When Coutts moved into Canary Wharf Tower recently, the posh people’s bank was simply renewing its aquaintance with the East End of London.
For, a century ago, long before the Queen’s bankers had to worry about the size of Fergie’s overdraft, one of their number was spreading the family cash in a different fashion – by helping the Tower Hamlets poor.
Angela Burdett-Coutts had everything going for her and no need to lift a finger. In 1837, at the age of just 23 she inherited a vast fortune from grandfather Thomas Coutts, the banker, and promptly became one of the world’s richest women and the object of many keen suitors.
The Victorian era is infamous for the obscene gap between the hugely wealthy and the desperately poor. But for every exploitative factory owner or businessman there was a philanthropist, desperately trying to improve the lot of the working man, woman and child.
Coutts Bank and charity
Angela ignored the offers of marriage and the comfortable life that awaited her and threw herself into her religious faith and using her cash to fight for social reform and education for the poor. She didn’t turn her back on the family firm though. With amazing energy she not only threw herself into setting up charities, projects for housing the poor, childcare schemes, fighting for work for women – she also took a keen interest in the running of Coutts Bank, becoming a sharp businesswoman and a key part of the family firm.
London poverty in 19th century
The East End of the nineteenth century may have been the hub of the British Empire’s trade but many of its people lived in terrible poverty. Coutts set about making things better.
She supplied funds to build the church of St John’s in Vincent Street, Limehouse, later to become Halley Street. She set up a sewing school in Brown’s Lane, Spitalfields and women came to learn sewing skills.
Many East End women were driven into prostitution by poverty. Charles Dickens became a firm friend of Angela and helped her to set up a house of rescue for young prostitutes.
He later marked her philanthropic works for Londoners by dedicating his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, to Coutts.
Not all her work was so successful. A big problem for working people was getting affordable fresh food. London markets had to pay tolls, which racked up the price of the goods on sale.
Building of Columbia Market, 1886
£20,000 paid for the building of the Columbia Market, in Bethnal Green. It had room for 400 stalls but the market never made money. Various schemes were tried, including a go at running it as a fish market, but in 1886 the market shut.
A revolutionary figure, Angela was recognised for her energy and works. She was the first female “freeman” of the City and the first woman made a peer in her own right.
When Baroness Burdett-Coutts died in 1906 she left a lasting mark on the East End, with huge schemes like the building of model tenements in Columbia Square, Bethnal Green, and with her name – which lives on in Angela Street, Baroness Road and Burdett Road.
Further Reading: The Tower Hamlets Connection, Harold Finch, Tower Hamlets Libraries and Stepney Books; Made of Gold, D Orton, Hamish Hamilton; Lady Unknown, E Healey, Sidgwick and Jackson.