The Real-Life Inspirations Behind Scrooge

“Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” –Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, pre-ghosts. 

scrooge encounters ghost of jacob marley
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  • Photo Credit: John Leech, Public Domain

Whenever Charles Dickens, star novelist of nineteenth century England, needed a character, all he had to do was step away from his writing desk and take a good look around. Great Britain in the age of Queen Victoria’s reign was crawling with eccentrics, fools, miscreants, and villains, and for a writer like Dickens, observant as he was and utterly shameless about borrowing the very worst traits of others for his entertaining stories, it was an easy harvest to reap from. 

Arguably his most memorable character, the tightfisted businessman Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol was plucked from a ready-made caricature that was unhappily populating the country at the time: the greedy, self-serving, Industrial-Era boss who hoarded his coin and had very little time for orphanages, workhouses, workers’ rights, or even family and friends. How could they, when in this fast-paced, fast-growing age, there was so much money to be made off of others? 

Charles Dickens, who did have a heart and who did pay attention to the plights of the lower classes, fought back in the form of literature, and cleverly released a book featuring one of these repulsive men during the Christmas season, at a time where the image of these men would present itself at its most repellant and undesirable. The novella A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 by Chapman & Hall and proceeded to enchant a Britain that was already in a transitional age of adopting new traditions, such as sending Christmas cards and decorating evergreen Christmas trees (courtesy of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who brought the idea over to England from his native Germany). 

What A Christmas Carol succeeded at doing was establishing Christmas in Britain as a cultural phenomenon as well as a holiday. It served then and still serves now as an instruction manual for how not to conduct oneself at Christmas. Shunning family members, being rude and uncharitable, underpaying one’s employees, and avoiding confronting one’s inner demons were all traits that Dickens assigned to Scrooge specifically to be corrected, through a series of supernatural encounters designed to spook the money out of his pockets. It works. 

And yet Dickens was a writer, not an occultist, and he couldn’t sic ghosts on the real-life men who inspired Ebenezer Scrooge, though one can imagine that he very much would have liked to have done so. There is a whole batch of men identified by Dickens’s scholars as prototypes for Scrooge, and none of them experienced Scrooge’s life-changing turnaround and change of heart. Dickens took their lives and applied some wishful thinking to change a fictional representative’s fate. They are, in order of birth: 

Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie (1792–1836)

Wealthy grain merchant. Said to have hailed from Edinburgh and has the distinction of being King George IV’s caterer when the king visited Scotland (a worthy and daunting undertaking, considering George and his court’s infamous gluttony). Scroggie is buried in Canongate Kirkyard and there is a popular legend that Dickens, while touring Scotland and shopping around the gravestones for possible character names, took a particular liking to Scroggie’s name and claimed it for himself. 

Dickens may have also misinterpreted the inscription on Scroggie’s gravestone and read that Scroggie was a “mean man” instead of a “meal man.” Little is known about Scroggie’s character except that he was apparently an exceptional royal caterer, but being a scrupulous business owner and having a memorable name was a good foundation for Dickens to start with. And so to colour in the rest of the character, Dickens moved on to…

jemmy wood, an inspiration for scrooge
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  • A George Rowe print featuring James Wood in front of the Gloucester Old Bank.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

Jemmy Wood (1756 –1836)

Bank owner. Gloucester Old Bank was his kingdom and he ruled it as a tyrant. His nickname was even “The Gloucester Miser” and he was notorious for being inflexible with bank customers and for refusing to participate in charities. Unapologetically greedy, he hosted an infamous dinner in 1818 for forty-seven guests where the main course was a cooked turtle weighing 150 lbs. 

He didn’t foot the bill for the turtle; a local aristocrat, Lord Howard, had donated it to the city and Wood served it up. Wood also never married and never fathered a child, and died a lonely bachelor, mourned by no one. This would have been Dickens’s Scrooge without the character development. And then, to make Scrooge even more of a rogue, Dickens snatched elements from the life of…

john elwes scrooge inspiration
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  • John Elwes with money bag

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

John Elwes (1714–1789) 

Member of parliament. He was the strangest one of all. Nowadays he probably would have had an episode of the TLC show Extreme Cheapskates dedicated to him. He was just that determined to spend as little of his fortune as possible. Despite being flush with funds, he went around in clothes practically falling off his body and wore a used wig he found in a bush. 

His unsanitary habits also extended to food, and it was widely rumoured that he ate spoiled meat and rats to avoid paying hefty butchers’ bills. He walked in the rain. He didn’t want to pay for a carriage. He sat in his wet clothes. He didn’t want to pay for a fire. No one wanted to visit him or sleep over at his mansion. He didn’t want to pay for fixing the holes in the roof. He was Scrooge. 

These strange, unrepentant, miserly men that made Scrooge the literary icon he is today can also claim credit for the chain reaction that led to other famous Christmas haters-turned-enthusiasts. The sour hermit The Grinch, for instance, from the pen of children’s book author Dr. Seuss in his 1957 How the Grinch Stole Christmas, may have green fur all over but resembles these stodgy men in lifestyle and manners at the beginning of his book. The Grinch lives alone with his dog, rants and raves about the extravagant local townsfolk, and plots to snatch away their luxuries and wealth and keep it all for himself using trickery and petty theft. 

Like Dickens, Dr. Seuss makes it his mission to undo The Grinch’s philosophy and attitudes towards Christmas and other people and have him emerge at the end of the book as a new person. Dickens and Seuss had the same vision, which was to remake men who, in the views of others, seemed impossible to unmake.