Meet The Philanthropists: Angela Burdett‑Coutts, the life philanthropic
In this series, we explore some of the most prolific, trailblazing or notorious philanthropists in history, taken from ‘Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain’. Today, meet Angela Burdett-Coutts and Charles Dickens.
Angela Burdett‑Coutts (1814–1906) is one of the true big hitters of philanthropy. She was the granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, the founder of Coutts’ Bank (famously the bankers for the Queen). When Coutts’ first wife died, he married the much younger actress Harriet Mellon with somewhat indecent haste, and to the disgust of his three daughters. They resented her bitterly, and were further enraged when Coutts died and left his entire fortune to her. Of Coutts’ grandchildren, Angela was the only one to get along with her step‑grandmother, but it was still a surprise when Harriet died in 1837 and left the whole of her fortune (including a large interest in Coutts Bank) to Angela. Even Angela’s father, Sir Francis Burdett, was temporarily so enraged that his wife (Angela’s mother) had been passed over that Angela had to leave home.
Burdett‑Coutts proved herself adept at looking after her new‑found fortune, but discovered that her real gift was in giving it away for the benefit of others. As mentioned above, she had help from no less a figure than Charles Dickens, and ‘in guiding her benevolence [his] influence . . . was probably decisive . . . or some years [he] served as her almoner, screening applications and separating the worthy from the undeserving’. Burdett‑Coutts, the young heiress steeped in the very male world of banking, and Dickens, the young reporter with a burning hatred of social injustice, made an unlikely but extremely effective pairing.
Burdett‑Coutts, the young heiress steeped in the very male world of banking, and Dickens, the young reporter with a burning hatred of social injustice, made an unlikely but extremely effective pairing.
She gave him a means, alongside his writing, of combating the scourge of poverty he saw all around him; while he was able to broaden her philanthropic horizons beyond the obvious Christian causes she initially favoured.
The list of Burdett‑Coutts’ eventual charitable interests is vast. It encompassed education (support for the Ragged School movement), women’s issues (the rehabilitation of prostitutes at the home for fallen women in Shepherd’s Bush), children’s welfare (she was heavily involved in the founding, in 1884, of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, later became the NSPCC, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), and some more esoteric interests such as beekeeping (she was President of the British Beekeepers’ Association for more than 25 years) and providing drinking fountains for dogs.
But not all of her philanthropic ventures were successful. Most notably, she gave the vast sum of £200,000 to pay for the construction of Columbia Market in the East End of London, which turned out to be a massively costly white elephant. The intention was undoubtedly noble: Burdett‑Coutts was concerned that the tolls collected at other London markets were pushing up the price of food and making it difficult for the poor to feed their families, and she wanted to find a way of supplying the inhabitants of poorer areas with cheaper food in the long term. Unfortunately, against opposition from the other London markets, Columbia Market struggled to get going. The sense that this was a grand philanthropic folly was not helped by the fact that, as a result of the desire to provide maximum employment during the construction of the market, the building itself was incredibly lavish. As The Times noted: ‘The Halles of Paris and the central market of Brussels are as nothing when compared with the beauty of this almost cathedral pile.’ Gradually the market declined, until it finally closed in 1886. The remnants of Burdett‑Coutts’ grand vision can still be seen today in the presence of Columbia Road flower market, which evolved from the street markets that had existed around the main market, and is now a popular tourist destination.
Burdett‑Coutts had more philanthropic hits than misses though, and her interests spread beyond the UK. She supported various expeditions, including the African exploration of Livingstone and Stanley, and provided hospital equipment and nurses during the Zulu War of 1879. She even dabbled in social investment, making an advance of capital for the purchase of equipment by the Baltimore fishing fleet that resulted in a major turnaround in its fortunes and was almost entirely repaid over subsequent years. This, along with other work in the city, led to her being hailed as the ‘Queen of Baltimore’.
She was widely feted in her homeland too, as a paragon of Victorian philanthropic virtues, and to many in Victorian Britain ‘the name of Baroness Burdett‑Coutts became almost synonymous with large‑scale charity’. There are a number of reasons. In part it may be a reflection of the fact that ‘more than with most of her wealthy contemporaries, she considered the practice of philanthropy to be almost a professional commitment’.
More than with most of her wealthy contemporaries, she considered the practice of philanthropy to be almost a professional commitment
It may also have been less about her philanthropy than about the woman herself, as it is clear that ‘her contemporaries found her a fascinating figure, with the touch of eccentricity that adds colour — the fabulously wealthy heiress, strong‑minded and shrewd, devoting her resources to improving the life of her time’. Whatever the case, she was widely renowned and appears to have been much‑loved, and ‘there is no reason to doubt the story that, when she died in her ninety‑second year, some thirty thousand Londoners filed past her coffin as it lay in state at One Stratton Street’.
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