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Thursday, 28 April 2011

“…The Most Remarkable Woman in the Kingdom.” Or, The Philanthropy of Angela Burdett-Coutts

I have struggled and laboured for weeks with this post but I hope it doesn’t show. The source of my difficulty was that essentially all I had to work with as a starting point was a long list of sentences that began; “She also donated money to…” and; “She also funded the…” with a great many; “In year X she gave Y amount of money to Z charity…”
Whilst lists like this can be interesting as pure statistics, when writing about the person who funded, gave and donated, it makes for a quite dull and monotonous post. Trying to pull interesting reading from statistics is extremely hard, but hopefully, if not the most interesting post you will read, I hope that this can give a decent insight into a remarkable Victorian lady.

You may recognize the name Coutts, or the logo below, and you may even be lucky enough to be a customer of the private bank. This will not be a post about the bank or banking, but about a remarkable Victorian lady associated with Coutts; a lady named Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Having said this post will not be about banking, a little background upon the Coutts bank and how Angela became involved with it may be helpful. The following is an excerpt from the Coutts website, which I was extremely grateful to find as they have condensed this part of their history much better than I could possibly hope:

"The name Coutts first appeared in the title of the Bank in 1755. James Coutts, a Scottish banker, was taken into partnership by George Campbell (youngest son of the banks founder, John Campbell – Ed) on his marriage to Mary Peagrum, granddaughter of the founder. When Campbell died in 1760, James invited his youngest brother, Thomas, to join him and in January 1761 the Bank became known as James & Thomas Coutts. When James retired in 1775, the Bank’s title changed to Thomas Coutts & Company, which it was to remain until Thomas’ death in 1822.
The Bank flourished under Thomas and his partners Edmund Antrobus, Edward Marjoribanks and Coutts Trotter. The premises at 59 Strand were significantly enlarged in the last decade of the 18th century and profits rose from £9,700 in 1775 to £72,000 in 1821. The long reign of George III was a period of major political, social and economic change. Coutts’ customers were closely involved with such events as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the opening of India and the Far East. Thomas’ customers, many of whom were also friends, ranged from the monarch to the Covent Garden cowkeeper.
When Thomas died in 1822, his estate and 50% share in the Bank passed to his second wife, Harriot and the name of the Bank became Coutts & Co. As senior partner, Harriot (later Duchess of St Albans) took an active interest in the business. She decided that the 50% share and Thomas’ fortune should revert to a family member at her death. Consequently, in 1837, Angela Burdett, at 23 the youngest of Thomas’ grandchildren, inherited the interest in a Trust which included a half-share in the Bank. Harriot’s Will stipulated that Angela take the Coutts name but forbade her from marrying a foreigner or interfering in the running of the business."

So, born in 1814, newly named Angela Burdett-Coutts was just twenty-three when in 1837 she gained her inheritance of around three million pounds (roughly one hundred and thirty million pounds in today’s money) from her Grandfather, and became the wealthiest woman in England.
Unlike many extremely rich people of the time, she did not opt to live a high life of shopping, gambling and self-pampering, but rather devoted her life and virtually all of her money to a vast number of good causes intended to improve the lot of the poor and needy. Here we shall observe just some of the many things she did with her wealth. Rather than go through her life chronologically, I have broken some of her work down into the demographics she helped. To make the post a little more interesting, I have also added snippets about her personal life:
Angela Burdett-Coutts

The first people to benefit from Angela’s money were London’s fallen women. She campaigned to get much needed and valuable life-skills such as needlework and cooking taught in special schools so that women had better ways to earn a living than turning to prostitution. One such school opened in Spitalfields, an area of London where there were high levels of poverty and unemployment. This school took on contracts from the government to give the women things to sew, but as well as offering this helping hand to women, the school also sent out nurses to tend to the ill and sick poor of the area, and to distribute medical supplies and clothes amongst to those most in need. Every jobless pauper who was willing to work was assisted by Angela.

Another project for these women brought about by her generosity was Charles Dickens’ ‘Urania Cottage’, which they opened in Shepherds’ Bush in the 1840’s as a home for fallen women.

In her personal life…
A year after she gained her inheritance, at the age of twenty-four, Angela caught the eye of an Irish barrister, Richard Dunn, who became smitten with her and would spend the next four years obsessively stalking her.

For London’s children, she converted some of the very oldest burial grounds of the city into playgrounds, complete with walkways through flowerbeds and seats so they had somewhere clean and safe to play rather than the usual gutters and dirty yards of their tenement buildings. In 1877 a playground opened on the site which was once old St. Pancras churchyard. Here she erected a sundial as a memorial to the dead buried there, laying the first stone of it herself. These poor children needed education, however, as well as play, and for this she organized ‘traveling teachers’ to visit and teach them at home.
St Pancras Sundial

To further assist in the education of poor children she gave large sums of money to the Ragged School Union, who set up schools to educate the destitute youth, and to the Temperance Society, a social society wishing to reduce the general consumption of alcohol. Her money was used to set up soup kitchens, pay for scholarships, and to establish a charity that still carries out important work today; the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in 1883.

The trade of the East End weavers had been declining for a while virtually to a stop, leaving them living in abject poverty. Seeing this, Angela donated funds to help many of them move to Queensland, Australia, where they prospered, and more importantly, did not die of starvation or fall into the life of crime that beckoned them.

The Poor:
In 1869 she funded the building of Bethnal Green’s Columbia Road Market in the East End of London, the district where much of her work with the poor was carried out. The Market was intended for the convenience of small dealers and poorer people from that area, so that they could purchase decent and edible food, but her kindness of heart for this poor district did not end there; she also purchased many of the worst local tenement buildings and rookeries and had them torn down, such as Nova Scotia Gardens (previously the home of the body snatchers John Bishop, Thomas Williams, Michael Shields and James May) and had built in their places clean homes for two hundred families who were charged a weekly low rent.

Holly Lodge
Her small housing development, Holly Village, was situated on the corner of what was then her estate in Highgate, Holly Lodge. Holly Village can still be seen today can still be seen today, it was purchased by its tenants in 1921, and people still live there.
When she lived at Holly Lodge, Angela opened her beautiful gardens to hundreds of school children and allowed them to play there under the oak and chestnut trees, and she also used the gardens to entertain the tenants of Holly Village.

In her personal life…
In 1839 Angela was introduced to the Duke of Wellington, and they became great friends. So much so that eight years later, when she was 33, she proposed to him. The Duke, aged 78 at the time, turned her down – no doubt in a most gentlemanly way – due to their difference in age. Despite this, they remained close friends until 1852 when he died. 
Wellington in 1844, aged 75

The Church:
Angela was a notable benefactor of the Church of England, building and endowing three churches including St Stephen's in Rochester Row, Westminster and church schools. As Executor of the Will of the Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend (the author of several volumes of poetry) she, with the Reverend Thomas Helmore (another poet), used a large sum from Townshend's estate, at his request, to build a primary school in Westminster. The School is called Burdett-Coutts & Townshend Foundation C of E Primary School.

Much like the Queen, Angela avoided showing favour to any of the political parties. She gave no money to them, other than backing various government projects in which she was interested. She also approved and supported any actions by the British Empire to improve the lot of less fortunate parts of the world. When Britain went to places such as Australia, Africa, and British America, Angela’s money often followed. In South Australia she provided an institution for the improvement of the aborigines, who were seen as being a rather uneducated people. She also personally endowed the bishoprics of Cape Town, and Adelaide (1847), and the founding bishopric of British Columbia in Canada (1857).

In her personal life…
Back in Angela’s personal life she suffered a great upset when, in 1878 her long-time companion, Hannah Brown, died. Angela was distraught and wrote to a friend that she was utterly crushed by the loss of ‘my poor darling, the companion and sunshine of my life for 52 years.’

Back in the world of charity, men, women and children both at home and abroad had benefited from Angela’s extraordinary generosity, but still there is more; For the animals of Britain She erected four handsome drinking fountains: one in Victoria Park, one at the entrance to the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, one near Columbia Market, and one in the city of Manchester. At the opening of the latter, the citizens gave Lady Burdett-Coutts a hugely enthusiastic reception. She also made contributions to Mary Tealby’s ‘Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs' in Hackney (Now Battersea Dogs and Cats home)

In her personal life…
Angela had been assisted for some years by her young friend and secretary, the American born William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett. William had helped her in dispensing her wealth to all these charities, and in other financial matters, but on 12th February 1881, when Angela was 67 she shocked the public and society alike by marrying William at Christ Church, Piccadilly. Her new husband changed his surname to Burdett-Coutts, and later became a member of Parliament. The marriage was a happy one.

In recognition of this unrivalled generosity, in 1871 Queen Victoria conferred a peerage on Angela under the title Baroness Burdett-Coutts, of Highgate and Brookfield in the County of Middlesex. On 18 July 1872 she became the first woman to be presented with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall. It was accompanied by a complementary address, enclosed in a beautiful gold casket with several compartments. One bore the arms of the Baroness, while the other seven represented tableaux emblematic of her noble life, Feeding the Hungry, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Clothing the Naked, Visiting the Captive, Lodging the Homeless, Visiting the Sick, and Burying the Dead. The four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, supported the box at the four corners, while the lid was surmounted by the arms of the city.
In 1874 she was Edinburgh's first woman Burgess, also being presented with the Freedom of that city.

In 1877, when word reached England of the suffering through war of Bulgarian and Turkish peasants, she instituted the "Compassion Fund," which transported over a hundred thousand pounds in both money and food to the civilians, saving thousands of lives destined for starvation. For this generosity the Sultan conferred upon her the Order of Medjidie, the first woman who has received this distinction.

In her personal life…
After leading an exemplary, distinguished and remarkable life, on 30th December 1906 Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts died of acute bronchitis at her house in Stratton Street, Piccadilly, at the age of 92. By the time of her death she had given more than £3 million to good causes. She was buried on the 5th January 1907 near the West Door in the nave of Westminster Abbey. The barony became extinct upon her death.

Charles Dickens dedicated his novel Martin Chuzzlewit to her and King Edward VII is reported to have described her, "After my mother (Queen Victoria), the most remarkable woman in the kingdom."

Addendum: The ‘Charity C.V’ of Angela Burdett-Coutts:
Angela’s charitable and philanthropic earned her the nickname of the "queen of the poor" and if we break down her “C.V” and look at things she did that I have not gone even mentioned, you can easily see why.

Take a deep breath:

  • President, British Beekeepers Association 1878–1906
  • President of the Ladies Committee of the RSPCA (England/Scotland).
  • Church bells for St Paul's cathedral
  • Cotton gins (cotton engines) for Nigeria
  • Drinking fountains for dogs
  • Help for Turkish peasants and the refugees of the 1877 Russo-Turkish War, receiving the order of the Medjidieh, (the only time it was conferred on a woman)
  • Housing schemes for the working-class along the lines of contemporary model dwellings companies.
  • Lifeboats in Brittany, France
  • The London Ragged School Union
  • A sewing school for women in Spitalfields when the silk trade declined
  • Soup kitchens
  • Support organisations for the aboriginal peoples of Australia and for the Dayaks of Borneo
  • The Temperance Society
  • Promotion of the fishing industry in Ireland by helping to start schools and provide boats; she also advanced £250,000 in 1880 for supplying seed to the impoverished tenants
  • Placement of hundreds of destitute boys in training ships for the navy and merchant service
  • Financing the first archaeological survey of Jerusalem in 1864 to improve its sanitation
  • Prominent supporter of the British Horological Institute at a crucial time in its history, due to her acquaintance with John Jones, a BHI founder
  • In 1858 donated £500 to the Cotton Supply Association and contributed an annual subscription of £100 for five years. Ten years letter she donated another £500 to the Association.
  • In 1864 purchased more than one hundred Greek manuscripts (532-546) from Janina (Epirus), transported to England between 1870 and 1872 and presented them to Sir Roger Cholmely's School, they were housed at the Highgate, in London
  • Commissioned a monument for St Pancras Old Church, containing the names of many people whose bodies had been dug up from the churchyard to make space for the railway.
Philanthropists are something that we sadly don’t see very often in Britain these days, and I doubt the like of Angela Burdett-Coutts will ever be seen again upon these shores.


  1. Wow; her name is familiar but I'd no idea of all she got up to. And this makes a nice counterpoint to your previous post - two very different unorthodox Victorian women.

    A B-C funded the Greyfriars Bobby monument here in Edinburgh, apparently ... one more passing gesture in a busy philanthropic career.

    1. The statue of Greyfriars Bobby was sculpted by William Brodie. The pedestal was probably designed by the city architect David Cousin

  2. She did, I was unfamiliar with the Greyfriars Bobby story until I read about Ms Burdett-Coutts.

    After posting, I received a 'tweet' from someone in British Columbia in Canada telling me that they lived a block away from a 'Burdett Street' and near an Mt. St. Angela.

    I know there's a couple of streets in London named after her too, and why not, she certainly deserves it!

    Its a bit of a shame that she isn't more widely known.

  3. This is the most wonderful piece of Victorian history, thank you so much for taking the time to write it.

  4. Goodness me, thanks for your compliment! I was a little worried it would come across a bit "listy" and monotonous, but I'm glad that people appear to like it, and indeed, the blog.

    Thanks again!

  5. I have co written a play about the Holly Lodge Estate and Angela Burdett Coutts, which we performed at the Gatehouse Theatre in Highgate. I am an actress and a resident of the Holly Lodge Estate, and we include a short film made by a local film maker, about what is happening to the estate now. I would love to put the play on again so any ideas would be welcome -

  6. Lisa,

    If you want to write an article on your play I'd be more than happy to post it here and mention it on Twitter - you never know who may be reading...

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  8. Thank you - very interesting. I am following Bradshaw's Hand Book to London and when I was directed to no.1 Stratton Street my research led to your article. I have included a link on

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