Today (August 30) in London History – The Miser

The greatest miser in London history died on August 30th, 1852. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Step forward John Camden Neild.

We’re doing John Camden Neild for several reasons today. 

First of all, the peg. John Camden Neild died today, August 30th, 1852. 

But beyond that, we’re doing John Camden Neild because he was very much a son of London. How’s the saying go, Some Mothers do have ‘em.

And we’re doing him because the splendid house he lived and died in is still very much there. It’s on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. We go by it on our Chelsea walk. 

And we’re doing him because he was all over London, which I suppose is what you’d expect of a son of London. He was born in St. James’ Street, the son of a successful jeweller who became an important prison reformer. He was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. Etc. 

And we’re doing John Camden Neild because he was a real-life sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s just so far-fetched, his story – you can’t quite believe it. About as off-the-wall as, I don’t know, the Queen winning the Lottery. The guy had some kind of moxie. Let alone mojo. And we’re doing John Camden Neild because I really didn’t want to do racial strife in Notting Hill in 1958.

Let alone a riot at the Notting Hill carnival in 1976 or Queen Elizabeth banning football in the streets of London in 1572.

Mainly though we’re doing John Camden Neild because bad times, they’re a-coming: cholera and that fatal car crash in Paris 25 years ago and the Great Fire of London and the start of World War II and the Blitz and the mindless barbarism that kicked off in September 1547 and on it goes. Heading out into those waters gets me down, makes me, well, grim visage’d. 

So John Camden Neild is just what the doctor ordered. Barking mad he was and given the week we’ve got ahead of us that makes him something of a teddy bear. He’s a comfort. Of sorts. 

Ok, so who was he? Why do we remember this Chelsea barrister?

He was London’s most remarkable miser, that’s why.

In 1814 he inherited the whole of his wealthy father’s property, estimated at £250,000. That’d be about £25 million pounds in today’s money. It included numerous estates, so it was, by definition, income-producing. And for the rest of his life – nearly 30 years – that inherited fortune was sacrosanct. John Camden Neild grudged every single penny of it. That splendid house in Chelsea – it was so meanly furnished John Camden Neild didn’t have a bed to sleep on and there was no way he was going to buy one. Why spend good money on a bed when you’ve got a floor to sleep on? Same went for his clothes. Poor people only had one set of clothes because that was all they could afford. Well, to John Camden Neild’s way of thinking one set of clothes was all he was going to afford. He never allowed his clothes to be brushed because, he said, it destroyed the nap and made them wear out faster. A beggar would have spurned the patched old shoes he wore. He never went to the expense of a greatcoat. His only protection from the rain was an old green cotton umbrella. He’d regularly visit his numerous estates. He’d walk there whenever it was possible to do so. He’d stay with his tenants. Sometimes for as long as a month. Staying with them saved on coals and candles and food. Well, it was a saving for him. It sure wasn’t a saving for his tenants, having him under their roof for a month. I say their roof but it was of course his roof because they were renting from him. 

He was driven almost spare by the North Marston church affair. He was the landlord, the lessee of the rectory at North Marston, which meant he was responsible for the upkeep of the church and the rectory. The chancel of the church had fallen into a sad state of ruin. Its leaded roof was full of holes and fissures and had to be repaired. But lead doesn’t go on trees. A few strips of lead – that was going to set John Camden Neild back a couple of shillings. He wasn’t having that. He insisted that the holes and fissures be mended with 40 strips of painted cloth.

Well, nearly 30 years of tending his inheritance the way he did turned £250,000 into £500,000. 

£500,000 in 1852 – that’d be about 75 million pounds in today’s money.

And sure enough, John Camden Neild left his fortune to – I’m quoting from his will now – he left his fortune to “Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, begging Her Majesty’s most gracious acceptance of the same, and for her sole use and benefit and her heirs.” 

How’s that for deference, for forelock tugging. That twice-used adjective “gracious” – it’d be so gracious of Her Majesty if she’d accept my gift of 75 million pounds.

So the fairy tale came true, her Maj won the Lottery. John Camden Neild didn’t know Queen Victoria, he’d never met her – but he thought she’d appreciate the gesture. 

She did appreciate the gesture. She built Balmoral Castle with it. To her credit the Queen did what John Camden Neild couldn’t see his way to doing. He’d had a housekeeper who’d worked for him for 25 years. He didn’t leave her a penny. The Queen made some provision for the loyal old retainer. And she also paid for the proper restoration of the chancel of North Marston church. Had it restored with something better than painted calico.

And a today in London recommendation? Has to be Brian’s Wednesday afternoon Chelsea Walk. What you’ve just heard will change the way you see 5 Cheyne Walk. It’s that double vision thing. Or maybe triple vision. Me, I go there, I see that huge house, I x-ray vision into it and what do you know,  look where you will there’s not a bed to be found in this mansion. And finally, standing there at 5 Cheyne Walk, I’m also looking at Balmoral Castle. That’s London for you. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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