This week’s article focuses on one of the borough’s most famous (and notorious) figures – a man who was so scrupulously uncharitable, so obsessively selfish that his life has grown to legend since his death, and that he has been immortalised in the form of Dickens’ Scrooge.
This man is Daniel Dancer – the miser of Harrow from the eighteenth century, whose abhorrent behaviour at this time serves as a valuable lesson in this otherwise altruistic season.
A miser, for those unware, is someone exceedingly reluctant to spend, to the point that they will not only forgo luxuries but also basic needs in order to save as much money as possible. Dancer fits this definition in a number of respects.
Born in Pinner in 1716 – or Harrow Weald, as some sources suggest – Dancer was the eldest of three brothers and one sister, and the heir to a substantial farming estate which his father worked.
Back then, the Harrow area was lucrative for agriculture, and it was on the backs of this that the initial Dancer fortune had been built – and from this that the Daniel would become obsessed with stockpiling his fortunes.
Dancer’s thrifty habits began in earnest with the death of his father in 1736, at which the eighty acres of meadow fell into his hands. Every Saturday, Dancer would make a meal of cooked old bones – often those stolen from wandering dogs on his land – and hard-boiled dumplings; the latter of which he would proceed to eat at a rate of one per day over the rest of the week.
Sometimes meat would also feature in his diet, albeit rarely due to the cost – but one particular occasion suggests Dancer would use the likes of carrion sheep that he came upon as food, regardless of the state it was likely found in.
Dancer rarely washed his face and hands – and never with soap due to its cost. When he did occasionally wash, he did so in a neighbouring pond, and, in the summer, would then dry himself with sand and the natural sunlight so as to avoid having to buy a towel. His choice of clothing was equally frugal.
His own tailor, he often wore hay bands swathed around his feet for boots and his body for a coat – only buying a shirt once every year – and would scavenge thrown-away shoes left in the street for his own use.
With such ridiculous measures, Dancer unsurprisingly managed to cut down the farm’s spending considerably, and therein raise its revenue. By the time of his death, Dancer had increased the estate’s revenue from just a few hundreds to £3,000 per annum (a figure worth more back then).
This Dancer added to when his sister, who had lived on the farm with him and had shared in his miserly lifestyle, died – and died because Dancer had refused to risk the cost of a doctor coming to see her to treat her illness.
Using only a fraction of his sister’s bequest to buy a second-hand pair of black stockings for mourning, Dancer entered into a lawsuit between his two brothers over the distribution of her money – of which Dancer won two-thirds of, on the grounds that he had kept her for thirty years whilst they had lived on the farm.
In the years that followed, Dancer continued his miserly life – this time with the company of a servant, a sixty-year old man called Griffiths who largely shared in Dancer’s thrifty habits.
His hoard now becoming unwieldly, Dancer resorted to hiding his money in various places – from tea pots to floor boards; the likes of which were discovered only after the miser passed away.
During this time, Dancer also became increasingly paranoid, fastening his door shut to prevent theft – forcing any entrance to take place at the upper window, which Dancer needed a ladder to reach, one that he would take with him upon entering. As before, his list of acquaintances remained a short one – with only one person, Lady Tempest, being in any position to be considered a friend of the miser.
As Dancer grew older and weaker, however, he found himself depending more and more on the Lady Tempest. In 1794, Tempest came upon Dancer gravely ill, and lying in an old sack which he had drawn up to his chin, with his head wrapped up in pieces of the same material.
Dancer had been ready to die, and yet even in death, he had been unwilling to spend – believing it to only be appropriate that he meet God shirtless since he had also entered the world in the same shirtless state. Whilst on this occasion death would not come for him, it would claim him shortly after.
Tending to the dying Dancer – even going so far as to call for a doctor despite his protests – Lady Tempest was the one to find his body when he finally passed away in autumn 1794, at the age of 78, and was the one to inherit Dancer’s land, for the short while that she had left to live.
Despite his demise, however, Dancer’s presence in the local community – and the country at large – only grew in the years that followed.
Accounts of his strange life immediately made their way into contemporary periodicals like the Edinburgh Magazine and the Sporting Magazine, and by 1797 – just three years after his death – The Strange and Unaccountable Life of Daniel Dancer Esq. was published, including the life of Dancer as well as other misers.
So great did his reputation become that Charles Dickens included an anecdote on Dancer in his book Our Mutual Friend, and then went on to create a story around the Dancer’s notorious reputation in what is now the beloved A Christmas Carol.
Should you find yourself watching a version of this classic tale, then, or else reading the book itself, it might be worth remembering how the story is intrinsically based in the local area, and one of its most notorious figures.
Dancer is one of the most interesting characters to have emerged from the borough – and indeed, the nation at large. Leading a life so radically thrifty that it is in many ways impossible to conceive, Dancer is perhaps as much an example of the depths and quirks of the human mind as much as he is a cautionary tale.
But all the same, with Christmas the time of giving, it would do well to remember a man who no doubt would not give at all this holiday season, to such a point that, purportedly, his treasures may still lie undiscovered across the borough.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: accountingdegree.com