Was Ebenezer Scrooge inspired by an eccentric from Suffolk?
PUBLISHED: 13:08 18 December 2018 | UPDATED: 13:08 18 December 2018
One of our favourite Christmas characters shares more than a passing similarity to a Suffolk eccentric writes BBC Radio Suffolk presenter Lesley Dolphin
I often say there is a Suffolk link to nearly every story. It seems there is a local connection to one of the very best known of Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol.
The film of Charles Dickens’ moralistic tale about miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is one of our family’s favourites for the festive season. Christmas films are part of our annual tradition and we always try to see the original version of Scrooge, starring the wonderful Alistair Sim.
Others on our list include another classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, and one of my favourites, the more recent version of A Miracle On 34th Street, the one with Richard Attenborough as Santa. I love a bit of schmaltz!
It’s well known that Charles Dickens spent time in Suffolk and took inspiration from the county for his books The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield but I didn’t realise until recently that it’s also thought it could have been a local character who inspired the miserly character of Scrooge.
In my Dolphin’s Dart features on my BBC Radio Suffolk show I’ve learnt all sorts of fascinating facts about our villages, including the sad stories of two men, William Jennens, of Acton Hall, and John Elwes who is buried at Stoke by Clare. They were both misers just like Scrooge.
Elwes was an eccentric who was MP for Berkshire in the 1770s and 1780s. He inherited Stoke College and a fortune from his uncle, but despite his wealth he became so mean that he would sit in the dark or go to bed rather than light the lamps or the fires. Apparently his clothes were so ragged that people often mistook him for a beggar, and he would walk in the rain rather than pay for a coach and horses.
When he left Parliament he moved from one property to the other, petrified he’d be robbed and die in poverty. He was happy to lend thousands of pounds to colleagues and he financed some great buildings including Portman Place in London but when living alone in his properties he wouldn’t spend any money. When he died he left £500,000 – more than £74 million in today’s money.
So was Elwes the inspiration for Scrooge? Well we know that Charles Dickens had heard of him because he included his name in his last novel, Our Mutual Friend. But there is another Suffolk miser who also fits the bill and who lived in Suffolk at a similar time.
William Jennens lived near Sudbury and was known as the Miser of Acton. He died in 1798, having lived to a grand age, and was also very rich. Like Elwes, he didn’t like spending his money. Apparently he lived in unfurnished rooms in the basement of Acton Hall with the servants.
When he died it was found he had never signed his will and, after years and years of legal wrangling, his money disappeared into the coffers of the lawyers. He was described as the ‘richest commoner in England’ and when he died he left a fortune estimated at £2 million, over £230 million today.
It’s thought that Charles Dickens knew of Jennens because his book Bleak House features a court case similar to the one fighting over his money.
Maybe Charles Dickens drew on both stories to create Scrooge? Whichever, I reckon we’re well within our rights to claim a possible Suffolk link to one of the most famous Christmas stories ever written. Think of that as you watch the film!
If, like me, you love local history and fascinating facts about our county, it’s worth browsing through the many books published about Suffolk. They make great Christmas presents. Here are just a few examples, but there are plenty more . . .
- The A-Z of Curious Suffolk by Sarah Doig
- Suffolk from the Air by Mike Page
- Colour of Suffolk by Mark Staples
- The History of Whisstock’s Boatyard by Sue Whisstock
- The Changing Face of London Road North by Crispin Hook.