Snippets 214. 184 years ago today, the “richest commoner” in Britain died. James (Jemmy) Wood made his money in banking, and had wealth of around £900,000. Calculating the value of that money in today’s terms is notoriously difficult, and depending on the way you calculate it you will probably find results varying from £80 million to £4 billion. In terms of his status as the richest man outside of the aristocracy, the latter figure doesn’t look unreasonable. He was also notoriously frugal, earning himself the nickname “The Gloucester Miser”. The following quote is from The Book of Days (1864) by Robert Chambers, one of the great pioneers of the trivia book.
This wealthy and most extraordinary individual died on the 20th of April 1836, having attained the age of eighty years. ‘Jemmy Wood’ – for by such name he was usually recognised – was the sole proprietor of the old Gloucester Bank, which had been established by his grandfather in the year 1716, being one of those primitive banking concerns which took their rise in a shop business, and of which, perhaps, hardly one example now survives. Wood’s bank was conducted to the last by the proprietor and two or three clerks, at the end of a common chandlery shop, which they also attended to. Wood was latterly considered as the richest commoner in the kingdom. His habits were those of a thrifty old bachelor. In the bank or shop his whole time was passed: he went to no one’s house, and never invited any person to his. It was his habit on Sundays to go to church regularly, eat his dinner on his return, and then take a short walk into the country. He left several wills of a conflicting character, and, as a matter of course, these documents caused litigation, and gave employment to lawyers and attorneys for years.
Many anecdotes illustrating his penuriousness are told; amongst others the following: One Sunday before leaving his house to proceed to church, he gave to a little boy, who acted as his servant, a chicken, which he intended to be roasted for dinner. The cooking process commenced; and as the bird was turned and basted, the savoury steam which it gave forth sharpened the boy’s appetite, and he ventured to rub his finger on the breast, which was being gradually browned, and apply his finger to his mouth. The taste was delicious! He became bolder, and picked away a morsel of the breast of the bird; then another; other bits followed, until none of the breast remained. Hunger was gnawing at the boy’s heart, and he could not resist temptation; so the whole chicken speedily disappeared. His hunger now appeased, he saw his fault, and, trembling at the prospect of meeting his thrifty master, like most little boys after doing wrong, he thought of hiding. On entering a closet adjoining the room, his eye fell on a small bottle, having on it a label with the awful word ‘poison’ in legible characters. He feared death much, but his master still more, and in a minute he resolved to end his days; accordingly, he drained the bottle, and was, as he thought, safe from his master’s rage. In a short time, the old banker appeared on the scene, resolved to enjoy his chicken and glass of brandy and water. Great was his astonishment to see the spit empty, and find the boy away. On making a search he found the latter lying on the pantry floor with the empty bottle, which quickly brought before his mind a solution of the mystery. The boy was drunk, for the bottle contained old Wood’s brandy, which was marked ‘poison,’ to guard it from the possibility of being touched by the servants. What the old gentleman did with the lad is not recorded.
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