Philanthropy is in Coutts DNA. And with one of the most renowned and pioneering philanthropists at the heart of our history, it is no wonder that we are passionate about empowering and furthering the causes that matter to our clients. Angela Burdett-Coutts, granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, who in 1837, inherited a share of Coutts – and choose to use her fortune in a way that continues to inspire and drives many tenets of philanthropy today. Here, we take a look at Angela’s story.
Having inherited a £1.8m fortune from her grandfather following the death of her stepmother, Harriet Mellon, Angela Burdett-Coutts was forbidden by 19th-century social convention from becoming involved in the Bank. She chose instead to channel her formidable energy and desire to make a difference into philanthropy. Made a Baroness in 1871 by Queen Victoria for her charitable work, Angela was the first woman to have been made a peer in recognition of her accomplishments and was widely known as the ‘Queen of the Poor’ for the work she did in London. Charles Dickens, a client of Coutts, was her almoner for some time and she supported many of his causes for social reform.
Her most renowned philanthropic work was in East London, where she poured money into redevelopment, particularly in the Bethnal Green area. As well as building homes for the poor, she was concerned with the supply of fresh drinking water to deprived parts of London and paid £7,000 for a drinking fountain in Victoria Park, Hackney. Angela’s philanthropy was diverse in nature. She gave financial support to the wives of soldiers serving in the Crimea, supplied vital equipment to Florence Nightingale to improve nursing hygiene, aided the wounded of the Zulu Wars and supported army hospitals in South Africa. Angela's most renowned philanthropic work was in East London, where she poured money into redevelopment.
Another of her major concerns was child labour, and she funded many schools and evening classes, where children from deprived backgrounds could learn skills that would enable them to earn a living. She was one of the first to support cancer research. In 1851, the founder of the Royal Marsden Hospital received an interest-free loan from her to allow him to build the premises. She continued to support this hospital with annual subscriptions of £50.
Angela provided huge sums to relieve poverty in Ireland and, in particular, the effects of the Great Potato Famine. She paid for relief centres where corn, flour, tea and sugar could be bought cheaply and attempted to stimulate the fishing industry by paying for boats and fishing equipment. Protection for animals and children was another of Angela’s concerns. Her father, Sir Francis Burdett, had been the first politician to sponsor the first act against cruelty to animals. She followed his example and was made President of the Ladies’ Committee of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1870. She was also on the committee of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and gave at least two lifeboats in England to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
One of the most progressive and radical philanthropists of her time, Angela supported schemes that she believed might be of more general benefit to humankind. For example, she funded David Livingstone in his African travels, and supported Charles Babbage in his work to develop the earliest computer. The full extent of Angela’s philanthropy will never be known as often her account entries simply record the sums and the description ‘donation’. Angela was also keen to keep out of the limelight and was the ‘Lady Unknown’ behind many gifts. But as one of the wealthiest women of her time, it is clear that she was a significant philanthropist, donating today’s equivalent of circa £350 million during her lifetime. Coutts is proud of its association with Angela, who could be described as the ‘founding mother of women’s philanthropy’.