John Elwes, 1714 – 1789: Bah, Humbug

The man was said to be the template for Ebenezer Scrooge, and superficially there seems something of a case to be made.  In the end, however, he was far stranger than that, and one wonders that Dickens could not have done more with him.

He was born John Meggot (or Meggott) to a prosperous brewer who died when John was four years old, leaving a fortune of over £150,000.   Bereaved by her loss and presumably terrified of going into principle, Mom died of starvation.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man man possessed of a good fortune (and unencumbered by parents)  must be in want of a good time.  He had been a scholar at Westminster, liked high society, and liked riding. He liked travel as well, and spent some time in  Switzerland.  (Voltaire was supposedly the main attraction- Elwes preferred the horses.) 

The parents might be gone, but there were other relatives about, most notably his mother’s brother, Sir Harvey Elwes, whose fortune was even larger than the boy’s father.  Uncle Harvey  also shared with his sister a cautious view towards expenditure.  The estate he lived in was a crumbling ruin as the old man thought repair work a waste of money.  Leaks, broken windows, – the usual.  Food was free – partridges hunted on the estate – and the cold could be combated by brisk walking about the unheated halls.

Well, if you are going to suck up to rich relatives, you must adopt their ways.  John began by taking the the family name so it would not die out.  He then became an assiduous companion to the aged relative.  He would ride out to the old man’s crumbling estate, stop at a small inn outside town and change into shabbier clothing before presenting himself.   (Had to eat before arrival as well – not a groaning table at chez Uncle Elwes, though there was the extravagance of wine – a single glass between them, as the two men discussed the absurd profligacy of their inferiors.  (To be fair, this was an age of wild extravagance, enough to put anyone on the far side of the pendulum. Or revolution.)

The plan worked, and twelve years later when the old man died, John scooped the pot (£250,000).  In a purely O. Henry twist, however, the goal became moot.  Young Elwes himself was now thoroughly indoctrinated in the ways of miserdom.  Indeed, he surpassed his master.  Where Harvey had lived on £110 a year, John cut that down to £50.

How, exactly?  To bed at sundown because candles aren’t free you know.  And a walk in the pouring rain is far more invigorating than a twopenny cab ride.  Food?  This was a man born for Tupperware, though roadkill would do nicely, thanks very much.  Small economies, but they add up.

His entertainments were simple.  He went  to gambling hells and watched his contemporaries lose money at the tables. (As a younger man he had played himself, but found that while he was prompt to pay his debts, others were not so forthcoming.)   Come closing time, it was to whatever rental unit he owned that was currently vacant and doss down.  A minimum of furniture allowed rapid and frequent moves.

Mean on small things, he was always happy to invest and there were plenty who were around to help him do so.  Huge amounts were up the spout.

Somehow he managed to produce two illegitimate sons, well loved but not indulged with anything so dangerous as school. “Putting things into peoples heads was the sure way to take money out of their pockets.”  He instead appears to have bought them commissions in the army, and so enjoyed the hospitality of the mess room.  Indeed, he was noted as a good scholar while at school was also noted never to be seen with a book for the rest of his life.  certainly none remained in his house.

Absent the school thing, the Scrooge thing doesn’t really hold up.  His cheapness was self imposed. With friends in trouble, he was quite open handed, to a fault.  He was too much the gentleman to remind his gentlemen friends that loans are supposed to be repaid.*    He was also a patron of Robert Adam, and as such responsible for financing a good deal of London’s more attractive West End architecture.  Compare this to Hetty Green.

He served three terms in Parliament where his parsimony served the public good. Eighteen pence a day on expenses, no more.  Nominally a Whig, he voted his conscience, which was – frugal.  It was good for three years but once it seemed as if the next campaign would demand expense, he bowed out.   “What he had not bought, he would not sell.”  Nor would he take a pension.  It was unusual even back then.

He died at an advanced age, probably the healthier for his having avoided the appalling excesses of the moneyed classes at the time.  His friend Edward Topham  wrote a short life, puzzling over the extremes of profligacy and cheapness in the fellow.  For all his picturesque parsimony, Elwes  was also open to all kinds of bad investment ideas and lost thousands on con jobs and unpaid bills. Despite it all, he managed to grow the pile to the extent that he was able to leave his two un-educated sons got half a million pounds each.

Different people, the rich.

*(His uncle did one better – robbed by a gang of thieves, he refused to appear for the prosecution when they were caught.  The money was gone, and that was that.  Time is money, and he would not throw good money after bad for the sake of mere justice.)

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