Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Remarkable Life of Lady Unknown: Angela Burdett Coutts

by Lauren Johnson

What links the British bee-keeping association, Ragged Schools, dog water fountains, the Royal Marsden Hospital and a refuge for prostitutes?

All were funded by the remarkable Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts. A celebrated figure in her own lifetime, Angela inherited Coutts Bank at twenty-three years old and spent the remaining seventy years of her life investing her fortune in a wide array of good causes. Yet today Angela is little remembered. She has lived up to the moniker she used in many of her anonymous donations – she has become Lady Unknown

Angela’s life is a story that cries out to be told. Born into an age when women could not vote or stand for parliament, and when a wife’s body as well as her property was completely under the control of her husband, she used her almost unique position as a single woman with independent wealth and influence to improve the lives of thousands of others.

(National Portrait Gallery)

Angela Burdett’s upbringing was not unusual for a woman of her status, but her family life was tumultuous. Her father was the radical Sir Francis Burdett – that extraordinary thing, a popular politician. Burdett campaigned for better treatment of prisoners, for parliamentary reform, spoke out against the Peterloo Massacre and criticized the unrepresentative make-up of the House of Commons. Such was the strength of feeling towards this ‘man of the people’ that when he was arrested in 1810 for publishing his criticism of parliamentary practice, a riot broke out in London.

Angela’s grandfather was the banker Thomas Coutts, and it was from him – in the most circuitous and unexpected manner – that Angela gained her fortune. Thomas had three daughters, and each of them had several children – including, crucially, a number of sons.  According to general practice, the bank should have passed to one of these boys. But in 1815 Thomas secretly married Harriot Mellon, an illegitimate actress forty years his junior. In 1822 he left his entire fortune and partnership in Coutts Bank to her. (The family were unimpressed.) Harriot began life as ‘a poor little player child, with just food and clothes to cover me’ and ended it as the Duchess of St Albans. It was to this unlikely patron that Angela owed her fortune.

During her childhood, Angela became a favourite companion of Harriot’s, and the elder woman saw something in her quiet, thoughtful step granddaughter. When Harriot died in 1837 she left the Coutts legacy to Angela. In modern terms, Angela became an overnight millionaire, and in deference to the conditions of Harriot’s will, adopted the surname ‘Coutts’.

Harriot Mellon
(National Portrait Gallery)

The anticipated next step for a woman in Angela’s position was marriage – allowing a well-born husband to take control of her fortune while she retired into domestic obscurity. There was certainly no want of suitors. One peer wrote that he got on well with Angela in later life,
because I never proposed to her. Almost all the [other] young men of good family did: those who did their duty by their family always did.[1]
The shy youngest child whose closest relationship had always been with her parents was suddenly public property, her personal life openly debated, her decisions questioned. Among the unwanted seekers of her attention was a man who would be her shadow for over a decade: the Irish barrister Richard Dunn. To modern eyes, Dunn was clearly an obsessed stalker. He followed Angela around the country, broke into her garden, followed her to church, sent constant letters and reminders. He even forged poems which he claimed Angela had written him – and was convicted of perjury for doing so.

Given this constant romantic bombardment, it is not altogether surprising that Angela remained single for most of her life. What is surprising is what she chose to do with her wealth. Instead of retiring to the countryside Angela lived mostly at 1 Stratton Street, right on Piccadilly in London. In London, then as now, the richest in society were crammed tight against the poorest. Even Parliament backed onto a slum. The ‘polite’ thing to do at a certain level of society was to ignore the poverty – to look away from the poor, desperate and destitute right outside your window. What Angela did was engage with it.
What is the use of my means but to try and do some good with them?[2].
Perhaps because she had not expected her wealth, Angela felt a considerable duty to use it for the improvement of other people’s lives as well as her own. All the same, she had observed Harriot Mellon’s style of over-generous but under-researched charity. Angela would not indiscriminately hand over wads of cash or use untested middlemen. Instead, she carefully investigated her investments and was in constant communication with her agents. Everywhere she travelled, she took a writing desk with her, stuffed full of demands for support, investment or help. As time passed she moved from offering donations towards other people’s projects into creating her own long-term developments.

In 1851 she started building Columbia Square, new housing for poor families in the East End of London. The emphasis here, as in much of Angela’s work, was on practicality. The apartment blocks were light and airy with their own gas and water supplies, ensuring good sanitation. To prevent unscrupulous rent increases, subletting was forbidden. About 600 people were housed in this community, at a time when across London, slums were being demolished and the families renting there simply turfed out to make room for middle class expansion and railways.

Angela in later life.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Angela was also a lifelong campaigner for educational reform, encouraged by her friendship with Charles Dickens. His book Hard Times was a product of their conversations about schooling. They were both patrons of the ‘Ragged School’ movement, which was one of the few routes into education for poor children. As well as providing new schooling facilities, Angela established a group of ambulatory teachers to tour local areas, promoted evening classes and practical training for working children, wrote a ‘poor woman’s Mrs Beeton’ called Common Things and petitioned government for reform.

Angela’s personal life jostles for attention alongside her work (of which the examples above are a very small sample). In 1847 she proposed to the Duke of Wellington – the hero of Waterloo and ex-Prime Minister, then in his seventies. In 1881 the age dynamic was reversed, with no less public scandal. Angela waited until she was sixty-six to marry, and the husband she finally chose was William Ashmead Bartlett, an American-born twenty-nine year old who she had funded through school. One of the conditions of Angela’s inheritance had been that she could not marry a foreigner, so by choosing Bartlett (who took her name after 1881) Angela lost the majority of her fortune. Even with a considerably reduced income, however, Angela’s work did not cease. The first meeting of the organization that would become the NSPCC took place in her drawing-room.

In 1893 Angela wrote a report On the Philanthropic Work of Women, characteristically deflecting attention away from her own work and towards the charity of others. She focused on those who did not simply give donations to those in need, but who ‘enabled the destitute to help themselves.’[3]

During her lifetime Angela gave away somewhere between £3 million and £4 million. When she died in 1906 30,000 people came to her house to pay their respects. She is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Angela’s life is crying out for a sweeping, big budget biopic but in the absence of such a movie Untold and myself have produced a play about just one aspect of her life: her work and friendship with Charles Dickens. For decades, Dickens acted as Angela’s ‘front man’ investigating appeals for donations and rather obscuring her own work behind his celebrity persona. Angela was happy to let Dickens be the public face of their charitable work and for herself to remain ‘lady unknown’ – indeed, given the nature of some of their work, anonymity was a necessity.

Urania Cottage, the 'home for homeless women'
(Wikimedia Commons)
Together, the pair established a home for homeless women which took ex-convicts and prostitutes to provide education, rehabilitation and refuge. Angela’s involvement with the house for fallen women did not meet with universal approval in highly moralistic Victorian society. The Duke of Wellington declared with the blithe presumption of someone born privileged and male that these women were ‘irreclaimable’.
I am afraid that experience, as well as the information to be derived from statistical works, have taught us that there is but little, if any, hope of saving in this world that particular class of Unfortunates.[4]
Nonetheless, the home was built, staffed, stocked and provided care for over a hundred women. They proved to be very far from irreclaimable.

Lady Unknown,
a play I have written about Angela’s life, will be shown at the Charles Dickens Museum in London on Monday 16th November. You can read more about the project here. We are still seeking crowdfunding support to finance the play, and if you are able to help us with a small donation we would be enormously grateful.


Lauren Johnson is an author and historian. Her debut novel is The Arrow of Sherwood, and Lady Unknown will be her first play.


[1] Edna Healy, Lady Unknown: The Life of Angela Burdett Coutts (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1978), p. 53.
[2] Charles Dickens reporting Angela’s words. Clara Burdett Patterson, Angela Burdett-Coutts and the Victorians (John Murray, 1953), p. 166.
[3] Healy, p. 218.
[4] Anne Isba, Dickens’s Women: His Great Expectations (Continuum, 2011), p. 89.


  1. What a remarkable woman. Thanks for this information into such a fascinating life. Good luck with the play.

  2. Good luck with your play. Sounds fascinating.

  3. One of Thomas Coutts' daughters married into the Earls of Harrowby, and there are many references to Angela in the mss held at Sandon Hall. It's worth mentioning that her marriage was a happy one, and that she and William celebrated their Silver Wedding.

  4. An awesome article! You hear a lot about early male philanthropists (like Andrew Carnegie) but not a lot about the women (maybe because it was rare for a single woman to have such wealth to be able to engage in philanthropy).


  5. Angela is one of my relatives...I as an American am just learning about her and I find her life fascinating!
    Thanks for sharing.

    John Burdette
    Chicago, IL

  6. I am writing a film about Urania Cottage and this is so helpful. Congrats on your play!

    1. Hi Laurie, do get in touch if you want to talk about Urania! Sounds an interesting project.


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