We hear, with comparative frequency, of great gifts made by men:
George Peabody and Johns Hopkins, Ezra Cornell and Matthew Vassar,
Commodore Vanderbilt and Leland Stanford. But gifts of millions have
been rare from women. Perhaps this is because they have not, as often
as men, had the control of immense wealth.
It is estimated that Baroness Burdett-Coutts has already given away
from fifteen to twenty million dollars, and is constantly dispensing
une. She is feeling, in her lifetime, the real joy of giving.
How many benevolent persons lose all this joy, by waiting till death
before they bestow their gifts.
This remarkable woman comes from a remarkable family. Her father,
Sir Francis Burdett, was one of England's most prominent members of
Parliament. So earnest and eloquent was he that Canning placed him
"very nearly, if not quite, at the head of the orators of the day."
His colleague from Westminster, Hobhouse, said, "Sir Francis Burdett
was endowed with qualities rarely united. A manly understanding and a
tender heart gave a charm to his society such as I have never derived
in any other instance from a man whose principal pursuit was politics.
He was the delight both of young and old."
He was of fine presence, with great command of language, natural,
sincere, and impressive. After being educated at Oxford, he spent some
time in Paris during the early part of the French Revolution, and
came home with enlarged ideas of liberty. With as much courage as
eloquence, he advocated liberty of the press in England, and many
Parliamentary reforms. Whenever there were misdeeds to be exposed, he
exposed them. The abuses of Cold Bath Fields and other prisons were
corrected through his searching public inquiries.
When one of his friends was shut up in Newgate for impugning the
conduct of the House of Commons, Sir Francis took his part, and for
this it was ordered that he too be arrested. Believing in free speech
as he did, he denied the right of the House of Commons to arrest
him, and for nearly three days barricaded his house, till the police
forcibly entered, and carried him to the Tower. A riot resulted, the
people assaulting the police and the soldiers, for the statesman was
extremely popular. Several persons were killed in the tumult.
Nine years later, in 1819, because he condemned the proceedings of the
Lancashire magistrates in a massacre case, he was again arrested for
libel (?). His sentence was three months' imprisonment, and a fine of
five thousand dollars. The banknote with which the money was paid
is still preserved in the Bank of England, "with an inscription
in Burdett's own writing, that to save his life, which further
imprisonment threatened to destroy, he submitted to be robbed."
For thirty years he represented Westminster, fearless in what he
considered right; strenuous for the abolition of slavery, and in all
other reforms. Napoleon said at St. Helena, if he had invaded England
as he had intended, he would have made it a republic, with Sir Francis
Burdett, the popular idol, at its head.
Wealthy himself, Sir Francis married Sophia, the youngest daughter of
the wealthy London banker, Thomas Coutts. One son and five daughters
were born to them, the youngest Angela Georgina (April 21, 1814),
now the Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Mr. Coutts was an eccentric and
independent man, who married for his first wife an excellent girl of
very humble position. Their children, from the great wealth of the
father, married into the highest social rank, one being Marchioness of
Bute, one countess of Guilford, and the third Lady Burdett.
When Thomas Coutts was eighty-four he married for the second time,
a well-known actress, Harriet Mellon, who for seven years, till his
death, took excellent care of him. He left her his whole fortune,
amounting to several millions, feeling, perhaps, that he had provided
sufficiently for his daughters at their marriage, by giving them a
half-million each. But Harriet Mellon, with a fine sense of honor,
felt that the fortune belonged to his children. Though she married
five years later the Duke of St. Albans, twenty-four years old, about
half her own age, at her death, in ten years, she left the whole
property, some fifteen millions, to Mr. Coutts' granddaughter, Angela
Burdett. Only one condition was imposed,--that the young lady should
add the name of Coutts to her own.
Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts became, therefore, at twenty-three, the
sole proprietor of the great Coutts banking-house, which position she
held for thirty years, and the owner of an immense fortune. Very many
young men manifested a desire to help care for the property, and to
share it with her, but she seems from the first to have had but one
definite life-purpose,--to spend her money for the good of the human
race. She had her father's strength of character, was well educated,
and was a friend of royalty itself. Alas, how many young women, with
fifteen million dollars in hand, and the sum constantly increasing,
would have preferred a life of display and self-aggrandizement rather
than visiting the poor and the sorrowing!
Baroness Burdett-Coutts is now over seventy, and for fifty years her
name has been one of the brightest and noblest in England, or, indeed,
in the world. Crabb Robinson said, she is "the most generous, and
delicately generous, person I ever knew."
Her charities have extended in every direction. Among her first good
works was the building of two large churches, one at Carlisle, and
another, St. Stephen's, at Westminster, the latter having also three
schools and a parsonage. But Great Britain did not require all her
gifts. Gospel work was needed in Australia, Africa, and British
America. She therefore endowed three colonial bishoprics, at Adelaide,
Cape Town, and in British Columbia, with a quarter of a million
dollars. In South Australia she also provided an institution for the
improvement of the aborigines, who were ignorant, and for whom the
world seemed to care little.
She has generously aided her own sex. Feeling that sewing and other
household work should be taught in the national schools, as from her
labors among the poor she had seen how often food was badly cooked,
and mothers were ignorant of sewing, she gave liberally to the
government for this purpose. Her heart also went out to children in
the remote districts, who were missing all school privileges, and for
these she arranged a plan of "travelling teachers," which was heartily
approved by the English authorities. Even now in these later years the
Baroness may often be seen at the night-schools of London, offering
prizes, or encouraging the young men and women in their desire to
gain knowledge after the hard day's work is done. She has opened
"Reformatory Homes" for girls, and great good has resulted.
Like Peabody, she has transformed some of the most degraded portions
of London by her improved tenement houses for the poor. One place,
called Nova Scotia gardens,--the term "gardens" was a misnomer,--she
purchased, tore down the old rookeries where people slept and ate in
filth and rags, and built tasteful homes for two hundred families,
charging for them low and weekly rentals. Close by she built Columbia
Market, costing over a million dollars, intended for the convenience
of small dealers and people in that locality, where clean, healthful
food could be procured. She opened a museum and reading-room for the
neighborhood, and brought order and taste out of squalor and distress.
This building she presented to the city of London, and in
acknowledgment of the munificent gift, the Common Council presented
her, July, 1872, in a public ceremony, the freedom of the city, an
uncommon honor to a woman. It was accompanied by a complimentary
address, enclosed in a beautiful gold casket with several
compartments. One bore the arms of the Baroness, while the other
seven represented tableaux emblematic of her noble life, "Feeding
the Hungry," "Giving Drink to the Thirsty," "Clothing the Naked,"
"Visiting the Captive," "Lodging the Homeless," "Visiting the
Sick," and "Burying the Dead." The four cardinal virtues, Prudence,
Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, supported the box at the four
corners, while the lid was surmounted by the arms of the city.
The Baroness made an able response to the address of the Council,
instead of asking some gentleman to reply for her. Women who can do
valuable benevolent work should be able to read their own reports,
or say what they desire to say in public speech, without feeling
that they have in the slightest degree departed from the dignity and
delicacy of their womanhood.
Two years later, 1874, Edinburgh, for her many charities, also
presented the Baroness the freedom of the city. Queen Victoria, three
years before this, in June, 1871, had made her a peer of the realm.
In Spitalfields, London, where the poverty was very great, she started
a sewing-school for adult women, and provided not only work for them,
but food as well, so that they might earn for themselves rather than
receive charity. To furnish this work, she took contracts from the
government. From this school she sent out nurses among the sick,
giving them medical supplies, and clothes for the deserving. When
servants needed outfits, the Baroness provided them, aiding in all
ways those who were willing to work. All this required much executive
So interested is she in the welfare of poor children, that she has
converted some of the very old burying-grounds of the city, where
the bodies have long since gone back to dust, into playgrounds, with
walks, and seats, and beds of flowers. Here the children can romp
from morning till night, instead of living in the stifled air of
the tenement houses. In old St. Pancras churchyard, now used as a
playground, she has erected a sundial as a memorial to its illustrious
Not alone does Lady Burdett-Coutts build churches, and help women and
girls. She has fitted hundreds of boys for the Royal Navy; educated
them on her training-ships. She usually tries them in a shoe-black
brigade, and if they show a desire to be honest and trustworthy, she
provides homes, either in the navy or in some good trade.
When men are out of work, she encourages them in various ways. When
the East End weavers had become reduced to poverty by the decay of
trade, she furnished funds for them to emigrate to Queensland, with
their families. A large number went together, and formed a prosperous
and happy colony, gratefully sending back thanks to their benefactor.
They would have starved, or, what is more probable, gone into crime in
London; now they were contented and satisfied in their new home.
When the inhabitants of Girvan, Scotland, were in distress, she
advanced a large sum to take all the needy families to Australia. Here
in America we talk every now and then of forming societies to help the
poor to leave the cities and go West, and too often the matter ends in
talk; while here is a woman who forms a society in and of herself,
and sends the suffering to any part of the world, expecting no money
return on the capital used. To see happy and contented homes grow from
our expenditures is such an investment of capital as helps to bring on
When the people near Skibbereen, Ireland, were in want, she sent food,
and clothing, and fishing-tackle, to enable them to carry on their
daily employment of fishing. She supplied the necessary funds for Sir
Henry James' topographical survey of Jerusalem, in the endeavor to
discover the remains of King Solomon's temple, and offered to restore
the ancient aqueduct, to supply the city with water. Deeply interested
in art, she has aided many struggling artists. Her homes also contain
many valuable pictures.
The heart of the Baroness seems open to distress from every clime. In
1877, when word reached England of the suffering through war of the
Bulgarian and Turkish peasantry, she instituted the "Compassion Fund,"
by which one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in money and stores
were sent, and thousands of lives saved from starvation and death. For
this generosity the Sultan conferred upon her the Order of Medjidie,
the first woman, it is said, who has received this distinction.
In all this benevolence she has not overlooked the animal creation.
She has erected four handsome drinking fountains: one in Victoria
Park, one at the entrance to the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park,
one near Columbia Market, and one in the city of Manchester. At the
opening of the latter, the citizens gave Lady Burdett-Coutts a most
enthusiastic reception. To the unique and interesting home for lost
dogs in London, she has contributed very largely. If the poor animals
could speak, how would they thank her for a warm bed to lie on, and
proper food to eat!
Her private gifts to the poor have been numberless. Her city house,
I Stratton Street, Piccadilly, and her country home at Holly Lodge,
Highgate, are both well known. When, in 1868, the great Reform
procession passed her house, and she was at the window, though half
out of sight, says a person who was present, "in one instant a shout
was raised. For upwards of two hours and a half the air rang with the
reiterated huzzas--huzzas unanimous and heart-felt, as if representing
a national sentiment."
At Holly Lodge, which one passes in visiting the grave of George Eliot
at Highgate Cemetery, the Baroness makes thousands of persons happy
year by year. Now she invites two thousand Belgian volunteers to meet
the Prince and Princess of Wales, with some five hundred royal and
distinguished guests; now she throws open her beautiful gardens to
hundreds of school-children, and lets them play at will under the oak
and chestnut trees; and now she entertains at tea all her tenants,
numbering about a thousand. So genial and considerate is she that
all love her, both rich and poor. She has fine manners and an open,
For some years a young friend, about half her own age, Mr. William
Ashmead-Bartlett, had assisted her in dispensing her charities, and
in other financial matters. At one time he went to Turkey, at her
request, using wisely the funds committed to his trust. Baroness
Coutts had refused many offers of marriage, but she finally desired
to bestow her hand upon this young but congenial man. On February 12,
1881, they were wedded in Christ Church, Piccadilly. Her husband
took the name of Mr. Burdett-Coutts Bartlett, and has since become a
capable member of Parliament. The marriage proved a happy one.
The final years of the Baroness' long, useful life were rather
secluded, being spent at her London residence, or at her delightful
country place near Highgate, where she formerly entertained largely.
On Christmas Eve, in 1906, she became ill of bronchitis, and though
her wonderful vitality led her to revive somewhat, she finally
succumbed on December 30, at the age of ninety-two. She was greatly
beloved from the highest to the humblest citizens. Queen Alexandra
sent repeated inquiries and messages. King Edward once said that he
regarded the Baroness, after his mother, as the most remarkable woman
in England. Her life was a link with the past, as it began during the
reign of Emperor Napoleon I, and witnessed the reigns of five British
sovereigns. Throughout it was spent in doing good.