Angela Burdett-Coutts, Philanthropist
by Jessica Brain
Born on 21st April 1814, Angela Burdett-Coutts would become one of the most outspoken and dedicated philanthropists of her day. Throwing herself into the causes she valued the most, her charity work became renowned, earning her recognition from none other than Queen Victoria herself.
Angela Burdett-Coutts was a wealthy and educated woman who defied the social conventions of her day and class and used her wealth for worthwhile causes, particularly in the East End of London, one of the poorest areas of London.
For this reason she soon became known as “Queen of the Poor”, a mantle given to her as a result of her devoted commitment to good causes, earning respect from other social campaigners, such as the successful author and social commentator, Charles Dickens.
Born into a banking dynasty, she was the youngest of six children; her father Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet MP was known for his radical ideas and her mother, Sophia Coutts, was the daughter of the well-known banker Thomas Coutts.
Through these prominent social and political family connections she was able to meet a range of important people including the Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone.
When her grandfather died in 1822, his estate was left to his second wife. Fourteen years later she died, and twenty-three year old Angela was shocked to discover that she was the heir to the Coutts estate. Set to inherit a considerable fortune, including a 50% share of the bank, she became one of the wealthiest women in the land.
Taking the name Coutts, Angela settled into life as a wealthy woman, choosing to live with her former governess Hannah Meredith. Over the years, she was forced to fend off many possible suitors who felt a sudden draw to Angela’s new found wealth.
She had also inherited several properties including a mansion in Highgate where she hosted many a notable and prominent visitor. Both Queen Victoria and Mary, the future Queen visited her at Holly Lodge.
Angela decided to create a housing development to provide suitable residences for her staff. This project became known as Holly Village and consisted of several cottages with their own village green, much to the delight of her residents.
Angela continued to give soirees at Holly Lodge and lived happily with her companion Hannah, until her beloved friend passed away in 1878, a bereavement she felt very keenly.
Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1883
Three years later she caused absolute shock and outrage, when aged sixty-seven, she chose to marry a secretary called William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett. Whilst this in itself does not appear particularly shocking, as he was, like her father, a Member of Parliament, the astonishing age gap left society aghast. Whilst she was sixty-seven, he was just twenty-nine years old.
Despite the scandal, Angela Burdett-Coutts appeared undeterred and focused on her vast projects, pouring her money into philanthropy, scholarships and charity sponsorships.
One specific location that became a focus of Burdett-Coutt’s work was East London, particularly Bethnal Green which was a deprived area in need of regeneration. Through her work she helped to build homes and also provided the necessary infrastructure for the area’s redevelopment, including such essentials as a fresh water supply.
In 1869 she founded Columbia Market and her project in Columbia Square was a first step in creating the necessary provision of social housing for the most vulnerable in the city.
In Victoria Park, Hackney, she paid a large sum of money to bring about an installation of a drinking fountain providing clean drinking water to some of the poorest in society.
She was also in frequent contact with the outspoken social commentator of the day, Charles Dickens. Together they co-founded a refuge for ‘fallen’ women, such as prostitutes and thieves, who were hoping to turn their lives around. The home was called Urania Cottage but Dickens preferred to refer to it simply as The Home, in order to encourage more women to stay.
Finding the ideal location near Shepherd’s Bush, Dickens wanted the place to be as homely as possible. The garden attached to the property was an added bonus as the women were able to cultivate their own gardens.
Angela had witnessed the growing issue of prostitution which was reaching palpably high levels in the Piccadilly area where she had her own residence. However close friends in her social circle, including the Duke of Wellington, warned her against getting involved in such a scandalous issue. They found it difficult to comprehend her strong sense of social responsibility.
The causes she felt most strongly about were varied and covered a whole host of social and economic issues. In order to address the problem of child labour, she provided classes for those working class children who would not normally have access to education. Through these classes the children learnt valuable skills which they could apply to a trade or craft in order to help them earn a living.
Glasgow slum, 1868
Her dedication to her work with children was such that in 1884 she co-founded the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This would later become known as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, shortened today to the NSPCC. And so Angela’s legacy for helping the most vulnerable children in society is continued today.
She also felt passionately about supporting hospitals, as well as funding vital medical research for illnesses such as cancer. She gave an interest free loan in order to build Royal Marsden Hospital and continued through financial donations to support the hospital once it was up and running.
It was not only the physical structures and equipment which would benefit from her philanthropy. Missionaries, soldier’s wives and nurses working on the frontline would receive donations from Burdett-Coutts.
One of these recipients was Florence Nightingale, who whilst working in the poor and unsanitary conditions of the Crimean War begged for assistance in improving hygiene standards. Her demands were met by Burdett-Coutts who also helped fund army hospitals based in South Africa.
Angela was also involved in a religious capacity, offering donations for church schools as well as founding and funding bishoprics across the globe in Cape Town, British Columbia and Adelaide. She was a valued and much appreciated benefactor of the Church of England.
Humanitarian causes were felt very keenly by Burdett-Coutts and where she could provide assistance she would. This included providing large amounts of money in order to assist in dealing with the devastation caused by the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.
A starving family during the Great Famine (Irish Potato Famine)
The famine resulted in destitution, hunger and abject poverty. Her funds helped set up relief centres where basics such as flour, sugar and corn were provided. Her projects for helping the most vulnerable also extended further afield, including Jerusalem where she provided the funds for Charles William Wilson to conduct an ordnance survey in search of a new and vital water supply.
Like her father, she was keen to champion the protection of animals. Her father had played an important role in this; he was the first politician to sponsor an act against the cruelty to animals.
Burdett-Coutts subsequently followed in her father’s footsteps when in 1870 she became the President of the Ladies’ Committee of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Her close involvement in this project helped provide the foundations for another organisation which continues to exist today with the same goal of providing care and protection for innocent animals, the RSPCA.
Moved by the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier who reportedly spent 14 years guarding his master’s grave until his own death, in 1873 Angela commissioned a commemorative statue and fountain to be erected at the southern end of the George IV Bridge in Edinburgh.
Statue of Greyfriars Booby
There appeared to be no end to her work and philanthropy, whether she was helping to fund the construction of new primary schools, supporting pioneers in their respective fields or simply providing the basic infrastructure needed so desperately in an area. Her projects were far-reaching and tackled some of the most burning social injustices of her time.
Her work did not go unnoticed and in 1871 she became a Baroness, a title awarded by Queen Victoria in recognition of her philanthropy. Whilst it was not known exactly how much was donated over the years, her vast contributions have been estimated at around £350 million in today’s money.
Angela Burdett-Coutts was a wealthy woman who used her money, class and prestige to make a tangible difference for those less fortunate.
At the age of ninety-two she passed away and was buried at Westminster Abbey in a service attended by royalty as well as those who were recipients of her money from the East End.
Aptly described by King Edward VII:
“after my mother, she is the most remarkable woman in the kingdom”.
Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.