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How Charles Dickens inspired “the most remarkable woman in the kingdom"

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Summary

A dinner conversation with the man behind A Christmas Carol spurred on our famous philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts.

2 min read

This Christmas, we’re celebrating 15 years of support for neighbouring charity The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, which helps homeless people in London. But you have to go much further back in time to see the beginnings of our work with good causes.

It actually started at a dinner party in Victorian London.

Angela Burdett-Coutts, from the family that forged the bank we are today, got chatting to one Charles Dickens – a Coutts client who was well-known for bringing the problems of the poor into the spotlight.

The heiress, who had recently inherited £1.8 million, was deeply moved and inspired by the writer of Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers who had first-hand experience of poverty as a child.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship and they set about working together to help people across London. Their joint achievements included founding Urania Cottage, a house that took in girls experiencing poverty, and Angela provided bathing facilities at a ‘ragged school’ in London, that helped children living on the streets, after hearing about it from Dickens.

Angela’s inheritance came from a 50% share of Coutts as granddaughter of its former senior partner Thomas Coutts. She received it from her step-grandmother Harriot, who wanted Angela to lead what was considered a more conventional life for a woman of her standing, so forbade her from getting involved in the business through her will.

Angela therefore decided to focus her formidable talents on philanthropy instead. And that fateful conversation with Dickens only made her more determined to do what she could for those facing challenges on a daily basis.

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A NobLE Spirit

Although we’ll never know exactly how much she donated to charity in her lifetime, the estimate is that by 1881, 20 years before her death, it had reached the equivalent of £350 million in today’s money. She was also instrumental in setting up the NSPCC and Royal Marsden Hospital.

King Edward VII said that, after his mother, Angela was “the most remarkable woman in the kingdom”. And Dickens certainly became impressed with the life she went on to lead, calling her “a noble spirit” and dedicating his novel Martin Chuzzlewitt to her.

Coutts archivist Tracey Earl says Angela was incredibly driven.

“She never thought she was done when it came to helping people,” she says. “And she wasn’t motivated in any way by a desire for fame or glory, quite the opposite. She often made donations anonymously.

“She was also very well connected and not afraid to use those connections for her philanthropy, often lobbying friends in government posts to help.”

“Angela was incredibly progressive and entrepreneurial in her philanthropy and that really shapes the way we work today.”
Rachel Harrington, Coutts Foundation

A legacy that lives on

Angela’s legacy is the inspiration behind the Coutts Foundation, an independent charity supported by Coutts which tackles the causes and consequences of poverty in communities where the bank has a presence.

Rachel Harrington, who sits on the Foundation’s board and oversees its operations, says, “Angela was incredibly progressive and entrepreneurial in her philanthropy and that really shapes the way we work today. She was curious about different ways to make an impact and didn’t shy away from ‘difficult’ issues that may have been unpopular with others.”

The Foundation currently supports 17 organisations including The Connection at St Martin’s. It has given the homelessness charity grants totalling over £400,000 since 2017, with Coutts staff also regularly raising funds and volunteering there.

The latest fundraising drive by Coutts has been happening throughout December. We’ve made it possible for those passing our headquarters in London to ‘tap and donate’ easily, with the relevant technology prominent in our festive window. We also held a luxury Christmas market and gift wrapping service for clients at the start of the month, and several members of staff slept outside as part of The World’s Big Sleep Out in Trafalgar Square – all to raise money for the charity.

And with much more planned for 2020, we like to think Angela – and Dickens – would have approved.

Donate to The Connection at St Martin’s.

Find out more about Angela Burdett-Coutts and Thomas Coutts.