John Elwes the Real Ebenezer Scrooge Fought a Rat for Food

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john elwes scrooge

All my life I thought that the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens “A Night Before Christmas,” was nothing more than a fictional character. the result of a creative imagination. But to my surprise, he was based on a real person. That’s right, the real Ebenezer Scrooge was based on a real person, a man called John Elwes. But if you thought that Scrooge was a real penny pincher, he barely cast a shadow when compared to John Elwes, the real Ebenezer Scrooge.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. He was the main character of Dickens ever popular Christmas tale, “A Night Before Christmas.” He was about as nasty and mean hearted a man that you could find, always concerned about money. He would put money and the pursuit of it, before everything else. Money was the reason for his entire existence, and he would do anything to earn more or prevent it from leaving his clutches. It wasn’t until he was paid a visit by the three Christmas ghosts that he changed his mean and frugal ways. The story had a classic Disney fairytale ending, and it has even inspired a Disney knockoffs, and the richest fictional character. However, even at his most mean-spirited, penny-pinching worst, Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t compare to the real Ebenezer Scrooge, John Elwes.

John Elwes was a wealthy Member of Parliament in Great Britain during the latter half of the 18th century. Although he served for over a decade in Parliament, he is remembered today as being one of the biggest misers to have ever lived. This trait, it would appear, may have been an inherited one, like much of his initial wealth.

Elwes came into his first inheritance from his father when he was only four years old. His mother was left with an inheritance of £100,000 (about £8,000,000 today). Although she was left with a large sum of money, legend has it that she died from starvation because she was too mean to spend any of it. This seemed to be a family trait. With her death, Elwes inherited the entire family estate. But as frugal as his mother may have been, something that her mother may have passed on as she was regarded as a great miser, it was his uncle that had the biggest impact on his money habits.

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Elwes uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes, 2nd Baronet, of Stoke College and MP for Sudbury, was a huge miser in his own right. The pair, when together, gained a reputation for being overly frugal with their wealth. The pair would even share a single glass of wine to save buying two. When Sir Harry died in 1763, he left his fortune of £250,000 (about £18,000,000 today) to Elwes. But even this vast wealth, which would continue to grow, didn’t change him from his stingy ways. If anything, he became worse.

The real Ebenezer Scrooge, John Elwes, became such a Scrooge in his own right that he became famous as perhaps the biggest miser to have ever lived. To get an understanding of just how stingy he was with money, you have to keep reading. And a word of warning, it does get disgusting.

When he was encouraged to enter parliament, he did so on the condition that he not pay for his own campaign. Today that wouldn’t be a big deal. A lot of political parties pay for the campaigns of their candidates. But let’s look further. As a parliamentarian, he didn’t really look the part. He only ever wore completely ragged clothes, so as not to have to buy any new ones or pay for unnecessary repairs. He would walk everywhere to avoid having to pay for the fare of a coach or even a share of a coach fare. If he got caught walking in the rain, he would just sit in his cold and wet clothes to save the cost of drying them by a fire. So clearly not keen to burn wood, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that he would go to bed at sunset to save burning candles.

He refused to repair or maintain his own mansion, to the point where they became completely dilapidated. A visitor to his home once commented that he had to move his bed several times to prevent being rained on. Elwes response was “that is a nice corner in the rain!” Even his own health was not protected from his miserly ways.

He had a deep mistrust of doctors, believing that they were a waste of money. One one occasion when he was walking home one night he cut both of his legs. He refused to see a doctor, but was persuaded to see an apothecary (today this would be a pharmacist), but allowed him to work only on one leg. He wagered that the other untreated leg would heal first, and if it did his fee should be returned to him. The untreated leg did heal before the treated leg, and he got his money back.

We all like food, and normally the fresher, the better. But as a man that didn’t like to spend money unless it was absolutely necessary, food was no exception to the rule. He was renowned for eating moldy and stale food, and on the rare occasion that he actually bought new food, he didn’t waste any of it. If he were to buy a sheep, he would consume every single piece of it, even when it had reached a point of final putrification. He refused to waste anything, no matter how rotten it had become. On one occasion he went to the races with no food for 14 hours besides some two month old leftover pancake that he had in his coat. He swore that it was as good as new. But it does get a little more ridiculous.

One one occasion he caught a fish that had partly eaten another fish. He remarked that he had received two fish for one, and consumed both. Another more notable incident saw Elwes fight a rat for a moorhen that it had pulled from a river. He won, and ate it.

Now, you would be thinking that this kind of life would result in a shortened existence, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his longevity much at all. He died in 1789 at the age of 75, having spent no more than £50 a year about £3,600 a year today). He left his vast wealth to his two sons who each inherited £500,000 (about £36,000,000) each, and the remainder went to his nephew. His two sons were uneducated because he believed that educating them would ultimately be “putting things into people’s heads is the sure way to take money out of their pockets.”

After his death, he gained fame, or infamy, for being perhaps the biggest miser that has ever lived. He even went on to become the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.

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