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Victoria’s rival Queen of the Poor

by
03 February 2023

Rod Garner on the life and philanthropic legacy of Angela Burdett-Coutts

KGPA Ltd/Alamy

Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)

Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)

BY THE time she was 23, life had already been kind to Angela Burdett-Coutts. She was born in 1814 to Sir Francis Burdett, the first Radical MP for Westminster, and Sophia Coutts, daughter of the royal banker Thomas Coutts. Tall and graceful, with an endearing demeanour and enchanting voice, Angela was already a seasoned traveller, accomplished in three European languages, and blessed with an intellectual curiosity and steely will that belied her outward shyness. A welcome guest at society balls and parties, her future seemed assured, requiring only a suitable marriage and children by way of enhancement.

In 1837, however, just two months after Victoria had become Queen, Angela stood astonished, along with other family members, in a subdued London room, after learning that she had been left an inheritance of £1,800,000 (equivalent to more than £200 million today). This sudden and completely unexpected acquisition of enormous wealth — which made her the wealthiest heiress in England — brought in its train an avalanche of begging letters, self-seeking admirers, and a questionable array of suitors.

Deeply religious and politically astute, Angela had other plans. Heeding her father’s maxim that “great means demanded a great cause”, she resolved that her fortune would do good to the many and not the few. It would embrace the relief of poverty and want; promote social work with prostitutes in London (estimated at that time at about 80,000); improve children’s education; and campaign for greater compassion towards animal welfare.

Her Evangelical sympathies and simple faith led her to believe that, in making such a profound commitment, the hand of God would guide her. The parable of the Good Shepherd was never far from her thoughts, and it would be her mission “to care for God’s earth and beasts and people”. She knew that she could not do everything that was necessary to allay social evils, but she could at least do something.

Her intimate friend, confidant, and guide, the Duke of Wellington, endorsed such sentiments, but sought to dissuade her from projects that would be wasted on the most wretched and undeserving. She listened dutifully before determinedly going her own way.

 

AT THE outset, Angela directed her attention to the Church of England. She built churches in deprived areas to care for bodies as well as souls, and resourced schools and colleges. She endowed the bishoprics of Adelaide in South Australia, and Cape Town in South Africa, to serve lonely and isolated emigrants who, with her financial help, had fled the slums of the burgeoning British cities; she also established the bishopric of British Columbia.

Aided by the indefatigable energy and administrative skills of Charles Dickens, she set up Urania Cottage, a home for prostitutes, where compassion rather than condescension sought to restore their hope and dignity, and equip them for a better future. There were notable successes along with the inevitable failures.

With Dickens’s assistance, she became a pioneer in social housing: Columbia Square — four blocks, containing 180 apartments — was opened in the East End of London in 1862, providing space, light, ventilation, drainage, and laundry facilities for residents who had previously known only unimaginable squalor and the persistent presence of cholera. She fought disease in its various manifestations, supporting cancer research and helping to establish the Brompton Cancer Hospital (now the Royal Marsden).

This range of concerns made demands on more than just her cheque book. She became personally involved in them, co-founding in 1884 the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (it became the NSPCC in 1889), and helping to establish the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Although London remained the main focus of her outreach, other British cities had reason to be grateful for her support.

Further afield, she gave generously to missionary and humanitarian work in Africa, Canada, and Ireland. At home, she received thousands of individual requests seeking financial help. She never travelled without a portable desk, and many entries in her bank account were marked simply “Donations”.

From time to time, she became exhausted by the task she had originally set herself, and was prone to an underlying sadness evidenced in later portraits of her. To escape, she would visit the Continent, or — more frequently — Torquay, the most pleasing of her safe havens.

There were other pleasurable diversions. She collected paintings, china, and rare manuscripts, and gave concerts at home. She always travelled in considerable comfort, and wore embroidered silks of the finest quality. She had pet birds and animals that gave her great pleasure. Her parrots were legendary, one in particular amusing royal guests with the raucous insult of “What a shocking bad hat!”

 

IN 1871, in recognition of her unstinting work over many years, Angela became the first woman to be made a baroness in her own right. Ten years later, at the age of 67, she caused a sensation by marrying a young American: William Bartlett, her trusted secretary, who, at 29, was less than half her age. Queen Victoria was incandescent, and presumed that Angela had lost her mind. She had not; and not even royal censure prevented the marriage that was to bring both partners much happiness.

The decision to wed came, quite literally, at a staggering cost. Because she had married a foreign national, Angela forfeited her right to her inheritance, and, for the rest of her life, her wealth was severely diminished. The Queen never called at her home again. Undaunted, Angela continued to serve on influential committees, and sustained an interest in the causes that had always mattered to her.

She died peacefully, in 1906, aged 92. Before her burial in Westminster Abbey, more than 25,000 people filed past her coffin, paying their final respects to the woman they had affectionately called “The Queen of the Poor”. Decades earlier, Dickens was perhaps more accurate when he had paid tribute to her peculiar and serviceable gift of “seeing clearly with kind eyes”.

 

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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