Was this Suffolk miser the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Scrooge?
- Credit: Archant
John Elwes went to bed when it grew dark so he didn’t have to pay for candles, and ate little more than stale bread and mouldy meat
A miserly Suffolk MP the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge? That’s a new one on me, but Sarah Doig raises this delicious possibility in a new book filled with tales about the county’s quirky side.
The story goes that John Meggot inherited his stinginess from his family – although some of it was a bit extreme. “His maternal grandmother, Lady Isabella Hervey, was a notorious penny pincher and his mother reputedly starved herself to death because she was too mean to buy food,” Sarah writes.
John is said to have come into money at the age of four, when his father died in 1718. His mother also left him a handy sum. “The greatest influence on John’s life was his parsimonious uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes of Stoke College in Stoke-by-Clare, who was also MP for Sudbury.
“John changed his surname to Elwes in order to inherit his uncle’s estate, worth more than £250,000. He also stepped into his uncle’s miserly shoes, living a frugal existence at Stoke College.” John apparently went to bed when it grew dark, so he didn’t have to pay for candles, and ate little more than stale bread and mouldy meat. “However, when out on the town with friends, he feasted with them. He wore ragged clothes whilst on his own but dressed in the height of fashion when visiting London friends.”
Elwes wasn’t stingy with his pals, lending some of them vast sums. Much of it he never saw again. “Yet John let his spacious country house become uninhabitable, rather than spend the money on necessary repairs. He lived on just £50 per week.”
Sarah writes how, when he died in 1789, the bachelor left about £500,000 to two illegitimate sons, “who he reportedly loved but would not educate, believing that ‘putting things into people’s heads is the sure way to take money out of their pockets’.”
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So did he inspire Charles Dickens’ famous character from A Christmas Carol? Well, the name of John Elwes is mentioned in a later novel, Our Mutual Friend, so anything is possible.
Elwes might not be the only Suffolk figure to fire the great author’s imagination. Sarah tells us how not just one but two of the most famous misers in England breathed their last in the county.
William Jennens, of Acton Hall, near Long Melford, was said to have been in his 100th year when he expired in 1798.
The Bury and Norwich Post told its readers the bachelor was reputedly the richest commoner in England – his wealth topping £2m. “He is reported to have kept 50,000 pounds in bankers’ hands for sudden emergencies and never drew out the dividends of his funded property till half a year after they were due.”
Jennens, says Sarah, was well-connected. One of his godfathers had been King William III and he had served as a page to George I.
After inheriting Acton Hall in 1725 he scrapped his father Robert’s refurbishment plans. “Instead, he lived in unfurnished rooms in the basement with his servants and dogs, shunning visitors and social contact. Despite this rather eccentric behaviour he was appointed High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1754. As well as squirrelling away inheritances, Jennens had lent money to gamblers in the London casinos.”
When he died intestate, without a will, William triggered long and involved legal wranglings in the Court of Chancery between people claiming they were the rightful heir. Lord Curzon looked to have clinched it. Then it seemed, bizarrely, that three soldiers from the East Suffolk Militia might make their fortunes. Even a female descendant of one of William’s brothers, who lived in America, launched a legal bid to claim the cash.
But there would be only one winner.
“All this time, although Jennen’s fortune had been accruing interest, it was not enough to keep pace with the lawyers’ bills and in 1915 the case was finally abandoned when the funds simply ran out,” explains Sarah.
It is believed this case provided the inspiration for Dickens’s novel Bleak House, published in monthly instalments in the early 1850s and featuring a long-running legal tussle.
“The moral of this sad tale is to ensure you make a will, and it appears that William Jennens so nearly did so.
“The Gentleman’s Magazine, in recording the miser’s demise in 1798, reported: ‘A will was found in his coat-pocket, sealed, but not signed; which was owing, as his favourite servant says, to his master leaving his spectacles at home when he went to his solicitor for the purpose of duly executing it, and which he afterwards forgot to do.’”
The intriguing stories of the resident misers are but two of the compelling tales in Sarah’s book The A-Z of Curious Suffolk – Strange Stories of Mysteries, Crimes and Eccentrics.
Many of us will have heard of some of them, even if we can’t recall all the details, while others will be new – as, in my case, with these two frugal gentlemen.
In the former category we can probably put things like the Stowmarket Gun Cotton Works explosion in August, 1871, that killed 28 people.
The factory made a propellant for gun cartridges and cannons by dipping cotton in a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acid and then washing the fabric. Two explosions left a crater 100ft wide and 10ft deep. The noise was heard more than 30 miles away and windows were broken in homes up to four miles away.
In the latter category might fall the fraudulent rector of Wetheringsett. After years of conscientious work – countless baptisms, weddings and funerals – George Ellis was exposed as a liar.
“He had apparently forged documents which stated that he had been ordained into the Roman Catholic Church. Armed with these, he had duped senior churchmen into believing that he had converted to the Church of England and had subsequently acquired a clerical position,” Sarah tells us.
So how did she become fascinated by the colour and characters of the past?
The writer credits her parents for instilling “a curiosity in the people, places and events around me”, explaining “I can trace my love of history back to childhood visits I made with my family to a small Norfolk village where my ancestors were blacksmiths. Some years later I embarked on a voyage of discovery into my family history and unearthed some fascinating details of my forebears and their life and work. From then on I was hooked on all aspects of family and local history.”
Thirty years ago she left Bury St Edmunds, where she went to school, for university.
“After a 20-year career in the Foreign Office I moved back to Suffolk, where I had spent my formative years, and made a radical shift to being self-employed.
“Using my postgraduate training [librarianship and information studies], many years of genealogical research experience and distance learning studies with the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, I launched a research service in 2010. I have since helped many people from across the globe discover more about their ancestors and their way of life.” She’s convinced Suffolk is a genuinely fascinating county, beneath its modest soul, wide skies and dark soil.
She says in the introduction to her book: “A few years ago there was a public outcry when Visit Suffolk unveiled a new tourism campaign aimed at luring visitors back to Suffolk. The campaign’s slogan was ‘The Curious County’.
“One of Suffolk’s MPs branded the slogan ‘idiotic and meaningless’ and ‘a euphemism for something not quite right’, and there were calls for the phrase to be dropped. Well, I beg to differ. I think ‘The Curious County’ sums up Suffolk precisely as well as concisely.
“When I was growing up in Suffolk, I knew that the county was special. Our family trips to castles, churches, country houses, farms, woods, forests, beaches, villages and towns alike always offered up something new and fascinating.
“Suffolk is a county steeped in history, yet still alive and thriving despite the best the Industrial Revolution had to throw at it. Our Suffolk ancestors left a rich legacy for us to discover and enjoy today.”
Room for one more bizarre episode, I reckon. Let’s go back to July, 1912, when 19-year-old Lilias claimed to have spotted a sea serpent off the Suffolk coast at Kessingland, south of Lowestoft. She was the daughter of H. Rider Haggard – the Norfolk-born, Ipswich Grammar School-educated, author of King Solomon’s Mines.
This “silly season” sighting, at a time of year when genuine news is traditionally thinner on the ground, allowed journalists to have a bit of fun.
Was the Sheffield Evening Telegraph making it up when it cited other people who saw something, or were the quotes genuine? For the paper said Miss Rider Haggard was not alone.
“It seems that a similar experience befell Mr C.G. Harding, of the Lowestoft Water and Gas Company, who on Sunday saw what resembled ‘a black line darting along the surface of the water’ at a terrific rate.
‘It simply went whizzing past,’ said Mr Harding, ‘as if it were a torpedo which had been discharged along the surface of the water.’”
Another man was said to have written to The Daily Chronicle:
“I recently returned from a holiday at Southwold (which is a few miles south of Kessingland), and whilst there saw on two occasions the ‘apparition’ which Miss Rider Haggard describes. The first time was from the beach, the second from the deck of a steamer between Lowestoft and Southwold…
“My own impression is that the ‘sea serpent’ was a row of birds flying very swiftly just over the surface of the water.
“Had it been a ‘serpent’ there would surely have been some wash visible even from the distance I was situated, and the same applies, I should say, to a school of porpoises.”
Sarah muses: “Lilias M. Rider Haggard went on to become a novelist herself. I wonder whether she ever had second thoughts about her sighting, thinking back perhaps to the bedtime stories her father must have told her when she was younger.”
Today, Sarah lives in Rickinghall, about a dozen miles north of Stowmarket.
“I returned to Suffolk in 2010. Even though I was born in Hertfordshire, Suffolk is the county I consider home. That is why, I suppose, I had the strong urge to return.
“It has been hugely rewarding revisiting Suffolk with fresh, adult eyes. The county is full of surprises and in the course of my book I uncovered stories of rags to riches Suffolk people, momentous events which shaped the county we see today, as well as discovering a rich and varied landscape.
“I thought I knew Suffolk well, but now, after all my research, I feel that I have only just scratched the surface!”
The A-Z of Curious Suffolk is published by The History Press at £12.99. Sarah has a book launch, open to all, at Rickinghall Village Hall on Sunday, September 4, from 2.30pm to 4.30pm. There will be readings at 3pm and 4pm.
Included in the book are:
Author Daniel ‘Robinson Crusoe’ Defoe’s verdict on Suffolk cheese (‘perhaps the worst… in England’)
The tale of Maharajah Duleep Singh, who turned Elveden Hall into a Moghul palace (near enough) and became a favourite of Queen Victoria
Details of arguments at Little Stonham between clerics and their congregation, as well as a war between clergymen
The story of the doctor good at treating TB but who insisted that young patients wore no shoes, even in the depths of winter
Details of the ‘Rougham Mirage’. The apparently-ghostly appearances – over hundreds of years, from out of nowhere and on the road between Rougham Green and Bradfield St George – of a large Georgian house with gates and a big garden
* Sarah says her 20-year career with the Foreign Office covered many different roles, “including Commonwealth policy (where I briefed HM The Queen for her visit to the Heads of Government meeting in South Africa), biological and chemical weapons, Overseas Territories (where I was, amongst other things, Deputy Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory) and Deputy Head of Mission in Bern, Switzerland”.