Hedgewig

04 07 john elwesToday is the birthday of John Elwes, who was born in 1714 in Southwark. He was born John Meggot. Elwes was his mother’s family name. He inherited several large fortunes during his life and could have lived very comfortably. But he didn’t. Elwes was a miser. He came from a long line of misers, his maternal grandmother Lady Isabella Hervey was notoriously mean. His first fortune came to him at the age of just four, when his father died. His mother was left £100,000 in the same will, but she didn’t spend it. In fact, it is said that she starved herself to death. John inherited the rest of the estate.

His mother’s brother, Sir Harvey Elwes, became a big influence in his life. He was also a miser. When John visited his uncle he would dress down especially for the occasion and make sure he’d had a good meal first. The two would spent evenings together, complaining about the extravagance of others, while they shared a single glass of wine and burned a single stick on the fire. When it got dark, they went to bed to save on candles. John changed his surname from Meggot to Elwes in order to inherit his uncle’s fortune which was worth £250,000.

John Elwes inherited his uncle’s miserly ways along with his fortune. He began to dress in ragged clothes all the time. When his wig wore out, he wore another that he had found in a hedge. People used to mistake him for a beggar and press pennies into his hand. He would walk in the rain rather than pay for a coach and then sit in wet clothes rather than build himself a fire to dry them. He kept food after it had gone off and would eat putrefied game before he would allow more food to be bought. His huge house was crumbling because he wouldn’t spend anything on repairs. Once, when his nephew, Colonel Timms, came to stay, he was awakened in the night by rain pouring in on him through the roof. He could find no bell to summon help, so he was forced to move his whole bed several times until he found a spot where he could stay dry. When Timms mentioned it the next day, Elwes replied that he didn’t mind the leaks himself, but for anyone who does: ‘…that is a nice corner in the rain’

Remarkably, for someone who was so careful with his money, he was very fond of gambling and lost some of his fortune that way. He also didn’t mind lending to friends and never seemed to notice when they didn’t repay him. He once lent £7,000 to Lord Abingdon to bet on a horse at Newmarket. Elwes attended the race himself, he rode there on horseback with nothing to eat for fourteen hours except a piece of pancake he had put there two months earlier. He claimed in was ‘good as new’. It’s a good job he had a strong constitution, because he disliked paying for a physician. Once he fell and badly cut his legs whilst walking home in the dark. He would only allow the doctor to treat one of his legs. Then he bet the doctor his fee that the untreated leg would heal quicker. He won his bet.

There are other stories about John Elwes and his legendary miserliness. There was the time he almost died because he fell ill whilst sleeping in a stable and the time he was made MP for Berkshire, having laid out election expenses of only eighteen pence. He may have been the inspiration behind the character of Scrooge in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ and he is mentioned by name in ‘Our Mutual Friend’. There is one tale about him though, that shows him in a different light. It seems he was once out hunting with another gentleman who was a terrible shot. This man accidentally fired his gun through a hedge and some of the lead shot hit Elwes in the cheek. The man was clearly embarrassed and also quite concerned. As he approached to apologise Elwes held out his hand and said: “My dear sir, I congratulate you on improving; I thought you would hit something in time.”

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