Women of the PEF: Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts

By Adam John Fraser, PEF Librarian

Did you know the PEF got its start from a woman, the Victorian philanthropist and banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts? I was recently reading Charles Watson’s The Life of Major-General Sir Charles William Wilson (1909). Wilson was an officer in the Royal Engineers and was one of the most important early members of the PEF. He was responsible for conducting the first scientific survey of Jerusalem in 1864. In Wilson’s biography I came across this interesting statement:

The survey of Jerusalem originated in Miss Burdett Coutts’ wish to provide the city with a better water supply. She was told it was first necessary to make an accurate survey of the city, and for that purpose she placed £500 in the hands of a Committee, of whom the late Dean Stanley was one. He applied to the Secretary of State for War (p. 41)

This brief reference to Burdett-Coutts got me thinking about the women and history of the PEF. Having recently reviewed Kathleen Sheppard’s biography of the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, I’d become more aware of the fascinating history of women in archaeology. Here, I will shine some light on women in the history of the PEF, in particular Angela Burdett-Coutts.


An illustration of Angela Burdett-Coutts, after a portrait by J. R. Swinton in the Royal Marsden Hospital.

Coutts is an international private banking group; its long history spans over 300 years. In 1837, 24 year old Angela Burdett inherited the interest in a Trust and a half share in the Coutts Bank. As the heir to the banking family she became the public face of the Bank. This would have made her one of the wealthiest women in England (if not, the wealthiest).

Angela was actively involved in the affairs of the bank and also donated large portions of her private wealth. She was engaged in a great deal of philanthropic work; housing the destitute, caring for neglected children, extending women’s industrial opportunities, the exploration of Africa, protecting dumb animals, caring for those wounded in combat and scientific and technical education. Among her wide social circle was the novelist and keen social observer Charles Dickens. Together they set up Urania Cottage, a house for helping women who had fallen to prostitution.

The Water Relief project of Jerusalem in 1864 was an extension of Angela’s philanthropic work. The pre-existing water systems in Jerusalem consisted of cisterns which were contaminated by rainwater running through the streets.

The British public were horrified at the reality of the most holy city in Christianity being plagued with disease. Angela Burdett-Coutts established the Water Relief Committee to find a means to solve the problem. It was suggested that a survey of Jerusalem be undertaken in order to provide the city with a better water supply. In charge of the survey were the soldiers of the Royal Engineers, deemed to be the best in the Empire for this work.

Detail from Wilson's Survey of Jerusalem 1864-1865 showing the Old City and surrounds. Existing water cisterns are coloured blue. (PEF-M-OSJ 1864-5 PLAN 1- )

Detail from Wilson’s Survey of Jerusalem 1864-1865 showing the Old City and surrounds. Existing water cisterns are coloured blue. (PEF-M-OSJ 1864-5 PLAN 1).

Out of this Water Relief Fund that the PEF was born. The survey was a great success and the popularity that it garnered was enough to establish the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865. Without her it is unlikely that the PEF would have emerged as it did (or even at all!)

Angela Burdett-Coutts had a remarkable life; this blog entry is nowhere near enough to discuss all the things she accomplished. But as we are celebrating our 150th anniversary this year, it is fitting to celebrate the women of the PEF as well as the men!

Further Reading

Healey, E. 2012. Coutts, Angela Georgina Burdett- suo jure Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [Online]. Oxford University Press.

Sheppard, K. L. 2013. The Life of Margaret Alice Murray: A Woman’s Work in Archaeology. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *