a nearby inn to change out of his fashionable clothes and into the simple workman’s garb that his uncle preferred. He would also sneak out to dine with a neighbour before sitting down at Sir Harvey’s miserable table where they had just one small glass of wine between them.
And Elwes’ plan worked and in 1763 he inherited his uncle’s estate that included houses in Suffolk and Berkshire, but it seems that his previous pretence became real and he was to gain an odd reputation for miserliness combined with honesty, compassion and generosity.
Elwes would often give aid to friends and tenants, financial and otherwise, but he spared himself no exertions in providing it in the cheapest possible way. For example, he once lent Lord Abingdon £7,000 to place a bet at Newmarket and delivered the money in person, riding fourteen hours with nothing to eat except a pancake that he’d put in his pocket two months earlier that he swore was ‘as good as new’.
His personal economies included going to bed before darkness fell to save on candles, rarely lighting a fire no matter the cold and never allowing his shoes to be cleaned for fear of wearing them out. And he always ate what he had in his cupboard, including maggot-ridden meat, before ordering fresh provisions.
Whenever he travelled he would take a hard boiled egg in his pocket for food and choose a route with the fewest toll-gates. He would only ride on the grass verge to save wear and tear on horseshoes and would refresh himself by a stream to save on the expense of an inn. On one occasion he rode to London on an errand to help two old ladies in distress and when they offered to repay his expenses, someone said ‘give him sixpence and he gains twopence by the journey’.
Elwes’ reputation is also illustrated by his twelve years as MP for Berkshire. True to form he refused to bear any of his own election expenses and yet he finally stood down exasperated at the money he lost in unrepaid loans to fellow MPs. But he was conscientious in attending debates and voted independently. He was known for his unshakable integrity and was often called upon to settle disputes between his constituents who trusted his impartiality.
After leaving Parliament, Elwes could devote himself to his miserliness full-time. He forbade any repairs to his properties and would usually eat with his servants in the kitchen to save on the cost of an extra fire. When he did eat alone he kept the room fireless saying that eating was exercise enough to keep him warm.
He would move from house to house, living in whichever one of his properties in London happened to be free, taking with him just a few sticks of furniture and this almost cost him his life when he fell ill and no-one knew where he was. It was only chance that a pot-boy remembered seeing an ‘old beggar’ going into the stable of one of his properties that he was found and saved.
Like many elderly misers, Elwes became convinced that he would lose all his money and die in poverty, and he imagined robbers at every turn. But by living on just £50 a year he had amassed a fortune of £800,000 which he left to his two sons born out of wedlock. He had genuine paternal feelings for them both, but it was typical that he had refused to educate them saying that ‘putting things into people’s heads is the sure way to take money out of their pockets’.
Elwes died in 1789 and his legacy includes the Georgian buildings he financed in London, including Portman Place, Portman Square, and parts of Oxford Circus Piccadilly, Baker Street and Marylebone.
But we most remember Elwes in popular culture as the inspiration for the very image of a miser for Charles Dicken’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.