When Edna Healey published her biography of Baroness Burdett-Coutts in 1978, she called it Lady Unknown. This was perhaps not surprising, as the baroness and her extraordinary life and works had rather faded from view in the intervening seventy years, and if she was remembered at all it was probably as a bit player in the melodrama that was the life of Charles Dickens. But in her own day, the baroness was very famous indeed: one man said that she was ‘after my mother the most remarkable woman in the country’, and since the mother referred to was Queen Victoria, this was quite an impressive statement.
What made Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts both famous and beloved in her own day was that she gave away huge, eye-watering sums of money, with a view to improving the lot of the poor. When she was born in 1814 she was the sixth and youngest child of Sir Francis Burdett, baronet, landowner and extremely radical and independent Member of Parliament (he was once locked up in the Tower of London). But in the tradition of fairy-stories, it is the youngest child who gets to go to the ball, or have the adventures which end up in marriage to a prince/princess, and so it was (apart from the marriage, of which more anon) in this case.
Angela’s mother was Sophia, the youngest daughter of the London banker Thomas Coutts (1735–1822), whose most famous (and possibly most troublesome) clients were members of the royal family. Coutts lived modestly and privately, dressed shabbily, and loved the arts. He supported Reynolds, Fuseli, Haydon and Lawrence among other painters, was a friend of Garrick, and was never without a volume of Shakespeare in his pocket.
His discretion over his private life was such that almost nobody knew that in 1763 he had married the nursemaid of his brother’s children. On her death in 1815 (and when he was nearly eighty), he married the 38-year-old actress Harriot Mellon, again in secret, and re-married her publicly when the secret leaked out. They had seven very happy years together, and on his death, he left her most of his property, and his half share in the bank, giving her complete freedom to choose her own heir.
In 1827, Harriot moved even further up the social scale by marrying the 26-year-old duke of St Albans, but at the same time she managed her own money extremely carefully, and took very seriously the question of where it would go on her death. In the event, in 1837, there was a comfortable bequest to her husband, and legacies to friends and servants, but the bulk of her estate was left in trust to the 23-year-old Angela – possibly because, unlike may of her relatives, she had always treated the former actress with unsnobbish courtesy.
There were two conditions attached: Angela should take the name Coutts (which she did, hyphenating it with her own, though she was most frequently referred to as Miss Coutts); and if she married a foreigner, the fortune would be lost to her, reverting to her family in the legal order of succession. At the time, this seemed to be a far-fetched contingency…
Miss Coutts’s enormous fortune was further increased by the deaths of both her father and her mother in January 1844. Up to a point, she behaved like other very wealthy people: she set up a lavish home, she had a lady companion who conveniently married her resident doctor, she patronised the arts, she bought jewellery (including Marie Antoinette’s tiara), books (including a Shakespeare first folio), and art. Actors and musicians such as Henry Irving and Liszt were her friends.
Many men proposed marriage to Miss Coutts, and she declined them all. She (somewhat unconventionally) proposed to her friend and advisor, the duke of Wellington (he was 79 at the time, she was 33), and he gently declined her. Even more unconventionally, she was in the mean time giving away her money. Charles Dickens was instrumental in bringing worthy causes to her attention, and helping her to sift through the thousands of begging letters she received: they founded Urania Cottage (for homeless ex-prostitutes), and she gave her financial support to ragged schools and to the improvement of sanitation in the London slums. (She also paid for young Charley Dickens to go to Eton.) The dedication to Martin Chuzzlewit reads: ‘To Miss Burdett Coutts, this tale is dedicated, with the true and earnest regard of the author’.
Her support of the established Church was spectacular. She built and endowed St Stephen’s, Westminster (designed by Benjamin Ferrey), in memory of her father; she gave the bishop of London enough money to build three new churches; she paid for four new bells for St Paul’s cathedral; she paid for a new church in Carlisle, and for the restoration of churches on her own estates. She also endowed three bishoprics – in Cape Town, Adelaide, and British Columbia – with money for to maintain the bishops, churches and clergy. All her churches had attached schools and ‘social services’ such as mutual aid, self-help and temperance societies, and soup kitchens.
She was passionate about cruelty to animals and children. She supported teacher training schools and the embryonic Birkbeck College. She built model housing in the East End, and developed Columbia Market in an effort to bring wholesome but affordable food to the poor. She provided drinking troughs for horses and dogs, and paid for the memorial to the devoted Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh. She financed the development of a fishing industry in south-west Ireland, and encouraged the fashion for Irish lace and embroidery: she even proposed to purchase £250,000 of seed potatoes for Irish farmers, and sponsored research into potato blight.
Abroad, she supported both Livingstone and Stanley in Africa, and paid for machinery which would enable the native people in Abeokuta (in Nigeria) to manufacture cotton. She raised funds for the Turkish civilians dispossessed by the Russo-Turkish War, and sent out equipment and staff to military hospitals in South Africa. Her work and her generosity were recognised when 1871 she was made a baroness in her own right: she also received the freedom of London, and of many of the City livery companies – all very rare distinctions for a woman.
Then, in 1881, at the age of 66, she married a 29-year-old foreigner. William Ashmead Bartlett (henceforward known as Mr Burdett-Coutts) was American by birth, and Miss Coutts had met him as a boy and paid for his education: he had later worked for various of her overseas charitable enterprises. Queen Victoria thought it was ridiculous, but the marriage seems to have been happy, the only downside being that Harriot Mellon’s bequest was forfeited and went to Angela’s sister Clara. (She, happily, had married a Mr Money, so the family became the Money-Coutts.)
The Burdett-Coutts’ philanthropy was somewhat checked, but they continued to support the Church, and the poor of London. Mr Burdett-Coutts became M.P. for Westminster, and much of his political agenda was driven by his wife’s interests. In 1893, an international exhibition was held in Chicago, at which, for the first time, there was a section specifically devoted to ‘Women’s Work’. For this, the baroness undertook a fact-finding exercise and drew up a report, with contributions from women active in various charitable fields. It was published as Woman’s Mission: A Series of Congress Papers on the Philanthropic Work of Women by Eminent Writers, with a lengthy appendix documenting the charitable work in Britain and throughout the empire carried on by women, both professional and volunteers.
At the same time, the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exhibition, one Mrs Potter Palmer, asked the duchess of Teck to fill the large gap in Woman’s Mission by supplying an account of the baroness’s own philanthropic activities, which had gone unmentioned in the book. (The duchess was a great friend of the baroness, who indeed helped her out when the Teck family finances were failing to keep up with the royal status.) The result was Baroness Burdett-Coutts: A Sketch of Her Public Life and Mission, which is predictably short on personal matters, but very detailed about the astounding number of causes, from the deaths of children in workhouses to the deaths of humming-birds to deck women’s hats, to which this remarkable and bountiful lady dedicated herself.