Biography of British Parliament Miser John Elwes

About the famous scrooge John Elwes, biography and history of the British Parliament miser.


The Penurious Parliamentarian: JOHN ELWES (1714-1789)

"A name which has become proverbial in the annals of avarice" is how John Elwes was described 150 years ago. The epitaph was not completely fair, however. In self-denial he stood alone, but to others he was often generous to a fault. Elwes's fame as a miser undoubtedly arose from the attention his public life drew to him.

He was born into a respectable English family, received a good education in the classics, and was even something of a socialite during his early life. He was known as one of the best riders in Europe. He inherited his first fortune from his father, a brewer, who died when Elwes was four. Although his mother was left pound 100,000, she reputedly starved herself to death.

The greatest influence on his life was his miserly uncle, whom Elwes obsequiously imitated to gain favor. The two of them would spend the evening railing against other people's extravagances while they shared a single glass of wine. When Elwes inherited the uncle's entire estate, his net worth was around pound 500,000, a figure that continued to grow despite Elwes's inept handling of his finances. On assuming his uncle's property, Elwes also assumed his uncle's frugal ways. He wore only ragged clothes, including a wig he found in a gutter. To avoid paying for a coach he would walk in the rain, and then sit in wet clothes to save the cost of a fire to dry them. He so hated to waste anything that he would eat putrefied game before allowing new provisions to be acquired. On one occasion he ate a moorhen that a rat had pulled from a river. In common with many misers, he distrusted physicians, preferring to treat himself in order to save their fees. Elwes's only indulgence was a pack of excellent foxhounds.

Elected to Parliament in 1772 as a compromise candidate, he began the first of three terms. He sat with either party according to his whim, and he never rose to address the House. Fellow members mockingly observed that since Elwes possessed only one suit, they could never accuse him of being a turncoat. After 12 years he retired rather than face the prospect of laying out cash to retain his seat. In the meantime he lost huge sums of money to his colleagues in unrepaid loans, uncollected debts, and dubious investments. He believed that one did not ask a gentleman for money, regardless of the circumstances.

When his parliamentary career was over, he devoted his full energies to being a miser as he moved about among his many properties. At his neglected estates he forbade repairs, joined his tenants in postharvest gleaning, and sat with his servants in the kitchen to save the cost of a fire elsewhere. If a stableboy put out hay for a visitor's horse, Elwes would sneak out and remove it. In his last years he had no fixed abode and frequently shifted his residence between his unrented London properties. The practice nearly cost him his life when he fell desperately ill in one of these houses. No one knew where he was, and only by chance was he rescued.

Elwes had two sons out of wedlock, whom he loved but would not educate. He believed that "putting things into people's heads is the sure way to take money out of their pockets." He did, however, fill their pockets. After having lived on only pound 50 a year, he left half a million pounds to his sons.

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