In August 1837, Angela Burdett-Coutts inherited the fortune of her grandfather, Thomas Coutts, estimated at £1.8m. She devoted herself to philanthropy, conceiving the idea of Urania Cottage—a hostel where female petty criminals and former prostitutes could be trained in useful skills—with her friend Charles Dickens.
In August 1847, the Duke of Wellington wrote her a warning: “I have heard of the manner in which you dispose of your money, and indeed… I am astonished that you should have any left! You, like me, are supposed to be made of gold, and everybody supposes that it is only necessary to touch you to partake of the prize. I find that the parent of generosity is economy. Indeed it is impossible to be generous without it… Form no large establishments or engagements; in the position in which you are placed they will only embarrass you…”
Despite this, Burdett-Coutts poured money into social housing, sanitation, schools and training centres. Both the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were founded by her financial and administrative assistance. In 1871, Queen Victoria conferred on her a peerage. In 1872, she became the first woman to be presented with the freedom of the City of London.
In 1893, the Duchess of Teck wrote of Burdett-Coutts: “Great as have been the intrinsic benefits that the baroness has conferred on others, the most signal of all has been the power of example—an incalculable quantity which no record of events can measure…”
By her death in 1906, Burdett-Coutts had given away at least £3m (the equivalent of several billion pounds today). King Edward VII described her as “after my mother, the most remarkable woman in the kingdom.”
In 1889, Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist, preached his gospel of wealth: “In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to use the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all… Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change…
“The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which…