As the daughter of Sir Francis Burdett and Sophia Coutts (whose father was wealthy banker Thomas Coutts) Angela Burdett could already be said to have had great expectations. However, when she inherited a massive fortune from her grandmother in 1837, it came as a great surprise to everyone. The will also stipulated that to receive this money Angela, then twenty-three, must henceforward use the surname of Coutts.
Did Angela embark on a career of partying, shopping and European tours? Indeed not. While avoiding the many fortune-hunting men who chased her, intent on marriage, Angela devoted her time to doing good. She became a philanthropist on an industrial scale, putting her vast wealth at the service of the world.
Angela was determined to support schools and housing projects for the poor and she set up night classes for unskilled workers. She donated money to build churches in the slum areas and, together with her friend Charles Dickens, she started a refuge for fallen women and prostitutes, a safe haven where they could learn new skills to better themselves and escape the sex trade.
Angela was a leading patron of the arts and theatre, and also explorers, like David Livingstone. She donated money to many humanitarian causes as far afield as Africa and Turkey. During the Crimean War, Angela was on hand to support the families of the soldiers caught up in the conflict, and she designed a linen drier and had it shipped out to Florence Nightingale to help with the hospital laundry.
When Angela is remembered today, it is usually because of the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) which came into being because of a meeting of the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) that took place during her tenure as president.
When Angela inherited Holly Lodge, her Coutts grandfather’s Highgate mansion, she went on to establish Holly Village nearby. This development of Victorian Gothic cottages with its own village green was created purely for the benefit of her staff. These excellent properties are still much sought after.
When Angela wasn’t opening new schools for the poor or rescuing fallen women, she was mixing with the movers and shakers of the day, people like Gladstone and Disraeli. Even Queen Victoria came to visit her at Holly Lodge.
Did Angela end her life as a dried-up old spinster, then? No way! When she was sixty-seven she finally married: he was William Ashmead Bartlett, her American secretary, and only twenty-nine years old (Oh, the scandal!). They were wed in 1881 and William took her surname.
Because her husband was American, Angela had to give up a large part of her inheritance, but she continued with her charitable projects at home and overseas. Her husband carried on much of her work after her death and went on to become MP for Westminster.
The couple had many years together because Angela lived to be ninety-two, dying of bronchitis in 1906. The service at Westminster Abbey was attended by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Angela had made such a difference to the lives of the East End poor that its pearly kings also attended to pay their last respects to their remarkable benefactor.
One could argue it is easy to be charitable when you have a shedload of money, but Angela was from a different age, a time when wealthy women got married, had children, and lived lives of luxury and self-indulgence. Angela could have ignored the need and inequality all around her, but she didn’t. What a contrast to some of today’s wealthy young women who spend half the year flaunting their boob jobs on tropical beaches and the other half falling out of Spearmint Rhino in the early hours of the morning.
Why has it taken me so long to find out about this amazing lady? Why aren’t girls taught about women like Angela at school? Girls need strong, positive female role models, instead of being subjected to a steady diet of male achievements on one hand and the vacuous images of female stereotypes portrayed by the media on the other.
Angela Burdett-Coutts is an antidote to all that is wrong with popular culture’s expectations of women. She can teach young girls what is really important in life, how much you can achieve if you set your mind to it. She can show them how to use money, time and fame wisely. Her example also proves you can go your own way, even if that is in defiance of convention. In fact, the life of Angela Burdett Coutts is an inspiration to us all.