The Real Scrooge

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 and whose name has become a byword for miserly and mean.

The miser that was Scrooge

 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, 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.

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, 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.

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.”

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.”

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.

 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 .

 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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