My history hero: Angela Burdett-Coutts

TV presenter and campaigner Esther Rantzen chooses Angela Burdett-Coutts as her history hero

English philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts was a philanthropist. The granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, who founded the banking house Coutts & Co, on inheriting his fortune she became one of the wealthiest women in England. Among her charitable acts was co-founding a home for women who had turned to “a life of immorality”. She was also co-founder of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 1871 she was the first woman to be created a baroness in her own right.

When did you first hear about Angela Burdett-Coutts?

A while ago I went to a charity event at Coutts Bank in London, where I saw a picture of her and was told she had been a friend of Charles Dickens and had funded some of his charitable projects.

What kind of person was she?

She had a strong feeling that her wealth could make a difference. She liked clever men: she was a friend of Disraeli and Gladstone, as well as Dickens. Dickens dedicated one of his books to her, and drew her attention to a very unpopular cause at the time – helping ‘fallen’ women. Burdett-Coutts also supported other vulnerable women and was known as the ‘Queen of the Poor’.

She doesn’t seem to have minded going against Victorian conventions: having rejected a number of proposals, at the age of 66 she married her 29-year-old American secretary.

What made her a hero?

Her philanthropy and her wide-ranging vision. She seems to have filled every waking hour with supporting good causes – from helping to train destitute boys for naval service to scientific research. Unlike many rich people who spend their life protecting their wealth, she did the opposite. It’s estimated she gave away around £350m in today’s money. I also love the fact that her husband was less than half her age, and that she married him even though, because he was American, she forfeited most of her income under the terms of her stepgrandmother’s will.

What was her finest hour?

Helping to found the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which became the NSPCC. So many children were treated terribly in Victorian Britain and were put to work in mills and factories, sent up chimneys or made to commit crimes like Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

She became president of the British Goat Society – and I cannot bear the creatures. They are so destructive: they eat everything. The Sahara has been blamed on goats – it’s said that they ate all the vegetation, in effect turning great swathes of Africa into a desert.

Can you see any parallels between her life and your own?

No. She achieved infinitely more than I ever have. But, like her, I have tried to make a difference by setting up Childline [a free 24-hour counselling service for children] and The Silver Line [a free 24-hour counselling service for older people].

Does she deserve to be better remembered?

Yes. Terry Pratchett put her in one of his novels [Dodger], because he wanted his readers to know about her, but even though her grave is in Westminster Abbey I had never heard of her until I made that visit to her family bank.

If you could meet her, what would you ask her?

I’d ask her which of the charitable causes she supported had touched her heart the most, and how she felt about the shock and scandal that her marriage to a much younger man sparked in Victorian England. I imagine it might have amused her. Esther Rantzen was talking to York Membery

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Esther Rantzen presented the long-running TV show That’s Life! from 1973 to 1994. She also founded Childline and The Silver Line. For details of the Esther Rantzen: That’s Life UK Tour visit dameestherrantzen.com.