Today I want to tell you about John Camden Neild. Not many people knew much about him until he died on this day in 1852 and left all his money to Queen Victoria. Neild was a lawyer, landowner and a miser. He inherited the massive sum of £250,000 from his father and devoted the last thirty years of his life to increasing that fortune.
Although he lived in a large house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, he had hardly any furniture in it. For quite a while he didn’t even bother with a bed, but slept on bare boards. He kept two servants including a housekeeper but paid them a lower wage when he was away collecting rents from the tenants on his estates. Neild used to spend quite a lot of time at North Marsden in Buckinghamshire where he had a considerable amount of property. If it was possible to avoid paying for a coach journey by hitching a lift on a passing cart he always took the latter. It didn’t matter to him how filthy the cart was. It could be a coal wagon and he’d still take that rather than pay. Of course Neild didn’t have his own house in North Marsden, he would just turn up and stay with his tenants. Luckily he didn’t seem to eat very much, mainly bread, milk and eggs. If he could buy three eggs for a penny he would ask his tenants wife to boil three, eat two and put the other in his pocket for breakfast. If he had been extravagant enough to bring a sandwich with him, he would ask permission to put it in a cupboard for later, Then he would keep checking to make sure it was still there.
Neild seems to have been oddly obsessed with the condition of his land. He put quite a lot of effort into counting the trees. He also used to go out with a pickaxe which he used to examine the quality of the soil. It’s a pity he didn’t put the same care into the buildings he was responsible for. When the church in North Marsden required a new roof, because the lead was cracked, rather than buy more lead he had it covered over with painted calico. Not really a long lasting solution, but he thought it would last his lifetime and that was all that mattered. He also insisted on sitting on the roof whilst the job was done to make sure everyone kept working.
That he cared for wealth above all else is best illustrated by an occasion when he was staying with a tenant and received news that his stocks had taken a dive. The tenant’s wife, Mrs Neal, had to prevent him from slitting his throat with a razor.
He didn’t spend a lot of money on clothes either. He wore a very old fashioned blue swallow tail coat, brown breeches and stockings that were generally full of holes. He didn’t allow anyone to brush the dirt off his clothes because he said it wore out the fabric. He didn’t even waste money on an overcoat, not even when it was really cold. Most people who met him took pity on him because he looked like a gentleman who had fallen on hard times. He never declined their charity.
Everyone was quite surprised therefore when his will was read. The sum he bequeathed to Queen Victoria amounted to £500,000. The Queen used some of the money, first to increase the bequest to his executors from £100 to £1,000. She also provided an annuity for Neild’s housekeeper, who he had not mentioned in his will at all, even though she had been with him for twenty-six years, and a sum for Mrs Neal, the tenant who had saved his life. Later she also paid for proper repairs to the church neglected by Neild and had a window installed in his memory.
John Neild was buried at this church at his own request. By the time of his funeral, news of his surprising bequest was widely known and his funeral was well attended. No one was very sad though. Someone was overheard saying that if he had known how much it would cost to get his body from London to Buckinghamshire ‘he would have come down here to die to save the expense.’
I don’t have a picture of John Camden Neald to show you. He was far too mean to have one painted. So I’ve had to make do with a photo of three boiled eggs.