James (Jemmy) Wood born on 7 October 1756 owned the Gloucester Old Bank. He became known as the “Gloucester Miser” despite his fortune of £900,000, which made him the richest commoner in the King of England’s domains.
Jemmy inherited the bank from his grandfather who had founded it. The bank was one of the oldest private banks in Britain, surviving the financial turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars when many other banks went out of business. Different from what we would expect today, Jemmy ran the bank from his drapers shop with only two clerks. His policy was clear and simple – he paid no interest on deposits of less than one year. He kept counterfeit coins on the counter to warn customers not to attempt to fob him off with fake money. The bank was taken over by the County of Gloucester Banking Company in 1838, becoming part of Lloyds Bank in 1897. Jemmy also owned an undertaking business and extensive land in and around the City of Gloucester. Many stories abound of Jemmy’s miserliness, but how many are true is anybody’s guess.
It is rumoured he would wear the same clothes for years and would visit Gloucester Docks to fill his pockets with pieces of coal that fell from the boats. On a journey to London, his travelling companion made fun of Jemmy’s worn out clothes to which Jemmy bet the man £5.00 he could withdraw £100,000 from the bank when they reached London. On arrival in London Jemmy proved it was true and took the £5.00 from the disbelieving fellow. He would walk rather than pay the price of a carriage and legend has it he travelled laid in the back of a hearse from Tewkesbury rather than part with one penny for transport. He gained national fame from these tales, was caricatured, and had Toby Jugs and Staffordshire figurines made of him. His features were perfect for parody as his profile of protruding chin and nose, and sloping forehead, made him prime fodder.
Jemmy never appears in lists of Gloucester city benefactors despite serving as City Sheriff for 1811 and 1813, and as an Alderman from 1820 until his death. It is said he did not become Mayor because of the expense of the job. He did love to spend others money and in 1818, 47 people dined at the city’s expense at a dinner given for the Duke of Gloucester at which they ate a turtle weighing 150 lbs given to the city by Lord Howard.
It is said that Jemmy Wood was Charles Dickens inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There is another character called “Dismal Jemmy” in The Pickwick Papers and Jemmy Wood of Gloucester is mentioned in Our Mutual Friend. The court case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House is speculated to have been based on the case that arose following irregularities in Wood’s will, although the court system of the time was so slow and expensive there are a number of other possible cases on which Jarndyce could have been based.
Jemmy died in 1836 and was buried in St Mary de Crypt Church in Gloucester where there is a gravestone to his memory in the chancel. The crowd at his funeral reportedly “…evinced a levity of demeanour inconsistent with the solemnity of the occasion” and stoned his coffin.
There is a small painting at the Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery, so why not go along and visit Jemmy and gaze upon the likeness of the real Scrooge.