Meet The Philanthropists: Thomas Holloway, the best and worst of philanthropy?

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 Thomas Holloway, who may represent the very best, and the very worst, of philanthropy.

Engraving of Thomas Holloway, from a photograph by Elliott & Fry, 1884

Thomas Holloway (1800–1883) was a wealthy Victorian businessman who made his fortune selling patent medicine, and put a large portion of it towards philanthropic works. He is probably best known today for founding Royal Holloway College, now part of the University of London.

Holloway is interesting because his charitable works encapsulate both some of the best, and what many might consider some of the worst, aspects of philanthropy. On the plus side, Holloway did not choose easy or popular causes: Royal Holloway College was conceived as a college of higher education for women, with a view to it becoming a standalone women’s university, at a time when there were very few higher education opportunities available for women. Likewise, Holloway’s other main project, The Holloway
Sanatorium, was designed as a curative institution for the mentally ill, based on research into approaches on the continent and in the US, and was a long way from the normal mode of the Victorian insane asylum.

Also counting in his favour was the considered and strategic approach that Holloway took to choosing his philanthropic projects. It was this that led him to focus on a small number of major projects rather than spread his generosity more widely. It is noted: ‘There was nothing impulsive about his choice of philanthropies. On the contrary, he studied the possibilities with exemplary deliberation, took counsel from a variety of advisers, and reached his decision only after years of reflection.


There was nothing impulsive about his choice of philanthropies. On the contrary, he studied the possibilities with exemplary deliberation, took counsel from a variety of advisers, and reached his decision only after years of reflection.

Apparently he saw in the benefactions of George Peabody, the American, a challenge and even a rebuke to wealthy Englishmen. From the beginning he made it clear that he would concentrate on one or two important projects of national utility rather than scatter his resources on a variety of minor schemes.’

The flipside of this is that Holloway was clearly driven by a desire to boost his own status and rather enamoured of the image of himself that he obtained through his good works. By choosing to found physical institutions, he was able to attach his own name to them and ensure that everyone was aware of his role in their construction. This suited Holloway because ‘he obviously enjoyed the twin satisfactions of contributing to social progress and wielding power, albeit in the interests of benevolence . . . Unlike many of his well‑to‑do contemporaries, [he] was little tempted to scatter his wealth semi‑anonymously over the charity terrain. Instead, he elected to put the bulk of it into bricks and mortar (and endowment) for the two institutions that he founded’.

Royal Holloway College, the upper quadrangle

Apart from the slight question mark over the purity of Holloway’s motivations, it was his dogmatism and micro‑management when it came to the construction of the institutions he was funding that brought the most criticism. He refused, for instance, to listen to those who suggested that his choice of location for Royal Holloway College (Egham in Surrey) would make it isolated from all the other existing academic centres. He drew further
disapproval for the design of the college, which many felt to be ridiculously opulent. One can see his critics’ point: rather than adopting a practical, low‑cost approach, Royal Holloway was built as a foot‑by‑foot replica of Château Chambord in the Loire Valley (albeit in brick, rather than stone). The blame for this rested solely with Holloway, as he obsessively micro‑managed the project from beginning to end. As a case in point, one (possibly apocryphal) story has it that when the architect submitted the final plans to him for approval, Holloway travelled to Chambord to check that nothing had been missed. Apparently all was perfect, except for a small and inaccessible dormer window on the east front that was lacking in the architect’s plans. Holloway immediately demanded that the architect draw up new plans to
rectify the omission.

Holloway is an intriguing and confusing figure, and is in many ways an anomaly among donors of his time. But whatever questions there might be about his motivations or methods, in purely financial terms he was one of the most significant donors of his age.


Holloway is an intriguing and confusing figure, and is in many ways an anomaly among donors of his time. But whatever questions there might be about his motivations or methods, in purely financial terms he was one of the most significant donors of his age.

‘If a portrait [of a “typical” Victorian philanthropist] could be drawn, it would bear little resemblance to Thomas Holloway. He seems, perhaps to have less in common with his English contemporaries than with certain American multimillionaires, who during most of their careers were concerned only with business success and whose sense of social responsibility flowered late. For Holloway lacked the interest in a profusion of good works that marked the characteristically charitable Victorian, and religious motivation, if it existed at all, was not conspicuous in his activities. Yet measured by the total of his benefactions, which totalled well over a million pounds . . .[he] was certainly one of the two or three preeminent philanthropists of this time.’

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