Beggars Banquet

07 17 death of a miser heronimus boschYesterday, I wrote about money and how it is worth nothing until you exchange it for something else. Today, I want to look at some of the people who didn’t get round to spending what they had while they were alive. Writers have long been fascinated by misers. Aesop, writing in the seventh or sixth century BC, tells us a story of a miser who buried his gold. But he came back to look at it every day and someone saw him, dug up the gold and stole it. The miser was distraught at the loss of his wealth. His neighbour consoled him by telling him that he might just as well bury a stone instead, or even just come back each day and look at the empty hole. Because he wasn’t using his gold, it would really be exactly the same thing. Buried gold is as useless as stone or an hole in the ground.

There are loads of examples of misers in literature, in theatre and in art, but there are also plenty of real life hoarders. I’ve mentioned a couple of them over the past year, and I have found that they are not necessarily greedy people, but they are not well people and are often profoundly eccentric. A true miser will live in apparent penury, in detriment to their comfort and their health so, often, their wealth is only discovered posthumously. Some, although they inherited huge sums, were assumed by the casual observer to be beggars. But some of them actually were beggars. Certainly, their accumulated riches were not as vast as those of John Camden Neild or John Elwes but were, nonetheless, remarkable. Robert Chambers, in his entry for July 17th, mentions Mary Wilkinson, who he describes as a ‘beggar and bone grubber’, who had £300 sewn into her ragged clothing. He also mentions Frances Beet who was found to have hidden £800 in her bed and rickety furniture and a character called ‘Poor Joe All Alone’ who had made his living selling matches and ballads and performing magic tricks yet he managed to amass a fortune of £3,000 by the time he died in 1767. Joe left the money he had saved to help support widows and orphans.

Both Robert and I have a particular reason for telling you about rich beggars today, because July 17th is the anniversary of the death of William Stevenson, who died at Kilmarnock in 1817. I have no idea when he was born, possibly some time around 1730. Stevenson was trained as a mason, but spent the greater part of his life begging. Up until his last illness, the only thing we know about him was that he and his wife had separated. They must had hated each other a lot, because they had made an agreement that if one of them ever proposed they got back together, they would pay the other £100. As far as we know, they never saw each other again.

Stevenson fell ill at the age of eighty-five and was confined to bed. His chief concern was that what little money he had scraped together would not last. But it did. When he knew he was close to death, he began to make arrangements for a grand send off. He sent for a baker and ordered twelve dozen funeral cakes and a great quantity of sugar biscuits. He ordered wine and liquor in correspondingly large amounts and said that more of both should be purchased if that proved to be insufficient. Next, he sent for a joiner and ordered himself an expensive coffin. Then the gravedigger, and asked for a roomy grave in a dry and comfortable corner. He told an old lady who had been looking after him where she might find £9 hidden in his home to pay for all the expenses, and assured her that she had been remembered in his will. He died shortly afterwards and, when his room was searched they found a bag of silver pieces, more coins hidden in a heap of old rags and £300 hidden in a trunk. They also found bonds and securities. His fortune amounted to around £900. To the old lady, he left £20, which may not sound like much but, in today’s money, that’s close to £1,800.

William Stevenson lay in state for four days while his distant relatives were gathered to attend his funeral. But it was not a sombre affair. It was a party. Whole families were invited. He was visited by the young and the old, by beggars and poor tradesmen. The older attendees found they had each been left sixpence, the younger ones, threepence. After the burial, everyone repaired to a barn, where most of them got so drunk that they had to be helped home. Some did not make it home at all, but fell asleep on a pile of corn sacks. The only account I could find of William’s funeral was by someone who clearly didn’t approve of it. It uses words like ‘wicked’, ‘careless’ and ‘waste’. It also goes on to say that those who missed the celebrations threatened to dig up his body so that they could give him another send off. They left him where he was, but apparently, the party continued for several weeks. That doesn’t sound like a waste to me. I think when a funeral is such fun that you want to do it all over again – that’s a pretty good funeral.



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.”

Out Of His Misery


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.