Elwes, John (DNB00)
ELWES or Meggott, JOHN (1714–1789), miser, was born on 7 April 1714 in the parish of St. James, Westminster. His father, Robert Meggott (or Meggot), was a brewer in Southwark, son of George Meggott, M.P. for Southwark (1722–3), grandson of Sir George Meggott, and great-grandson of Dean Meggott (or Megget) of Winchester. Meggott, who had bought an estate at Marcham, Berkshire, married (21 May 1713) Ann or Amy, daughter of Gervase Elwes, and had one son, John (who, by will, took in 1750 the name and arms of Elwes), and a daughter, married to John Timms. Elwes was only four years old when his father died; from his mother he inherited his penurious disposition, for, though she had nearly 100,000l. by her husband, she is said to have starved herself to death. Elwes was at Westminster School for ten or twelve years, and became a good classical scholar, but in after life he was never seen to read any book; he had no knowledge of accounts. In his youth he spent two or three years at Geneva, and learned riding, becoming one of the best and most daring riders in Europe. He was introduced to Voltaire, whom he resembled in looks.
On his return he was introduced to his uncle, Sir Hervey Elwes of Stoke College, near Clare, Suffolk, a greater miser than himself. Sir Hervey, the second baronet, had succeeded his grandfather, Sir Gervase, and found an encumbered estate, nominally of considerable value, but producing only 100l. a year. He cleared the estate, and gathered money. As he spent no more than 110l. a year, he was worth 250,000l. at his death. His one amusement was partridge-setting, and he lived on partridges. He kept his money about his house, and was often robbed; on one occasion of 2,750 guineas. But he would take no step to pursue the thieves, remarking ‘I have lost my money, and now you want me to lose my time.’ In spite of a consumptive habit, he lived to be over eighty. Elwes fell in with his uncle's humour, and used to dress up in old clothes at a little inn in Chelmsford before visiting him. Having a large appetite, he took the precaution of dining with a neighbour before sitting down to his uncle's table. He was rewarded by receiving the inheritance of his uncle's estate at his death on 22 Oct. 1763.
Under his uncle's influence the habits of Elwes deteriorated, till his name has become a byword for sordid penury. But his characteristic was a diseased disinclination to spend money on his personal wants rather than a grasping avarice. He would wear for a fortnight a wig which he had picked from a rut in a lane, and would never have his shoes cleaned lest it should help to wear them out. Yet he kept good horses and a pack of foxhounds, and had them well cared for. He allowed the rain to drop through the roof of his own house at Marcham; but he was not a hard landlord. He inherited property in London about the Haymarket, and built Portland Place and Portman Square and a great part of Marylebone, living while in town in his unlet houses, with an old woman to attend upon him. At the tables of his friends he is said to have been a connoisseur of wines and French cookery. A theatre he never entered. He threw away money at cards; he was a member of Arthur's, and played deep, on one occasion keeping his place at the card-table for two days and a night without intermission. He lost 150,000l. in speculations, his latest unsuccessful venture being a project of ironworks in America, which cost him 25,000l.
In 1772 Elwes was put forward as member for Berkshire by Lord Craven. He sat in three successive parliaments till 1784. For his elections he paid nothing; but he was ready to lend money to members of parliament, and thus parted with considerable sums which were never repaid. It was expected that he would join the opposition under Fox, but he acted as a ‘parliamentary coquette,’ sitting indiscriminately on either side of the house, in which he never spoke. Of Pitt, who was not in public life when he entered parliament, Elwes formed the opinion that he was the minister ‘for the property of the country,’ characteristically remarking, ‘In all he says there is pounds, shillings, and pence.’
It is said that Elwes never spared personal trouble to do a kindness. A story is told of his travelling to town and back to extricate two old ladies from a legal embarrassment. They wanted to make good his expenses, when a friend rather cynically observed, ‘Send him sixpence, and he gains twopence by the journey.’ He loved his boys, but would not educate them, on the novel principle that ‘putting things into people's heads is the sure way to take money out of their pockets.’ Of his humour it is said that, having cut his legs against the pole of a sedan-chair, he would put but one of them under professional care. ‘I'll take one leg and you the other;’ he beat the apothecary by a fortnight. An unskilful marksman at a shooting party lodged a couple of pellets in Elwes's cheek. ‘My dear sir,’ he exclaimed, ‘I give you joy of your improvement; I knew you would hit something by and by.’
In later life his memory declined; he fancied he should die in want; he thought of marrying a maid-servant. His son George got him down to Marcham from London in 1789. His memory was then completely gone. He died on 26 Nov. 1789. His will, dated 6 Aug. 1786, disposed of property worth about 500,000l. The Stoke College estate went to his grandnephew, John Timms, who took in 1793 the name and arms of Hervey-Elwes, and rose in the army to the rank of lieutenant-general. Elwes never married, but by Elizabeth Moren, his housekeeper at Marcham, he had two sons: George, who got the Marcham estate, married a lady named Alt, and had one daughter, Emily, who made a runaway match with Thomas Duffield, said to have been originally a clergyman, and afterwards M.P. for Abingdon; and John, a lieutenant in the horse guards (d. 10 April 1817), who bought the estate of Colesbourne, Gloucestershire, married, and had two children.[Life by Major Edward Topham, 1790 (British Museum copy has manuscript additions to the pedigree), 12th ed. enlarged, 1805 (this life originally appeared in twelve successive numbers of a paper called The World); Gent. Mag. 1789, p. 1149, 1793, p. 166; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. ix. 85, xii. 494 (corrections of errors in Hawthorne's English Note-book), 5th ser. iv. 520, xii. 237, 6th ser. i. 124, xi. 68, 177; Burke's Landed Gentry, 1863, p. 439; extract from baptismal register of St. James's, Westminster.]