Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"If you give away your money before you are dead..."

A man who may have been a model for Charles Dickens' character Ebenezer Scrooge died on April 20, 1836. James (Jemmy) Wood was an early private banker, and was reputedly stingy; also exceedingly rich. He owned the Gloucester Old Bank, which had been founded by his grandfather. William Haig Miller discusses Wood in his "On the bank's Threshold...".

'The private bankers grew up under the shadow of the Bank of England, like dwarfs beside a giant. Many of them were men of penurious habits, and accumulated great wealth. We remember in our day James Wood, of Gloucester, who left upwards of two millions sterling. His will caused much litigation. To the end of his days he kept a little draper's shop next his bank, and was very particular that his banking customers should continue to buy their drapery from him when once they had begun to do so. He appears to have been of a sadly miserly spirit. We have looked over two folio volumes of printed matter, containing the pleadings in the Probate Court relative to his will, which, as we have said, was the subject of legal proceedings. They contained many proofs of his niggardliness. He was fond, we are told by one witness, of quoting, as a reason for not parting with his money during his lifetime, some verses said to be inscribed in a country church on a tombstone, which had on it the figure of a man with an axe beside him. The lines were to the following effect:—

"If you give away your money before you are dead,
Then take up this axe and chop off your head."

Miller weaves Sir Walter Scott into his work several times. Based on the following, it's possible that Scott could have developed an aversion to bankers:

'The private banking establishment of Sir William Forbes & Co. also long flourished in Edinburgh. Its first partner was the friend and biographer of Beattie, the poet, and a man so full of benevolence that it was said of him by the author of " Marmion :"

"If mortal charity dare claim
The Almighty's attributed name,
Inscribe above his mouldering clay,
'The widow's shield—the orphan's stay.'''

His son and banking successor was an attached friend of Sir Walter Scott, and also his rival in love, having carried off the hand of the young lady—the daughter of Sir John Stuart—for whom Sir Walter, then a youth, had formed a romantic passion, he having become acquainted with her by offering her the share of his umbrella as she walked home on a rainy day from Greyfriars Church. To the end of his days, Sir Walter, it may be remembered, cherished the recollection of this youthful episode; and after the lady's death, and when he was himself a widower, he poured out his sorrows in his diary in the following touching words: "I went to make a visit, and fairly softened myself with recalling old stories, till I was fit for nothing but shedding tears and repeating verses for the whole night. This is sad work. The very grave gives up its dead, and time rolls back thirty years to add to my perplexities,"...'

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