Monthly Archives: June 2013

Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)

Angela Burdett-Coutts by Julius Jacobs
Today we see female philanthropists on a daily basis in our news and in the pages of our glossy magazines. Think, for example, of Ophrah Winfrey, who has given tens of millions to charities over the years. When one acquires great wealth, it seems the natural step to start dealing it out to those less fortunate. Look back to the age of Victorian charity-giving, and we see a very different kind of philanthropist emerge from the urban sprawl of post industrial England . The emphasis was on moralising the subject, the aim being to help them onto the respectable path of productivity and hard work. Alcoholism, prostitution and vagrancy were seen as the moral ills of society. Women often took it upon themselves to help the ‘lower orders’. None did more, in her own way, than Angela Burdett-Coutts. This is her story.

Born Angela Georgina Burdett in 1814, Angela was the daughter of the Radical and popular politician Sir Francis Burdett and Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the famous banker Thomas Coutts. In 1837 she inherited the vast Coutts fortune on the death of Harriot Mellon, who had married Thomas Coutts in old age. Harriot came from a working background, but enjoyed a position of huge wealth and influence after her husband died, and bagged herself a Duchy to boot when she marryied the Duke of Argyll. She hand-picked Angela to become her sole successor. Angela was a quiet, prim and upright girl, well-educated and level headed. She did not succumb to the frivolities of her class like many of her peers. She became one of the wealthiest women in England, a position that bought her great power, but also a profound sense of duty to those around her who were less fortunate. It was reported that Angela inherited around £1, 800, 000 when Harriot died, making her the richest heiress in the country. Angela<

When Angela came of age, she did not follow the ‘normal’ route for women of her class by marrying and having children. Her vast wealth brought with it suitors, and many asked for her hand. To each she politely refused. Feeling that they were only interested in her for her money, and knowing that under English law the power over wealth was controlled by husbands, Angela retreated into a single, quiet life of philanthropy and friendship. True, she held many lavish parties at her inherited house of Holly Lodge in Highgate, but the majority of her time was spent in companion with people who were both serious and sensible. Holly Lodge
Image: Holly Lodge, in Highgate.

Her philanthropic works are legendary. It is impossible to name them all here. Her first works perhaps are most famous as they so closely involved the help and friendship of Charles Dickens. Together they set up and ran the revolutionary Urania Cottage, which took women off the streets and re-trained them away from a life of prostitution and petty crime. Angela also supported and funded immigration to countries like Australia and Canada. Like many Victorian women of her time, Angela’s charity works often centred on moralising and reforming the lower classes. Although in hindsight this is seen as controlling these charity works were, in Angela’s case, not done out of a preconceived idea of superiority, but a genuine desire to help those less fortunate than herself. She had seen with painful clarity the sufferings of those living in the East End of London, the squalor, the crime and the hardship. She sought to alleviate some of this suffering, and poured money into re-housing, sanitation, schools and training centres, and green open spaces where children could play. She gave generously, but always oversaw the work her money achieved, and so aimed to diminish any mismanagement.

Angela was heavily involved in the establishment and development of both the National Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Without her continued financial support neither of these two now nationally important charities would have survived.

Angela was also a generous benefactor of the Church of England, being herself very religious. She funded several expeditions into Africa with the aim to spread the message of missionaries. Mostly these were failures, Africa being large non-Christian at this time. She founded many bishoprics is Australia and Canada, and was seen as a national hero there due to the thousands who benefited from her funds which allowed them to emigrate. She also set up her own church, St. Stephen’s, in the heart of the West-end, which still stands today.

Angela and Mrs. Brown

In her personal life, Angela was devoted to her former governess and companion Mrs. Brown. She also developed a deep love and affection for the Duke of Wellington, to whom she proposed when she was 33 and he was 78. The proposal may seem shocking to us, but Angela had always had friends of all ages. She had grown up with Harriot happily married to her grandfather, who was double her age. Angela and the Duke were undoubtedly in love with each other and forever in each other’s company. Angela even had her own apartment at Stratfield Saye which had an enjoining staircase to the Duke’s quarters on the ground floor. But the Duke felt he could not accept her proposal, and wrote her a charming letter in which he said:


‘I have passed every Moment of the Evening and Night since I quitted you in reflecting upon our conversation of yesterday, Every Word of which I have considered repeatedly. My first Duty towards you is that of Friend, Guardian, Protector! You are Young, my Dearest! You have before you the prospect of at least twenty years of enjoyment and Happiness in Life. I entreat you again in this way, not to throw yourself away upon a Man old enough to be your Grandfather, who, however strong, Hearty and Healthy at present, must and will certainly in time feel the consequences and Infirmities of Age.’

His refusal did not break their relationship, in fact it bought them closer together. They remained constantly in touch until the death of the Duke in 1852. In 1878 tragedy struck again when Mrs. Brown passed away. Anyone who knew Angela knew that this would be a devastating blow, as she and Mrs. Brown had been inseparable for years. Angela wrote to a friend of the loss of ‘my poor darling, the companion and sunshine of my life for fifty-two years!’

Greatly shocked and isolated by the death of Mrs. Brown, three years later she shocked the nation in turn by announcing her marriage to the American Ashmead Bartlett. She was 67 and he was only 29. Bartlett had been acting as one of Angela’s secretaries for many years and she had known him since he was a boy. By marrying a foreigner, Angela was forced to forfeit her claim to the Coutts fortune, although she remained handsomely provided for for the rest of her life. Even so, she was forced to stop many of the large annual donations which saw her projects flourish. The social housing schemes and church funds were the first to be halted, causing distress to both sides. But Angela could do not without the companionship of Bartlett, especially as so many of her close companions and family members had now died. Bartlett became and MP for Westminster in 1821, just as Angela had wanted. She herself never involved herself in politics, and was not allowed to involve herself in the business of the bank. Her talents laying in social work and social reform. She was also a skilled writer, which she worked hard at all her life. She published works on social reform and charity work on several occasions; often to great acclaim.


Angela lived the rest of her long life in quiet companionship with Bartlett, traveling extensively. She spent much of the year either in Brighton or Corsica, but always loved to get back to London. She developed an extensive art collection, including Old Masters and contemporary pieces. When photography developed she kept extensive albums with images of herself and her numerous note-worthy friends, including Henry Irving, Princess Mary of Cambridge Duchess of Teck, Mr. Darbishire (the architect of her Columbia Square), and Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak. Angela died of acute bronchitis on 20th December 1906. She lived a long and full life which was not without its personal tragedies and losses. As she married so late, she did not have any children, and so her title died along with her. Edward VII described her as ‘after my mother, the most remarkable woman in the kingdom’.

Categories: 19th Century, Amazing Women in History, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘The Black Count’- by Tom Reiss. The tale of the black half-slave hero of the French Revolution

Tom Reiss, an American writer best known for his international bestseller ‘The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught Between East and West’, has succeeded yet again in producing this squash-buckling tale of a man so brave, so strong, and filled with such Revolutionary heroics, that he was immortalised in some of the best loved French novels of all time. I am talking of course of General Alexandre Dumas, the real life inspiration behind his son’s novels ‘The Three Musketeer’s and ‘The Conte of Monte Christo’. Dumas’ story is so incredible and so unbelievable that it is hard, at times, to believe it is non-fiction, and that the events that shaped his life really took place.

Alex Dumas’s real name was Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie; he was born in a slave colony in Saint Domingue, to a slave mother and a French aristocratic father. Alex’s father, who was for all intents and purposes a total scoundrel, sold Alex’s mother and their three other children in order to pay for his own passage back to France. Incidentally, he also sold Alex in this way but arranged for his travel to join him once he had raised the funds, and successfully bought his son back out of slavery. This was in 1776. Slavery was illegal in the forward thinking France of this time, so Alex’s colour was no issue in his being educated, or in his decision to join the army.

What was surprising was that Alex chose to shrug off his noble background, which could have secured him a commission and a place in the army as an officer. Instead he enlisted as a common soldier in the Queen’s Dragoons. As well as his social position he also shunned his father’s name, adopting ‘Dumas’, which was the surname of his mother, whom he would never see or hear from again.


This is actually Alex Dumas the writer dressed up as his beloved father, but you get the idea of the strength and power of the heroic Revolutionary. Oil portrait by Olivier Pichat.

No one could have been prepared for Alex’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the French army, something that could only be facilitated by the social and political upheaval thundering through France at the time. Having joined the army at 23, Alex would become General in Chief of the Army of the Alps by his 31st birthday; in command of some 53,000 troops. From the Alps Alex went to Italy, and then joined Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition to conquer Egypt in 1798.

 In Egypt, Alex would soon realise he had a much more dangerous enemy than the Bedouin rebels in the unforgiving landscape of the desert. Napoleon himself quickly took a dislike to the handsome and tall, powerfully built and strong leader. It was easy to see why Napoleon felt threatened, when he stood at just over five foot, and Alex was well over six. The Egyptian campaign was an unmitigated disaster, with huge losses for the French and little ground won. Napoleon soon fled the hell-hole of his failures in Egypt and headed back to France in 1801 to take control of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Paris. Alex managed to arrange passage on a boat which proved to be unsound, and was forced to dock at Naples, which was at this time unforgivably anti-French. Alex was captured, thrown in a dungeon, and left there to rot for the best part of three years before his release could be arranged.

Finally returning to France in 1803, after many suffering and trials in lands far away from home, Alex was able to settle down with his adored wife Marie-Louise. They had a son, also called Alexandre, who would become one of France’s most beloved novelists. Alexandre hero worshiped his father, who would become the main inspiration for the characters and events in his stories.
Reiss tells a marvellous tale, with never seen before research that he uncovered by blowing up a safe in Villers-Cotterêts, France. Having heard an interview with him on Radio 4, and learning the tale of such a fantastically rich life, I knew I had to know Alex’s exceptional story. My only, very minor, complaint about this book is the lack of images included. I suppose this is a typical grievance for any Art Historian. Granted, images of Alex are few and far between. Reiss does however mention in a special chapter at the end of the book an old statue of the General in Paris. Sculpted by Alfred de Moncel, it showed Alex standing proud, like a ‘resolute patriot, grasping his long rifle like a walking stick’. Before the statue was destroyed by the Nazis in the winter of 1941-2 (I suppose it is easy to see why the Nazi’s would not want a statue of a strong and heroic black man standing proud) a few photographs were taken, and I would simply have loved to have seen one. Hell, I would have even liked to have seen the blown up safe!

 Please do read this book if you love history and adventure. Many thanks to my sister for buying me the book for Christmas.

 ‘The Black Count- Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Count of Monte Cristo’ by Tom Reiss was published by Harvill Secker, London, in 2012.

Categories: 18th Century, Biography Review, Heroes | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh 1769-1822

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(Image: NPG)

Castlereah was an important politician and public figure in the mid 19th Century, with a particular interest in governmental reform and emancipation. We have him to thank for the Act of Union which links Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom.

His mother, who died when Castlereagh was just one year old, was Lady Sarah Frances Seymour, daughter of the 1st Marquess of Hertford; a former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Castlereagh’s father re-married Frances Pratt, daughter of the 1st Earl of Camden. From this marriage Castlereagh’s half-brother Charles Stewart was born. The Camden connection would greatly aid both the brothers in their successful political careers. Castlereagh inherited the courtesy title of Viscount Castlereagh in 1766 when his father was created Earl of Londonderry. He also inherited his fathers title a year before his unfortunate death, but is usually known by the courtesy title, which he used for the majority of his life.

His half brother Charles Stewart became a famous diplomat, soldier and politican who succeeded Castlereagh on his death to become the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. He was known as the ‘golden peacock’ for his over the top lifestyle and lavish fashion sense.
(Portrait of the ‘Golden Peacock’ Charles Stewart, by Lawrence)

Despite being a sickly child, he was able to attend St. John’s College, Cambridge from 1786-7; where he proved himself to be an excellent student. A mere three years later he was elected as member of Parliament for County Down, in what was to be one of the most expensive elections in Irish history.

In 1794 Castlereagh celebrated his marriage to the beautiful Amelia (Emily) Hobart, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, who had also been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Emily proved to be a great society hostess and played her role in supporting and encouraging her husband’s career. She even became Patroness of the prestigious and elite Almack’s. The marriage was successful, although the couple were never blessed with children.

In his political life, Castlereagh aligned himself to the Whigs, although he personally supported the Tory politician William Pitt. He was pro-government and electoral reform, and he also advocated Catholic emancipation. Yet as revolution started to rumble through France, Castlereagh began to check his political liberalism. He realised that to work against the current government would decrease its productivity and effectiveness. Especially in relation to Ireland, what Castlereagh desired most was progress, but he baulked at the idea of the French Revolutionaries landing on the shores of Ireland to stir up rebellion so close to the English shore.

From 1799 Castlereagh worked hard in government to promote the idea of a permanent union between the Irish and English parliament. The idea of this was strongly opposed by most of his peers. Yet the following year the Act of Union was passed, with an uncommon amount of bribery used to secure the result. Castlereagh and Cornwallis, who had worked together on this Act, had believed that in forming the Union, Catholic’s would not be free to sit in the English Parliament. This however, was not to be, as the King George III was so systematically opposed to Catholic Emancipation. He believed it to be an act against the constitutional oath he took as divinely appointed head of the English church. Both Castlereagh and Pitt would end up resigning over the matter, and Castlereagh would forever be blamed by the Irish people for the failure of the Act; however forward thinking he had been.

In 1802 he became President of the Board of Control, where he mediated several disputes between Richard Wellesley (later Marquess Wellesley), who was then Governor-General of India, and the Directors of the East India Company. When Pitt finally returned to government in 1804, Castlereagh became Secretary for War and the Colonies. After fighting a duel with Canning, both parties had to resign, and Castlereagh did not return to government until 1812, when he was made Foreign Secretary. In this role he was competent and effective, yet his public image would never be good and he faced constant and unrelenting criticism from the press.

This pressure did not help his mental health, which now began to decline rapidly. His behaviour became erratic and uncontrollable. Despite his wife, now Lady Londonderry, removing all sharp objects from his possession, he found a pen-knife in his coat pocket and cut his throat on 12th August 1822. The hearing following his tragic demise ruled that his actions had been taken whilst he was clinically insane, and so he was able to be buried with the pomp and ceremony of his station in Westminster Abbey. He was laid to rest near his friend and mentor William Pitt; who had died in 1806. His funerary monument was not erected until 1850, by his half-brother Charles Vane Stewart, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry.
William Pitt, Image: Tumblr

Categories: 18th Century, 19th Century, British Political Figures | Leave a comment

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