Belfast Telegraph

The real Mr Scrooge

Sammy Wilson's published his austerity Budget, but for a true Scrooge you need to go back to an 18th century MP who wouldn't spend Christmas, writes Liam Clarke

The Finance Minister has just unveiled his draft Budget, the recession is biting and economists predict a regional double-dip - just for Northern Ireland.

So this may be the year to say a decisive 'bah humbug' to Christmas - white, as it promises to be - and to rehabilitate Ebenezer Scrooge as a hero for our straitened times.

Well, not so much Scrooge, who went soft in the end, but the man who inspired him: John Elwes, the millionaire miser who represented Berkshire in the House of Commons between 1772 and 1784.

Here was a politician so thrifty that he spent just 18 pence (old money) on getting himself elected, brought a boiled egg in his pocket for lunch at the Commons and eventually stood down rather than incur further expense.

He once dined on a moorhen that had been killed by a water rat and wore a wig which he salvaged from the hedge where a tramp had discarded it.

In the Mother of Parliaments, Elwes sat with whichever party took his fancy on the day. In spite of his fickle nature, fellow MPs joked that he was no turncoat because he had only one suit - and that was secondhand.

Charles Dickens, who created Scrooge for his short story, A Christmas Carol, borrowed his tight-fisted protagonist's name from the Edinburgh tombstone of Ebenezer Scroggie. He believed it bore the inscription 'a mean man', but he had misread it: Scroggie, a merchant, was actually being memorialised as a 'meal man'.

Dickens was less-mistaken about the Scrooge-like personality traits which he borrowed from Elwes. "Darkness is cheap and Scrooge liked it," Dickens said of his fictional character.

In real life, Elwes refused to provide a candle for his lawyer as he lay on his death bed dictating his will. The barrister was told to use the light from the hearth to write by.

He was lucky. A fire was a rare indulgence and may have been a sign that the dying man was losing his vice-like grip on the purse strings.

When he was more himself, the old skinflint preferred walking home in the rain to hailing a cab. He refused to either take off his wet clothes - indeed, he had no others to change into - or light a fire to dry them out.

Fires were also forbidden at mealtimes: Elwes maintained that eating was exercise enough to keep him warm. Naturally, he retired at sundown to save on candles, keeping both his clothes and shoes on in bed.

The will which he made bequeathed £500,000 (£28m in today's money) to his sons George and John, who were born out of wedlock because he would not recognise their mother, and to his nephew. He loved the children, but refused to pay to have them educated because he believed it would only put ideas in their heads and lead to them squandering money.

Surely there is an echo here of the current Government's policy towards students.

In spite of his wealth, he wasn't much of a businessman, preferring to put his money into properties which he then refused to repair.

Elwes got his money by inheriting two fortunes. The first, which his father had built up, came to him after his mother starved herself to death rather than waste money on food. She left him £100,000 (£5.6m today). The second fortune came in at £250,000 (£14m today) from his uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes, the MP for Sudbury and the man who was the greatest influence on his life.

John Elwes changed his name from John Meggott to ingratiate himself with his uncle. He later recalled how the two of them would sit all evening sharing a single glass of wine as they bewailed the profligacy and waste of the world.

But, penny-pinching as he undoubtedly was, Elwes did have a generous side and that may also have inspired Dickens.

Though he moved his bed about to avoid the rain dripping into his chamber, he was a famously soft touch for a loan and considered it shameful to ask a gentleman for his money back.

It is well-documented that he insisted on lending Lord Abingdon £7,000 to place a bet at Newmarket. Elwes travelled up from Suffolk on horseback to see the race and ate nothing during the 14-hour journey except a two-month-old pancake which he found in his pocket. He told friends that it was "as good as new".

He could also be generous in his comments. He took it in good part when, during a shooting expedition, a notoriously bad marksman peppered his cheek with buckshot.

"My dear sir," Elwes said, holding out his hand, "I congratulate you on improving. I knew you would hit something in time."

His biographer Edward Topham wrote of him: "In private life, he was chiefly an enemy to himself.

"To others, he lent much; to himself, he denied everything."

It would be wrong to end on such a heart-warming note. Better to remember the immortal words of Ebenezer Scrooge and agree that, in these hard times, "Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart."

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