Hi all, welcome to the official 2020 Christmas Tale of History and Imagination. Merry Christmas all, I hope this post finds you all well. Today’s post begins in Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh, Scotland. The date is 1841. A young writer meanders through the graveyard, perusing the tales to be seen on the markers. No doubt he looked on the resting place of the ‘Father of Economics’ Adam Smith. Smith’s tomb is substantial, but bears the simple engraving
“Here are deposited the remains of Adam Smith, author of the Theorey (sic) of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.”
So much more could have surely been said about one of the great philosophers of his age; perhaps a novelist in this day and age might pause and wonder who was Smith’s one true unrequited love (he never married or had children, as evident in his spartan epitaph). “He uncovered the invisible hand that moves the market, but dismissed the hand of Cupid pulling at his heartstrings: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Romance”.
He must have stopped to view the gravestone of the poet Robert Fergusson. A well-liked man about town whose works were starting to really gain some attention, Fergusson’s career was suddenly cut short after he took a suspicious tumble down a stairway. In spite of his protests, Fergusson was taken to hospital, where he would die of a head injury days later. His stone bears an epitaph from his friend Robert Burns.
“No Sculptur’d marble nor pompous lay
No storied urn, nor animated bust,
This simple stone directs Pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust”
It was, however, another gravestone entirely which caught the author’s imagination. A simple block of granite, inscribed
“Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie
1792 – 1836.”
The headstone made an impact on the writer, a 29 year old Charles Dickens. He is said to have wondered what kind of monster Mr. Scroggie must have been to have earned the appellation ‘Mean Man’, especially in an age full of mean men not remembered so. I don’t know if Dickens enquired about Scroggie, though we now know him to have been a rather hedonistic young man who matured into a successful vintner, whiskey maker and corn merchant. He was of note in 1822 for supplying the food for a royal visit to Edinburgh, and was the British Navy’s sole supplier of whiskey. It’s been suggested Dickens misread that day, that the grave actually said ‘Meal Man’, but we’ll never know. During a construction project in 1932, Scroggie’s grave marker was inexplicably lost. What is certain, as the tale percolated in Dickens’ mind Scroggie gave way to Scrooge, and one of the great characters of Victorian literature was born.
I’ll have a little more to say on Dickens’ 1843 novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ later, but first should address – if Ebenezer Scroggie lent his name to the character of Scrooge, but not his actual character, just who was the narrative source for the old miser? The answer most often given, John Elwes – member of Parliament for Berkshire.
John Elwes was born John Meggot on 7th April 1714 to Robert and Amy Meggot (nee Elwes) in Southwark. Born to a wealthy, but extremely parsimonious family (it was said Amy accidentally starved herself to death over several years in an effort to save as many pennies as possible on the groceries), John found himself orphaned as a young boy, and in charge of a £100,000 fortune – just shy of $22 Million US now. As a result, he had a far more comfortable childhood than many of his peers. Having studied at Westminster School, John left on the Grand Tour – mixing with foreign aristocracy and making a name for himself as an excellent horseman. Tiring of the company of the likes of Voltaire, John returned to Britain, where he continued to live the high life.
His world view changed drastically however by the middle of the 18th century. As wealthy as John was, his ageing uncle, Baronet Harvey Elwes was considerably wealthier than he, and was a renowned cheapskate to boot. The Baronet had never married, nor fathered a child. The only heir to his £250,000 fortune was young John, pampered rich kid that he was. In all likelihood in an effort to win fortune and favor from uncle Harvey, John changed his ways – first changing his surname to Elwes, then adopting his uncle’s skinflint ways. When Harvey died in 1763, he left a further £250,000 to his nephew – $53 Million, according to a University of Wyoming currency converter. For a reason never stated, John Elwes never went back to his freewheeling ways – instead choosing to live a lifestyle that would make a Hetty Green or John Paul Getty blush.
Let’s start with candles – probably the least of his sins as a tallow candle was both hideously expensive, and smelled awful when lit. Elwes was notorious for never using candles when moving around his stately home at night. He would much rather bang into the furniture and put his fate in the lap of the Gods when traversing stairs than waste an average weekly wage on several hours of candlelight. Most nights Elwes would also sit in the kitchen with the help, as they would insist on lighting a fire – and he refused to get a second fire going.
Worse, Elwes refused to fix a growing number of leaks in his roof. This was in spite of the fact the water getting into the house was starting to rot it out from under him, not to mention all the ruined antique furniture the leaks caused.
John Elwes always looked a mess. He wore the same suit for months on end, both day and night, till his clothes turned to rags. Wigs being popular in his day, he refused to buy one. His wig some worn out old rug salvaged after some passing pedestrian tossed it into his grounds. He would often refuse to catch a cab if raining, instead tromping through the deluge, then sitting round soaked at the other end, as he was also too cheap to dry his clothes in front of a fire. He kept food till it went moldy or putrid, and was well known for going out to meet friends – then taking a pancake and a hard boiled egg out of his jacket pocket, to avoid spending money at a restaurant or tavern.
One tale has it, one dark night while walking home, John Elwes took an awful tumble. A doctor was called to dress his injuries – deep gashes to both his legs. Elwes not only refused to let the doctor treat the second leg, he wagered the cost of his treatment on his untreated leg healing sooner. By chance it did, thus saving Elwes the cost of treatment – something he crowed about for some time.
In 1772, Elwes would be elected member of parliament for Berkshire, a job he’d hold for the following twelve years. A complete maverick who voted for whichever side pleased him that day, he drew derisive comments from other parliamentarians such as he could never be a turncoat as he only owned the one coat to start with. He eventually stepped down from the, then, unpaid job as it was costing him too much money to serve.
While John Elwes is widely considered the model for Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, I think it is fair to point out in some ways he was far from a real life Ebenezer. Dickens’ Scrooge is shown on Christmas eve counting his money, while his employee Bob Cratchit froze in the ante room. For a start we know he never denied his help a fire for themselves. Scrooge is visited by his nephew Fred, then two charity collectors, all out after something from him – the men are met with an aggressive response – Fred himself sent packing with a ‘Bah! Humbug!’. Elwes WAS known to give to charity, and invest in the upgrade of parts of London. Much of the Georgian architecture present in London owes to his redevelopments. He may have never had one true, lost love such as Scrooge’s Belle – but he had relationships with at least two women, who bore him illegitimate heirs. Nor would he have let Bob Cratchit’s poor son, Tiny Tim, suffer unnecessarily – or been spoken about on his passing by his debtors as an unforgiving ogre. To others John Elwes was a very caring man, who often gave out loans knowing full well he’d never see the money back. He still passed on, finally in 1789, leaving a £500,000 fortune – $81 Million in 2020 money, but he did spend a lot in making others happy. His biographer Edward Topham summed him up, stating “To others, he lent much, to himself he denied everything”.
Given that, maybe on a normal year I’d suggest we all need to be a little more like the real life Scrooge – to find a little joy in giving – but, hell this has been anything but a normal year. Eat, drink and be merry I say – life’s too short not to. Take care out there, and a Merry Christmas all. “God Bless us! Every one” as Tiny Tim states in that, most famous of Christmas Tales.