She was a 19th century philanthropist and one of the wealthiest women in Britain during her lifetime. £1.8m had been inherited from the estate of her stepgrandmother when she died in 1837 and spent the majority of her wealth on scholarships and endowments. She also co-founded (with Charles Dickens) a home for young women who had ‘turned to a life of immorality’ to help them turn their lives around. Her name: Angela Burdett-Coutts, born Angela Georgina Burdett, the daughter of Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet and Sophia, formerly Coutts, daughter of banker Thomas Coutts.
Angela defied the social conventions of her day and class. Her father was the leader of the Radicals in the House of Commons and was himself the most controversial MP in England and opponent of William Pitt the Younger.
Because of her work with the under-privileged, Angela became known as Queen of the Poor. She was an acquaintance of politicians of the day and a friend of both Charles Dickens and the Duke of Wellington, to whom she proposed marriage despite the great disparity in their ages. After Wellingon declined her proposal, she shocked polite society by marrying her 29-year-old secretary, the American-born William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett, who became MP for Westminster in February 1881. Her new husband changed his surname to Burdett-Coutts. Because of her husband’s American birth, a clause in her stepgrandmother’s will forbidding her heir to marry a foreign national was invoked. Burdett-Coutts forfeited 60 per cent of her income to her sister.
As a granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, the founder of the famous London bank with that name, Angela Burdett-Coutts was one of the wealthiest women in Victorian England. She was also one of the busiest, helping to manage the bank and was very active in an enormous range of philanthropic projects, some of which are mentioned in this paper
Charles Dickens dedicated his novel Martin Chuzzlewit to her, and she had many royal and eminent friends. George MacDonald Fraser’s book Flashman’s Lady refers to her (fictional) love for James Brooke (The White Rajah) and his rejection of her due to his physical affliction. She also puts a lecherous Flashman firmly in his place by dislocating his thumb. Angela Burdett-Coutts also features in Terry Pratchett’s novel Dodger; in an afterword, he states that part of his reason for writing the book was to bring Burdett-Coutts to the attention of modern readers. In her memory, George Meredith wrote a poem, ‘Angela Burdett-Coutts’.
The Reverend Richard Harris Barham, in a ballad he wrote under the pen name “Thomas Ingoldsby” for Queen Victoria’s coronation as part of the Ingoldsby Legends referred to her as “Miss Anjaley Coutts”.
Scholarships, endowments, and philanthropy
Burdett-Coutts spent most of her wealth on scholarships, endowments, and a wide range of philanthropic causes. One of her earliest charitable acts was to co-found (with Charles Dickens) a home for fallen women in trouble for theft and prostitution. The home was known as Urania Cottage. She was a patron of artists and actors and the explorers David Livingstone and H.M. Stanley.
Benefactor of Churches, Schools and Hospitals
She avoided taking sides in partisan politics but was actively interested in improving the condition of indigenous Africans or the education and relief of the poor or suffering in any part of the world. She made no particular distinction of creed in her charities, Angela was a notable benefactor of the Church of England, building two churches – including St Stephen’s Church, Rochester Row, Westminster – and endowing church schools.
She was involved in financing a new primary school in Westminster, known as Burdett-Coutts & Townshend Foundation Church of England Primary School.
She funded vital medical research for illnesses such as cancer. She gave an interest-free loan to build Royal Marsden Hospital and continued through financial donations to support the hospital once it was operational.
Abroad, she endowed the bishoprics of Cape Town and Adelaide (1847) and the founding bishopric of British Columbia (1857).
In 1864, she financed the Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, whose primary goal was to find better drinking water for those living in the city. During this work (1864–1865), the group, led by Charles William Wilson, produced the most accurate and comprehensive map of Jerusalem but was unable to find a new source of water. The Jerusalem Post commented that “Charles Wilson’s work on the Jerusalem Ordnance Survey served as the basis for all future Jerusalem research”. Burdett-Coutts later helped fund other explorations in the Holy Land, sometimes in conjunction with the Palestinian Exploration Fund. This effort included a subsequent offer to fund another exploration to find water for Jerusalem, led by Charles Warren.
NSPCC and RSPCA
In 1884, she co-founded the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which became the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1889; she also founded the Westminster Technical Institute in 1893 and was closely involved with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). She was the first woman to be a member of the Royal Society. She was also the president of the British Goat Society, although the reason for her affinity to goats is unknown – other than her involvement with the RSPCA.
Burdett-Coutts founded Columbia Market in 1869 in Bethnal Green in the East End of London, the district where much of her work was carried out. With her project in Columbia Square, she became a pioneer in social housing. Through her support of missionary and nursing efforts, she was associated with Louisa Twining and Florence Nightingale. Her small housing development, Holly Village, on the corner of her estate, is now in private hands and may still be seen in Highgate.
Her work was acknowledged by the Crown – in 1871, in recognition of her philanthropic work, Queen Victoria conferred on her a Suo Jure (‘in her own right’) peerage as Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield in the County of Middlesex.
On 18th July 1872, she became the first woman to be presented with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall, and in 1874 she became Edinburgh’s first woman Freeman and was also presented with the Freedom of that city.
King Edward VII described her: “after my mother, she is the most remarkable woman in the kingdom”.
She died on 30th December 1906, and her body is buried at Westminster Abbey, although it’s said they had expected her ashes for interment.
Sourced/Excerpted from and for Further Reading:
Columbia Road Shops and Flower Market is a road of Victorian shops (open Sunday only) situated off Hackney Road in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. ↑
See: The Story of Holly Lodge at https://myhlra.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/story-of-holly-lodge34141.pdf ↑