The character of John Elwes—Sir Harvey Elwes—His singular habits—His dress—Three Knights quarrel about a farthing—Mrs. Meggot, the mother of John Elwes, starves herself to death, although possessed of a fortune of One Hundred Thou-Ban d Pounds—The love of Play in John Elwes—His inconsistency of character—Generosity in a Miser—How to save a toll—His conscientious disposition—The passion of avarice— His old age—The Miser rescued when at the point of death—His last days—His death, &c.
THE life of John Elwes has been so minutely recorded in an amusing narrative, by Captain Topham, and extracts from that work have been so frequently reprinted, that we were prone to exclude his name from our Lives and Anecdotes of Misers. It was some years ago that we read the book, and we found on glancing over it again the other day, that there were many anecdotes in his Memoirs, which so illustrate the passion of avarice, as to render the life of John Elwes especially deserving a notice from our hands. Mr. Elwes was a miser in the fullest acceptation of the term, and to obtain gold there was no sacrifice that he thought too great; yet he possessed qualities and traits of amiability, that won for him, in spite of his ruling vice, the respect and friendship of many worthy men.
Before we relate some singular anecdotes of this miser for the amusement of our readers, it will be as well to notice the memorable eccentricities of his uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes. On succeeding to the family estate, the knight became nominally possessed of some thousands a year, but really only of an income of one hundred pounds per annum. He said on his arrival at Stoke in Suffolk, the family seat, that never would he leave it until he had entirely cleared the paternal estate. For more than sixty years he lived there, almost alone; grasping, screwing, and scraping, to accumulate wealth. He received no visitors; he enjoyed no luxuries; and worst of all deprivations, he read no books! He was never seen with a volume in his hand; his scholarship was wholly devoted to the decyphering of old deeds, and in composing usurious bonds. In his housekeeping, like all misers, he was wretchedly penurious, and in his dress he would have suited admirably for one of Garrick's most ludicrous characters. He wore a black velvet cap, which being vastly too large, constantly fell over his eyes; an old time-worn suit of dress clothes, with worsted stockings drawn over the knees; these garments cost him nothing, for he took them from an old chest, where they had lain ever since the gay days of his father, Sir Jarvas Elwes. When the weather was cold, Sir Harvey would walk briskly, backwards and forwards in his old hall, to save the expense of firing; and if a farmer came on business, he would strike a light in a tinder-box, which he always kept by him, and putting one solitary stick in the huge old-fashioned grate, would not add another till the first had been nearly consumed.
Notwithstanding his dislike to society, Sir Harvey would occasionally venture a portion of his wealth at the gaming table; in fact, with the most miserly parsimony, the knight combined the restless disposition of the gambler. Sir Cordwell Firebras, and Sir John Barnardiston, were neighbours of Sir Harvey's, and from a similarity of tastes they became close companions; they used to meet at the little village of Stoke, and play a few rubbers of whist. When they parted, the reckoning was always divided between them with the most scrupulous exactitude, and the fractions of a penny were objects of serious consideration. One day, when they were engaged in settling some such difficult point, a wag called out to a friend that was passing, "Step up stairs, and assist the poor! Here are three baronets, each worth a million of money, quarrelling about a farthing."
Sir Harvey usually had large sums of money in the house, amounting to three or four thousand pounds at a time. A set of desperate burglars, dreaded and known throughout the country as the Thackstead gang, hearing of this circumstance, formed a plan to rob him. The old house was easily invaded, and the two servants were gagged and threatened if they attempted resistance. They presented their pistols to Sir Harvey, and demanded his money; he gave them the key of a drawer, in which they found fifty guineas. They were dissatisfied, and threatened instantly to take his life if he did not deliver up his hoards. After many protestations of poverty, he at last submitted to the urgent necessity of the case, and pointed out the hiding-place of his treasure, in which were found twenty-seven hundred guineas. On quitting, they told him that they should leave a man behind, who would murder him if he called for assistance. Sir Harvey, with admirable simplicity quietly took out his watch and said, "Gentlemen, I do not want to take any of you, therefore I will give you twenty minutes to escape."
When this gang of thieves some years afterwards were captured, Sir Harvey refused to appear against them; and when urged to go to Chelmsford to identify them, he would reply, "No, no! I have lost my money, and now you want me to lose my time also."
Many are the anecdotes preserved of this singular man, but we are compelled to leave them, to record those related of his nephew and successor.
The sister of Sir Harvey Elwes married a Mr. Meggot, a wealthy brewer of Southwark, who died a few years after his marriage, leaving a son, and one hundred thousand pounds to his widow. Mrs. Meggot, like her brother, was of a most miserly disposition; and although possessed of so ample a fortune, is said to have actually starved herself to death! Sir Harvey left to her son, John Meggot, the whole of his vast possessions, which were then estimated at two hundred and fifty thousand pounds; and he directed that his nephew was thereupon to assume the name and arms of the Elwes'. Mr. Elwes was about forty years of age at his uncle's death; and previous to this period he had entered into many of the gaieties of life, and became known to the fashionable and sporting circles in London. He had always, however, paid great deference to his uncle's foibles, and was always anxious to ingratiate himself in his favour, by assuming an aspect of the most rigid parsimony. On paying Sir Harvey a visit, he used to dress as a perfect miser; a tattered waistcoat, a worn-out coat, stockings darned with the most persevering industry, fastened with a pair of small iron buckles; when thus arrayed, the uncle used to contemplate his future heir with unfeigned delight, and was enraptured to find in him so striking a resemblance of himself.
Mr. Elwes had always a turn for play; in his time the gaming-table was a fashionable resort, and he was one of the most celebrated players of his day; few men had played deeper than himself. He once played two days and two nights without intermission; the room being a small one, and of course, never using the same pack a second time, they were nearly up to their knees in cards. He lost many thousands at that sitting; the Duke of Northumberland was of the party, who was never known to quit a table while there was any hopes of winning. We thus observe in the life of John Elwes, a remarkable instance of the analogy which appears to exist between the gambler and the miser. The love of play and the love of saving are both the promptings of avarice, and are both indications of an undue excitement of the acquisitive propensity.
"The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers Reason still."
"It is curious," says Captain Topham, "to remark, how he contrived to mingle small attempts at saving, with objects of the most unbounded dissipation. After sitting up whole nights, staking thousands with the most fashionable and profligate men of his day, amid splendid rooms, gilt sofas, wax lights, and waiters, he would walk out about four in the morning, not towards home, but into Smithfield, to meet his own cattle, which were coming to market from Thaydon Hall, a farm of his in Essex. There would the man, forgetful of the scenes he had just left, stand in the cold or rain, haggling with a carcase butcher for a shilling. Sometimes when the cattle did not arrive at the hour appointed he would walk on to meet them; and has more than once gone on foot the whole way to his farm, which was seventeen miles from London, after sitting up the whole of the night. Yet this remarkable man, who
In the way of a bargain.
He'd cavil on the ninth part of a hair.
could be generous at times; several instances of his liberality are recorded, which are curious to observe in one so habitually parsimonious. On one of his excursions to Newmarket, he found that Lord Abingdon had made a match for seven thousand pounds, which, it was supposed he would be obliged to forfeit, from inability to produce the sum, though the odds were greatly in his favour. Unsolicited, Mr. Elwes offered him the money, which was accepted, and his lordship won the engagement. On another occasion he advanced a large sum of money to a gentleman of the name of Tempest, to purchase a commission in the guards; he lent the money without security and never asked him for its repayment, yet he had only seen him once or twice."
John Elwes was a singular illustration of the inconsistency of the human mind. "One day a Mr. Spurling accompanied him to Newmarket, to be present at the spring races. They were out from six in the morning, and it was eight o'clock in the evening before they set out on their way home. Elwes, as usual, during the day eat nothing. When they began their journey home the evening was dark and very cold, and Mr. Spurling rode on somewhat quicker; and on going through the turn-pike, by the "devil's ditch," he heard Mr. Elwes calling to him with great eagerness. On returning before he had paid the toll, Mr. Elwes said—"Here! here! follow me; this is the best road!" In an instant he saw Mr. Elwes, as well as the night would permit, climbing his horse up the precipice of the ditch. "Sir," said Mr. Spurling, "I can never get up there." "No danger at all!" replied old Elwes, "but if your horse be not safe, lead him!" At length, with great difficulty, they mounted the ditch, and then, with not less toil, got down on the other side. When they were safely landed on the plain, Mr. Spurling thanked Heaven for their escape. "Aye," said the miser, "you mean from the turnpike. Very right; never pay a toll if you can avoid it." It is a curious fact, that at the very time when he thus ventured his life to save a paltry toll, he was actually engaged in a speculation connected with some American iron works, risking the enormous sum of twenty-five thousand pounds; and upon which he had entered without apparently much consideration, for he knew nothing as to the produce, prospects, or situation of these mines, but what he had gleaned from hearsay. With all his vices John Elwes, it must be owned, was remarkably conscientious; if by any chance he became indebted, he was never easy till he had paid; and he was never known if he promised payment, to fail in fulfilling his engagement.
Mr. Elwes had resided thirteen years in Suffolk, when he was proposed as a representative in Parliament. He used to boast that all the expense incurred in his election was eighteen-pence, which he paid for dining at an ordinary at Reading. Mr. Elwes was about sixty when he thus entered into public life; e sat in Parliament as the member for Berkshire, for more than twelve years, but during the whole of that time he never delivered a speech. Although remarkably attentive to his parliamentary duties, he was never known to indulge, even when the weather was the most uncomfortable, in the luxury of a cab; and after staying out the debate, he would walk home, through cold and wet, to save coach hire. Some of the members who happened to be going the same way, would propose a coach between them, but Elwes always replied that he liked nothing so much as walking. At length he retired to his seat at Stoke; and on arriving there he remarked, "That he had lost a great deal of money very foolishly, but that a man grew wiser in time."
And now in his declining years he became totally involved by his mammon worship. His appetite for other pleasures had diminished. The gaming-table had failed to excite his cupidity; the race course had lost its attractions, and society no longer possessed a charm; but whilst these sources of former joy were no longer sought; whilst these desires had become extinguished by years, or chilled as the winter of life approached, his lust and insatiable avarice for gold remained vigorous in his old age, and green and flourishing amidst the wintry barrenness which had overtaken the other vices and passions of his mind. No ray of his better nature appeared—the energies and thoughts of his old age were devoted to the acquisition of wealth; and Mr. Ewes, now worth nearly a million of money, became the saver of pence. He used to wander about the fields and roads to pick up sticks, 'bones or pieces of rag; during the harvest month he would condescend to mingle with the village gleaners, and carry home the result of his labours .to store away for the use of his own household. He would breakfast on a piece of stale pancake, or crust of dry bread; and on more than one occasion almost starved himself by his own extreme habits of penury.
Mr. Elwes, when in London, usually occupied any one of his own houses that happened to be unlet. Knowing that Elwes was in town, a Colonel Tims was very anxious to see him, but could not obtain his address; at last he accidentally heard that he was seen go into an uninhabited house in Great Marlborough Street, and he ascertained from a pot-boy that an old woman generally opened the stable-door to admit Mr. Elwes. He repaired thither, and knocked loudly at the door, but could gain no admittance; he determined to have the stable-door opened; a blacksmith was sent for, and they entered the house together; ascending the stairs, they heard the moans of some one seemingly indisposed, and went into the chamber, and there, upon a squalid mattress lay the apparently lifeless body of old Elwes. There was nothing near him but a part of a stale roll and a jug of cold water. An apothecary was called in, and after a time the miser recovered enough to say, that he believed he had been ill for two or three days, and that there was an old woman in the house, but for some reason or other she had not been near him; that she had been ill herself, but had got well, and he supposed she had gone away. On entering the garret the old woman was found lifeless on. a mat upon the floor, and to all appearances had been dead about two days: yet at the time of this occurrence Mr. Elwes was one of the richest men of his day, and possessed so many houses in London, that he became from calculation his own insurer.
As his end approached he had many warnings of coming dissolution; his nights were broken and restless, and he frequently arose to satisfy himself that his money was safe, and he was sometimes heard as if struggling with someone in his chamber, and crying out, "I will keep my money; no one shall rob me of my property." On any one going into his room he started alarmed, and as if waking from a troubled dream, would appear surprised, and quietly retire again to his bed seeming totally unconscious of what had happened. In the autumn of 1789 his mind began to waver; his memory became impaired, and his reason rapidly declined. A propensity which had long been overactive and diseased, now became fearfully violent by the excitement of insanity. For many weeks before his death he used to go to bed in his clothes as perfectly dressed as in the day-time. One morning he was found in his bed fast asleep with his shoes on, a stick in his hand, and an old hat on his head. The anxieties and feverish excitement which his passion for gold produced, tended to shorten his life. When Dr. Wells, his last physician, was called in, and found him extended on his miserable pallet, denying himself every comfort, and with his mind totally absorbed with his gold, he turned to one of the sons of Mr. Elwes, and said, "Sir, your father might have lived these twenty years, but his temper has made it impossible to hope for anything; the body is yet strong, but the mind is gone entirely." He died quietly on the 18th of November, 1789, but without any indication of repentance, without any signs of a diminution of his avarice, or without any thoughts of the future. In his last words addressed to his son he expressed a hope "that he had left him what he wished." He bequeathed the whole of his vast fortune, amounting in addition to his estate, to the sum of five hundred thousand pounds, to his two natural sons, George and John Elwes.
Thus died John Elwes, the representative of a family of misers. He began, as we have seen, his career as a gambler, in which he displayed his innate avarice, modified by his contact with the vices of fashionable life; for amidst the most boundless profligacy at the gaming-table, we have seen that acquisitiveness was ever active, and his mind was always on the watch to save.
Search the Ruling Passion. There alone,
The wild are constant, and the cunning known;
The fool consistent and the false sincere;
Priests, princes, women, no dissemblers here.