Many may have heard of Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), or at least the bank he founded, Coutts & Co., but how many know the name of his granddaughter? After Coutts and his wife died, his granddaughter Angela inherited his fortune, making her the wealthiest woman in Britain. Rather than spend the money on herself, Angela used it to help others in less fortunate circumstances. Whilst Angela may have been “the richest heiress in England”, she was also the most generous.
Angela Georgina Burdett was born on 21st April 1814 to Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet (1770-1844) and Sophia Coutts (d. 1844), the daughter of Thomas Coutts. She was the youngest of six children, five girls and a boy called Robert, who inherited the baronetcy. Sir Francis was an English reformist politician and opponent of the prime minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). He frequently came into conflict with parliament and was imprisoned for three months in 1820 for “composing, writing, and publishing a seditious libel” about the Peterloo Massacre. On his release, Sir Francis and the family moved into a house at 25 St James’s Place, London.
Sophia was one of three daughters of Thomas Coutts, nicknamed the “The Three Graces”. Due to her beauty, Sophia was sought after by a few painters, including Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the fourth president of the Royal Academy. She married Sir Francis in 1793, bringing with her a fortune of £25,000. Sir Francis and Sophia were very much in love and remained so for their entire marriage. When Sophia passed away on 13th January 1844, Sir Francis became inconsolable. After refusing to eat for several days, he died on 23rd January 1844.
When Angela’s grandfather died in 1822, his estate went to his second wife, Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans (1777-1837). She thought carefully about the recipient of Coutts’ fortune upon her death and settled on Angela as her heiress. In her will, she stipulated three conditions: Angela’s 50% share in the bank must be held in trust; she must take the name Coutts; and thirdly, she must never marry a foreigner. So, she legally changed her name to Angela Burdett-Coutts.
Upon receipt of her inheritance, 23-year-old Burdett-Coutts became a subject of public curiosity. Many speculated about what she would do with the money, and many men made marriage proposals. For a while, Burdett-Coutts’ wealth elevated her to celebrity status, although she did little with her money during the first few years after receipt. So well known was she that the Reverend Richard Harris Barham (1788-1845) referred to her as “Miss Anja-ly Coutts” in a ballad written for Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) coronation in 1837. The poem is part of The Ingoldsby Legends, named after the author’s pen name, “Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor”.
Burdett-Coutts began to donate money to various causes, prompting author Charles Dickens (1812-70) to write to her in 1846. He expressed his desire to open an asylum for “fallen women” where they could be rehabilitated, find jobs and gain property. Dickens was concerned about the growing number of prostitutes in London and wished to help them. He wanted to find a suitable property but needed funding, which Burdett-Coutts agreed to provide. The following year, Dickens purchased Urania Cottage in Shepherds Bush, which Burdett-Coutts helped him organise ready for opening that November. The home provided the women with food, shelter and education. They learned to read and write, and learn the trades of housekeepers, gardeners and seamstresses. Although the inhabitants did not pay to live there, they helped cook meals and keep the house clean. They also produced meals for the local poor relief.
As well as Urania House, Burdett-Coutts founded churches and schools around the country and in other areas of the British Empire. In 1847, she helped fund the bishoprics of Cape Town, South Africa, and Adelaide, Australia. Ten years later, she provided the same support for British Columbia, Canada.
In 1862, Burdett-Coutts erected a public fountain in Victoria Park in what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It was designed by the Mancunian architect Henry Astley Darbishire (1825-99), costing £5000 (approximately £647,000 today). Around 10,000 spectators turned up to witness the unveiling of the gothic-style granite fountain. Shaped like an octagon, it is 28 feet (8.5 m) wide with 60 feet (18 m) high red granite columns. Its purpose was to provide drinking water to everyone in the vicinity and was given a Grade II* listed status by Historic England in 1975. This means it is a structure of particular importance and interest. Since the refurbishment of Victoria Park in 2011, the fountain is no longer in public use and is now known as the Baroness Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain.
Two years later, Burdett-Coutts donated £500 to fund the first Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem. Undertaken by Charles William Wilson (1836-1905), an officer in the Royal Engineers corps of the British Army, the survey produced the first accurate map of the city. Burdett-Coutts agreed to finance the project because she wished to help provide a better drinking water system for the inhabitants. Unfortunately, her wishes were not granted until the following century. Yet, the survey proved useful in other ways, such as helping the Church Mission Society collect information about place names, buildings and points of interest, which, in turn, helped scholars understand the geography of parts of the Bible. For the first time, archaeologists were able to explore the underground features of Temple Mount.
Turning her attention back to her home country, Angela Burdett-Coutts concerned herself with improving housing in the East End of London. This project received the support of Charles Dickens and resulted in the founding of Columbia Market in Bethnal Green to provide local people with affordable and nutritious produce. Burdett-Coutts purchased part of the slum area of Bethnal Green and paid for the construction of an undercover food market containing 400 stalls, which opened in 1869. She also constructed a gothic building called Columbia Dwellings, which was able to house dozens of families. The buildings have since been demolished, but traders continue to set up market stalls in the streets every Sunday.
During the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts also became a supporter of the London Ragged School Union. For two decades, the union had provided destitute children with free education, but it relied heavily on volunteers, many of whom had very little money to give. Considerable donations from Burdett-Coutts and other wealthy sponsors helped establish 350 more ragged schools by 1870, which coincided with the passing of the first Education Act. This resulted in the creation of School Boards and paved the way for compulsory free education for every child.
In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ ongoing philanthropy, Queen Victoria bestowed upon her a suo jure peerage as Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield in the County of Middlesex. Although her father was a baronet, Burdett-Coutts did not inherit the baronetcy because that always went to the first-born son. Usually, a woman only became a baroness through marriage or if her father only had daughters. Yet, the Queen had the power to give someone the title of baroness suo jure, which means baroness “in her own right”. Burdett-Coutts joined the relatively short list of suo jure titles, featuring Eleanor, Duchess suo jure of Aquitaine (1122-1204), and Anne Boleyn of England, Marquess of Pembroke suo jure (1501-36).
Following this honour, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to be presented with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall on 18th July 1872. Established in the 13th century, the Freedom allows recipients several obsolete privileges, including the right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge, the right to carry a sword in public, and the right to be sent home in a taxi rather than arrested for drunken behaviour.
Burdett-Coutts continued donating money to good causes during the 1870s. First, she founded the Ladies Committee at the RSPCA, which aimed to improve the welfare of animals by encouraging children to join a group called ‘Band of Mercy’. She realised education was needed to teach children how to look after animals and encouraged them to enter an essay competition titled Our duty to animals. Over 275,000 children took part, and Queen Victoria personally attended the award ceremony.
As part of her work with the RSPCA, Burdett-Coutts travelled the country giving talks to farmers about the welfare of their animals. On her travels, she learned of a Skye Terrier called Greyfriars Bobby (1855-72), who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his deceased owner, John Gray. Moved by the dog’s story, Burdett-Coutts commissioned sculptor William Brodie (1815-81) to make a bronze statue of the animal. Sadly, the dog died in January 1872 before the sculpture was complete, so it was unveiled as a memorial the following year near the entrance to the graveyard Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Reflecting Burdett-Coutts passion for providing accessible drinking water for everyone, the statue of Greyfriars Bobby sits upon a water fountain, once furnished with two bronze drinking cups attached by a chain. Today, there is no water supply, but the structure remains a memorial to the faithful dog.
In 1874, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to receive the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh. The honour was likely in response to her generous donation of the Greyfriars Bobby memorial, which held her in high esteem with the people of Edinburgh.
Burdett-Coutts received another honour in 1877, this time for helping Turkish peasants and refugees during the 1877 Russo-Turkish War. After posting an advert in the Daily Telegraph, Burdett-Coutts raised £50,000 to form and run the Turkish Compassionate Fund. She volunteered her secretary William Ashmead-Barlett (1851-1912) to serve as Special Commissioner and oversee the organisation and administration of the charity, which helped thousands of refugees. Both she and Ashmead-Barlett received the Order of the Medjidiyeh by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Only two women have received this honour since its institution: Burdett-Coutts and Queen Victoria.
With Ashmead-Barlett overseeing charity work abroad, Burdett-Coutts refocused her attention to issues closer to home. During 1865, the construction of the Midland Railway, which ran to St Pancras Station, caused damages to neighbouring areas, particularly the burial ground for St Giles-in-the-Fields. The Catholic graveyard was the preferred resting place of French émigrés, but their bodies were dug up and moved to make way for the railway. This project was overseen by the author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who at that time worked as an apprentice architect. Hardy later wrote a poem called The Levelled Churchyard, in which he imagined the ghostly voices of souls he dug up.
After the construction of the railway, only the grandest of tombs remained, such as those belonging to Sir John Soane (1753-1837) and his wife (d. 1815). In 1875, the remaining land was purchased by the St Pancras Vestry for use as public gardens, which officially opened in 1877. To coincide with this, Burdett-Coutts commissioned a memorial sundial to commemorate the graves disturbed by the railway. Designed by George Highton of Brixton and manufactured by H Daniel and Co., the granite and marble Gothic sundial features relief carvings of trefoils, St Giles and St Pancras, and two figures representing the sun and moon. Carved into a marble panel are the Beatitudes listed in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-9.
The sundial features a dedication in “memory of those whose graves are now unseen, or the record of whose names may have become obliterated”. Three marble panels list the names of those whose graves were disturbed to make room for the Midland Railway. Names include Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), a French spy of questionable gender; Simon François Ravenet (1706-64), an assistant to the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764); and the British composer John Danby (1757-98). On the surrounding railings, a plaque honours Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), who is buried in a pauper’s grave in the vicinity.
Back in the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts gave financial aid to the southwest of Ireland, which continued to struggle with the aftereffects of the famine years between 1848 and 1849. She also established relief stores and encouraged the expansion of the fishing industry. Through the profits made, the Irish gradually repaid their debt to Burdett-Coutts. Unfortunately, in 1880 there were still many impoverished people. The money made from the fishing industry benefitted those in charge more than the workers. Burdett-Coutts suggested giving the British government £250,000 to supply Ireland with seed potatoes to help feed the poor and offer them an alternative means of income. This caught the attention of the Irish government who did not want to rely on the support of other countries. As a result, they agreed to improve the living and financial conditions of their people.
Ever since inheriting her fortune in 1837, Burdett-Coutts gained a never-ending list of marriage proposals. She continued to turn them down knowing they were only attracted to her wealth. Yet, in 1881, Burdett-Coutts surprised everyone by getting married. Not only was she 67 years old, the marriage broke the terms of her step-grandmother’s will, thus she forfeited three-fifths of her income to her sister. The will stipulated Burdett-Coutts could not marry a foreigner, yet she chose to marry her 29-year-old American secretary William Ashmead-Barlett. Fortunately, Ashmead-Barlett agreed to change his surname to Burdett-Coutts, since the rest of the will prevented Angela from changing her name.
Burdett-Coutts’ husband, who became the MP for the London constituency of Westminster in 1885, continued to act as her secretary and helped her organise and fund several charities. Despite having significantly less income, Burdett-Coutts did not lessen her philanthropic work. Her main concerns were for animal and children organisations, for instance, the British Beekeepers Association of which she was president from 1878 until her death.
In 1884, Burdett-Coutts co-founded the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children with Lord Shaftesbury (1801-85), which later became the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1889. The society campaigned for a law to protect children from abuse and neglect, similar to the way the RSPCA fought for animal rights. The first child protection law was passed in 1889, which prompted the name change of the organisation. In 1891, the League of Pity was founded, which encouraged children to engage with the NSPCC and participate in fund-raising activities.
In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ mission to “prevent and relieve sickness and injury, and to act to enhance the health and well-being of people anywhere in the world”, Queen Victoria made her a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem on 17th December 1888. This was the first year the award was initiated, so Burdett-Coutts is likely the first woman to receive the honour. Another notable recipient was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) in 1904.
One of Burdett-Coutts’ final projects involved compiling a book called Woman’s Work in England for the Chicago Exhibition in 1893. Rather modestly, she made no mention of herself in the publication. To rectify this, the Duchess of Teck (1833-97) arranged for a second publication in which she included a section about Baroness Burdett-Coutts. “Great as have been the intrinsic benefits that the baroness has conferred on others, the most signal of all has been the power of example an incalculable quantity which no record of events can measure. She has ever sought, also, to increase the usefulness of women in their homes, to extend their opportunities of self-improvement, and to deepen the sources of influence which they derive from moral worth and Christian life.”
At the age of 92, Angela Burdett-Coutts contracted acute bronchitis and passed away on 30th December 1906. Over the next two days, approximately 30,000 people came to pay their respects, often leaving tributes on the street outside her house at 1 Stratton Street. Her funeral took place at Westminster Cathedral on 5th January 1907, where she was laid to rest in the nave. The thousands who attended the funeral ranged from the royal family to the poorest of people Burdett-Coutts supported during her lifetime.
Angela Burdett-Coutts used her considerable wealth to help a great number of people. Many of her contributions paved the way for charities and organisations today, for instance, the RSPCA and NSPCC. She made schools and education more available, both in England and abroad and did all she could to improve people’s quality of life, for instance, providing cotton gins in Nigeria and encouraging the fishing industry in Ireland. Providing clean water for the public was high on Burdett-Coutts agenda, and she even arranged a drinking fountain for dogs. Her money was also spent purchasing new bells for St Paul’s Cathedral, constructing buildings and commissioning memorial statues. She was keen on keeping the memories of the departed alive, hence the sundial, honouring those whose graves were destroyed.
Despite all her work and generosity, very few recognise the name, Angela Burdett-Coutts. She gave so much but received very little in return and is at risk of being forgotten entirely. This is, unfortunately, the case for many women of her era. In the 21st century, someone like Angela Burdett-Coutts would have celebrity status, yet instead, she is confined to the depths of the internet where only a few will stumble across her name.