Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, 1814-1906
Angela Burdett-Coutts (born Angela Georgina Burdett) was born in 1814 into the prestigious Coutts family, as the granddaughter of the banker Thomas Coutts.
After the death of his first wife and Angela’s genetic grandmother in 1815, Thomas married actress Harriet Mellon, and upon his death bequeathed his entire fortune to his new wife. Angela spent a great deal of time with Harriet in her later years, becoming the aging actress’ constant companion after the passing of Thomas. She died in 1837, and chose to pass the inheritance onto twenty-three year old Angela, whom she deemed the sharpest and most conscientious of her step-grandchildren. This inheritance came with conditions: Angela’s 50% share must be held in trust, she must take the name Coutts, and that the heir to the inheritance must never marry a foreigner.
She developed a notable and diverse social life, becoming close friends with persons like Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Benjamin Disraeli and the Rajah Brooke of Sarawak. Her relationship with the Duke of Wellington, who came to be a great advisor on problems with Coutts Bank and had been a friend of her parents, became very close. The two were often seen attending balls and social events together, and in 1847 Angela even proposed marriage to the Duke. He declined the proposal, having been more than forty years her senior at the time, entreating her not to waste herself on a man so much older than her. Despite this, they remained very close friends until his death.
Angela drew a lot from her father, Sir Frances Burdett, a popular MP and strong advocate for popular rights. He supported parliamentary reform and universal male suffrage, and was relatively radical for his time. Angela used her inheritance in a multiplicity of philanthropic endeavours, such as Charles Dickens’ “Ragged Schools” and in support of relieving suffering in the Crimean War as well as the later Russian-Turkish War. These were not merely donations, for she often got personally involved in the matters, offering advice as well as financial support. This philanthropy often involved religious endowment and support of the Church, both in England and across the Empire. Angela was a deeply religious woman, and gave £15,000 to the bishop of London for the construction and endowment of Churches across the city. She also endowed bishoprics in South Africa, Australia and British Columbia. She also developed elementary and technical education systems linked to churches in London. Some, such as the Burdett Coutts and Townshend foundation schools, continue to exist today.
Angela’s philanthropy and religious devotion led her quickly towards Jerusalem. The city struggled through the 19th century with a very poor state of public health and water supply, and received relatively little support from the Ottoman government. The city and region had just about recovered from devastation and demographic pressure wrought by the Naqib al-Ashraf revolt some one hundred and fifty years prior. Throughout the 1850’s, a series of droughts and poor rainfalls across modern day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, provoking a strong response from Britain’s philanthropic class. Attention had already been thrown on Palestine in the build-up to the Crimean war, and increasingly there was a strong trend amongst religious members of the British upper class on the ‘rediscovery’ and study of the Holy Land. This was embodied by religious, apolitical, proto-Zionist British philanthropists, such as Lord Montefiore. The Syrian Improvement committee, established in 1861 and the Jerusalem Water Relief Fund in 1864, are examples of such a response within Britain. Despite efforts to help improve the quality of sanitation in Jerusalem, it became clear that any attempts to lobby the Ottoman state would fall short without comprehensive scientific study and survey of the city itself.
It was here that Angela stepped in to promote a survey of Jerusalem, possibly through her contact and friendship with Lords Shaftesbury and Montefiore. Upon being given government permission for a survey in 1864, Angela provided the funding for Royal Engineers to carry out the survey which amounted to just over £500 (more than £63,000 today). The survey remarked on the impurity of the city’s water supply, but did note the impressive ancient water systems that lay in ruins across the city. Angela did actually offer to restore the old aqueducts of Solomon, but the offer was not accepted – it was either deemed too expensive, too difficult or too disruptive to be a realistic option. The success of the survey was such that it directly led to the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund, which built on the triumphs of the Survey and sought to replicate it in similar scientific and archaeological projects across the region. The Captain who led the survey, Charles Wilson, became a founding member of the PEF and was its lead director in the first years of the society’s activities in Palestine.
As her life continued into the latter years of the 19th century she lost many close friends, particularly her former governess and close friend Mrs Hannah Brown as well as the Duke of Wellington. At this point she pursued what Queen Victoria termed the ‘mad marriage’ – she married William Bartlett, aged twenty-nine to her sixty-six, to the great disapproval of many of her friends. His half-American heritage meant that she contravened her step-mothers will, and caused a great deal of speculation about the future of Coutts bank and her 50% share. Once the inheritance dispute was settled, her sister Clara took three-fifths of her income and the line of inheritance to the bank. Despite this, Angela seemed very happy in the marriage, and her husband continued much of her charitable work after her death. She died in 1906 in her central London home. Despite being unable to solve Jerusalem’s sanitation problems in her lifetime, her work promoting research and study of Jerusalem and Palestine enabled the continued expansion of research long after her death, much of which was led by the Palestine Exploration Fund.