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On this day in history in 1814, was born Angela Burdett-Coutts.
Burdett-Coutts was, in her time, the wealthiest woman in Britain before she gave away her fortune to charity.
Angela Georgina Burdett was born in 1814, the daughter of Sir Francis Burdett and Sophia Coutts, daughter of Thomas Coutts, the banker and founder of Coutts and Co. In 1822, Thomas Coutts died and left his fortune in a family trust, tangled with clauses on the directions in which the property might devolve, which in the process of time and following the decease of many beneficiaries, fell in its entirety, a sum of two million pounds, to Angela Georgina Burdett.
The fortunate heiress, in recognition of her grandfather’s beneficence, changed her name to Burdett-Coutts, and set about the life of a socialite. She threw lavish parties at her mansion, Holly Lodge, Highgate, attracted the attention of both the nobility and the masses and received numerous offers of marriage from both those classes. Amongst her guests at the functions at Holly Lodge, were Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens, the latter of whom suggested that she might consider small donations to meaningful causes in order to impress the former.
Burdett-Coutts took up the proposition with enthusiasm but in addition to making donation to existing charities, she founded her own. Her first project was a home for young women who wished to escape from prostitution. This was followed by the Columbia Fish Market of Bethnal Green, an association founded to provide employment for the indigent. The Anglican Church asked for help in church building as large population shifts in the Industrial Revolution had produced many communities without a place of worship. Burdett-Coutts provided churches by the dozen. She built churches in Africa, endowed the bishoprics of Cape Town and Adelaide and founded the bishopric of British Columbia. Burdett-Coutts still had some cash left over for drinking fountains for dogs, seed corn for impoverished Irish farmers and lodging houses for Temperance institutions. In 1883, she founded the NSPCC and was involved with the establishment of the RSPCA.
She earned the respect of the great and the famous. Florence Nightingale called her the ‘foundation stone’ of British hospital charities. Charles Dickens dedicated Martin Chuzzlewit to her and Queen Victoria created her a baroness. She was granted the freedom of the City of London and became the first Burgess (feminine of Burgher) of the City of Edinburgh.
In 1881, at the age of sixty-seven, she caused a social scandal by marrying a man aged twenty-seven. He changed his name to Burdett-Coutts, but did not receive the title of baron.
Burdett-Coutts died peacefully at home in 1906, aged ninety-two. She had spent over three million on charitable causes, a million more than she started out with. She was buried with dignity, but without ostentation, in Westminster Abbey, near to the West Door.
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