Baroness Burdett-Coutts

Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) was the granddaughter of Henry Poole’s banker Thomas Coutts. In 1837 Angela Burdett inherited Thomas’s fortune from his second wife Harriot, Duchess of St Albans having accepted the request to add ‘Coutts’ to her existing surname. She became the wealthiest woman in England after Queen Victoria with a fortune of £1.8 million (£165 million today). Miss Burdett-Coutts was a prim, level-headed young lady guided by her charismatic governess Hannah Brown.

Baroness Burdett-Coutts’s biographer Edna Healey wrote of her ‘Angela, at twelve, was intelligent, equable in temperament but plain and lanky and in need of a good governess. Bubbling, vital, intelligent and shrewd, Hannah was the perfect companion and teacher’. As soon as she inherited, Miss Burdett-Coutts became a figure of fascination and a target for fortune hunters. Punch magazine wrote ‘the world set to work, match-making, determined to unite the splendid heiress to somebody’. Miss Burdett-Coutts didn’t fall choosing instead to set-up home with Hannah Brown at No. 1 Stratton Street, Piccadilly.

In 1839 Miss Burdett-Coutts befriended the Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo, who was a near neighbour living at Apsley House. Aged thirty-three, she proposed to the seventy-eight-year old Duke who wisely replied ‘my first duty towards you is that of friend, guardian, protector! You are young, my dearest! You have before you the prospect of at least twenty years of enjoyment and happiness for life. I entreat you again in this way not to throw yourself away upon a man old enough to be your grandfather’. They remained friends until the duke’s death in 1852.

1839 was also the year Miss Burdett-Coutts met Charles Dickens who wrote to her ‘I have never begun a book or begun anything of interest to me or done anything of importance to me since I first dined with you’. The courtly love was shared and it was Dickens who helped inspire her lifelong passion for philanthropy. One of their first crusades was to establish a home for fallen women that they called Urania Cottage in Shepherds Bush. Dickens dedicated Martin Chuzzlewit to Miss Burdett-Coutts and she was said to be the inspiration for Agnes Wickford in David Copperfield.

Miss Burdett-Coutts’s interests were varied. Like Queen Victoria she supported Florence Nightingale’s mission to the Crimean War in 1855 and sent ‘the lady with the lamp’ a linen dryer that she had designed for a hospital laundry. Previously she had backed Charles Babbage’s ‘calculating engine’. The woman Victorian society christened ‘Queen of the Poor’ would turn her attention to the RSPCA, the NSPCC and London’s Royal Marsden hospital. She held honorary posts with the Temperance Society, the Beekeepers Association and the Spitalfields Sewing School though Miss Burdett-Coutts liked to be practical rather than sit on honorary committees. Her money helped to pay for the church bells of St Paul’s Cathedral, built drinking fountains in Victoria Park and Regents Park and established Columbia Road Market in Bethnal Green.

Miss Burdett-Coutts had cultivated the great and good since her childhood grand tour and an encounter with King Louis-Philippe of France. She was an intimate of Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone. In 1871 she was made a peer by her admirer Queen Victoria in recognition of her many charitable works. Forthwith, she was known as Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield. The Baroness chose Highgate because she had paid for the construction of a Victorian Gothic residential complex there called Holly Village.

Visitors to St Pancras Old Church behind the eponymous station will see an obelisk that Baroness Burdett-Coutts paid to have erected in commemoration of those whose graves were disturbed by the development of the Midland Railway. Taking her support for the church even further, Lady Burdett-Coutts financed the building of St. Stephen’s church in Westminster: a grand Gothic edifice that stands behind Westminster School’s playing fields on Vincent Square. She was dealt a cruel blow in 1878 when her right hand woman Hannah Brown. She called Brown ‘the companion and sunshine of my life for fifty-two years’.

Three years later Lady Burdett-Coutts startled London society by marrying her secretary, an American, William Ashmead-Bartlett whose education she had paid for as a child. The bride was sixty-seven and Bartlett twenty-nine. Queen Victoria was compelled to write that ‘it would grieve her very much if Lady Burdett-Coutts were to sacrifice her high reputation and her happiness by an unsuitable marriage’. Lady Burdett-Coutts was unrepentant saying she ‘could not face the future without him’.

By marrying a foreigner, Lady Burdett-Coutts lost her inheritance to her sister Clara Money-Coutts. She was granted £16,000 a year but it was insufficient to support her philanthropic schemes. In 1855 Ashmead-Bartlett became MP for Westminster and, by all accounts, Lady Burdett-Coutts was contented with her marriage despite living in reduced circumstances. When she died in 1906 Lady Burdett-Coutts was buried near the West Door of Westminster Abbey. King Edward VII declaimed that, after his mother Queen Victoria, Lady Burdett-Coutts was ‘the most remarkable woman in the kingdom’.

(c) James Sherwood