Britain in the nineteenth century was in many ways a dark and discouraging place; however there were shining lights in the gloom of working class life in the form of philanthropists. In this series, Lindsey Buteux will be looking at key philanthropists whose dedication to their cause brought many hundreds of individuals out of poverty and into education, better health, better living conditions and allowed them to experience the life that that their peers did not have access to.


Society did not have a particularly charitable attitude towards the poor so philanthropy at the start of the nineteenth century was not a common sight, but this had greatly changed by the end of the century. A hymn published in 1848 comments upon these social differences: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and order’d their estate.”

So what makes certain individuals act differently to their peers, why did women such as Angela Burdett-Coutts and men such as Titus Salt, Joseph Rowntree and Charles Dickens challenge the social norm and act above and beyond in the care of the poor? Can we look to these people for inspiration in a society that is becoming increasingly insular and reluctant to be generous and giving of spirit as well as material goods?


Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1814-1906

Angela Burdett-Coutts is the first philanthropist who we will be looking at. Recognized for her charitable work by Queen Victoria in 1871, she was a friend of Charles Dickens and known as ‘Queen of the Poor’, but Burdett-Coutts was not put off by her lack of access to the family business of banking (due to being the last child of six and her gender), and instead channeled her enthusiasm into her philanthropic work.

Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Amongst her charitable donations, Burdett-Coutts supplied Florence Nightingale with the equipment she needed when treating soldiers in the Crimea and thus changed the face of nursing. Burdett-Coutts was concerned with the needs of many and in many areas such as housing, water supply, supporting military wives, child labor and education.

An 1834 report on the Poor Law made it clear that there was a “duty to promote the religious and moral education of the laboring classes” with an emphasis on literacy in order for all people to understand their “responsibilities as citizens”. There had already been plenty of work done in this area through legislation such as Sir Robert Peel’s Factory Act in 1802 which had ensured employers provided instruction in the “Three R’s” during at least some of the seven year apprenticeship however the quality of this instruction varied hugely from factory to factory. It is a wonder that by the 1830s, any form of mass education had been introduced despite the addition of more voters, as the criticism of this mass education was so brutal. MP Davies Giddy comments in 1807 that “it would teach them (laboring classes) to despise their lot in life, it would render them factious and refractory.” He also argued that the cost of this mass education would be “incalculable”.

So we learn that the role of the philanthropist in educating the “laboring classes” is invaluable in not only funding schools for the poor, orphaned and homeless children but in fighting for the cause of education. Burdett-Coutts funded schools and evening classes for children from deprived backgrounds to enable them to learn skills that would enable them to earn a living. Of course, Burdett-Coutts was not the only Victorian citizen interested in children and education. Thomas Barnardo first started his Ragged School in 1867 but just three years later had expanded into providing housing for young boys and developed a ‘no child turned away’ policy after the death of a boy who had been turned away when the shelter was full. Within seven years Barnardo had acquired tens of properties with one of his wedding gifts in 1873 being a 60-acre site to house a Girls Village.

Angela Burdett-Coutts’ giving was not limited to the poor in England, her giving extended into other parts of the Empire by providing vast sums to relieve the suffering in Ireland during the Potato Famine. Not only did she provide goods such as corn, flour, tea and sugar, but she paid for boats and equipment in an attempt to stimulate the fishing industry - something that is considered to be a very modern approach to charity, providing the needy with the tools to better their situation themselves rather than the nineteenth century tradition of giving only what the poor needed when they came begging.

Clearly this charitable nature ran in the family as her father became the first politician to fight against animal cruelty by sponsoring the first act against cruelty to animals brought to the House of Commons. She was made President of the Ladies Committee of the RSPCA in 1870.  Angela Burdett-Coutts also sponsored scientific discovery by sponsoring the Royal Marsden Hospital, David Livingstone in his African exploration and Charles Babbage in his attempts to develop an early computer.

Most significantly, Burdett-Coutts kept her giving discreet as so many of her gifts were donated anonymously. She was one of the wealthiest women of her time and it is estimated that she donated around £350 million.


What encouraged her to become so philanthropic?

So why did this young woman, of massive fortune who was well read and well travelled, decide that she would dedicate her life to improving the lives of others, most of whom she would never meet or interact with? Her contact with politicians such as William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli surely had an impact as despite their opposing political views, both political leaders acted to pass legislation to protect the vulnerable and needy through the allowance of Trade Unions in 1871 and the demolition of slums in 1875 under Gladstone and Disraeli respectively. Most significantly has to be her relationship with Charles Dickens: known philanthropist and author who used his gift to share the situation that disgusted him so greatly and to encourage middle and upper class readers to take on charitable roles. Burdett-Coutts was aware of the problem of prostitution but Dickens had an action plan to create houses for women where they could be taught, become grounded in religion and train them in a steady, firm yet cheerful and hopeful manner. Burdett-Coutts gave Dickens almost “free rein in setting it up” according to author Claire Tomalin.

Burdett-Coutts’ strength of character is shown here as her very close friend, and some would say, lover or even secret husband, guided her against becoming involved with Dickens’ project to house and reform prostitutes. The Duke of Wellington, as explained in one biography: “could not understand her enthusiasm for social reform, for popular education, clearing slums and sewers, all these were outside his comprehension”. The view of the Duke of Wellington was most definitely the popular view and one that her peers would have shared especially with regards to ‘fallen women’ who had allowed themselves to fall to the depths of society and showed no moral fiber as per Victorian values.

Angela Burdett-Coutts is not one of the most well known philanthropists, in part due to her discretion, there are no hospitals named after her or modern charities bearing her name (just one small primary school in central London), but she was surely a pioneer, not only for women but for all nineteenth and twentieth century philanthropists. She did not seek fame and gave away a significant percentage of her vast fortune, she made alliances with key politicians, authors and members of the nobility who all gave her the knowledge that she sought and the opinions she valued, even if she did not agree with them. So, if you are ever in London, take a walk around Victoria Park and spend a moment at the Burdett-Coutts fountain that was generously donated at a cost of £6,000 in 1862 to ensure that people living in the East End of London had access to clean water.


Want to read more? Click here to read our article on the contrasting lives of the rich and poor in Victorian Britain.



AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones