Great Devonians: Fortune gained, fortune lost

PUBLISHED: 12:45 30 July 2014 | UPDATED: 12:47 30 July 2014

Portrait of Angela Burdett Coutts from a portrait by J R Swinton c 1865 in the Royal Marsden Hospital

Portrait of Angela Burdett Coutts from a portrait by J R Swinton c 1865 in the Royal Marsden Hospital


In the latest of his year-long series for Devon Life on Great Devonians, IAN L. HANDFORD, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, profiles Baroness Angela G. Burdett-Coutts, at one time the richest woman in England, a philanthropist and friend of Royalty who eventually lost it all because she married a ‘toy boy’

Ehrenberg House inTorquay, which later became the Rosetor HotelEhrenberg House inTorquay, which later became the Rosetor Hotel

Born in 1814, Angelina (Angela) Georgina Burdett was the daughter of Sir Francis and Lady Burdett. By the age of eight her mother was dead and by age 15 her remarried father and her stepmother had also died. A highly disorientated and insecure girl was now a true orphan.

As the favourite child of her grandfather Thomas Coutts (founder of Coutts Bank) Angela would inherit the Coutts family fortune on her aunt’s death. But auntie’s will encompassed three stringent conditions:

1) She must not marry an “alien” – i.e. a foreigner;

2) One her death the inheritance must pass to a son;

Angela's memorial stone in St Paul's CathedralAngela's memorial stone in St Paul's Cathedral

3) The Coutts name was to be retained – requiring Angela to become Miss Angelina Burdett-Coutts.

The Coutts trustees decided that 15-year-old Angela should have a governess – Miss Hannah Meredith. In time she would become her lifelong companion and friend.

At age 21 Angela received her inheritance and was said to be the richest woman in England. Already a competent, singularly strong minded, intelligent and multi-lingual young woman, she was well equipped to run the Coutts Banking empire.

Being unattached and fabulously wealthy she realised she was likely to be a target of ‘gold diggers’. That strong will and utter control now aided her and soon she would state how she intended to use the wealth and power. She publicly announced: “I am going to use my life to give all the money away.” And, in time, that is exactly what she did.

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With her inheritance of £1.8million generating an annual income in excess of £80,000 Angela was able to do anything, buy anything, build or sponsor anything she wanted…and she did. Her first philanthropy saw support for the poorest in society. She provided homes for the young women in London “who had lost their innocency” and helped flower girls, art students and so-called shoe black boot boys by providing public baths. Her philanthropy was global, she funded nurses and surgeons to attend the sick and wounded in South Africa and built whole districts in Ireland after its disastrous famine.

She created hundreds of charitable foundations, institutions and trusts including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

She arrived in Torquay when aged 42 to live at Meadfoot House, Hesketh Crescent, before moving to Villa Syracuse and then Ehrenburg House in Chelston Avenue. Ehrenburg would be her permanent residence when in Torquay although after her death it became the Rosetor Hotel and when demolished made way for the town’s conference centre.

She assisted the so-called Dame Schools of Barton, Cockington and Shiphay in Torquay and at Brixham supported The British Seamen’s Boys Home.

Londoners named her “Queen of the Poor” being very disillusioned with their ever absent Monarch. But Angela’s continuing support for the poor saw her Queen make her the first Baroness in her own right and Angela even had access to the Royal Court. This would end with her decision at age 67 to marry a man of 27, very much frowned on by Her Majesty.

Against everyone’s advice she married William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett . William was an American – an alien – which started a legal battle which Angela lost, giving up all rights of inheritance and surviving on a Coutts Personal Trust until she died aged 92 in 1906.

After her marriage Angela never returned to Torquay and the Coutts legacy passed not to William but to a family member. Today she lies at rest in Westminster Abbey.

Next month: an ironmonger, blacksmith and entrepreneur who would create the first atmospheric steam engine.

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