Thursday, February 9, 2012

Charles Dickens and the Heiress

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (21 April 1814 – 30 December 1906) was a nineteenth-century philanthropist, and the granddaughter of banker Thomas Coutts. In 1837, she became the wealthiest woman in England when she inherited her grandfather's fortune of nearly three million pounds sterling. She spent the majority of her wealth on scholarships, endowments, and a wide range of philanthropic causes. One of her earliest was to establish, with the novelist Charles Dickens, Urania Cottage, a home that helped young women who had turned to a life of immorality including theft and prostitution. By the time of her death, she had given more than £3 million to good causes. She was buried on 5 January 1907 near the West Door in the nave Westminster Abbey.*

In 1847, Dickens found a small, solid brick house near Shepherd’s Bush, then still a part of the countryside and surrounded by fields. The idea was to create a home environment rather than that of an institution. Miss Coutts funded the project for about £50,000 per annum in today’s money.

Dickens was “happy with Christian prayers and precepts but did not care about denominations and was determined to avoid preaching, heavy moralizing and calls for penitence…, but he had to give way when Miss Coutts dismissed a good young undermatron because she was a Dissenter (not Church of England)" even though, at the time, Dickens considered himself to be a Unitarian.

The quiet life of Urania Cottage was not for everyone. One girl told Dickens as he was leaving the Home that she wished she was going with him, preferably “to go to the races.” “Some were so used to stealing, they could not give it up. Two broke into the cellar with knives and got drunk on the beer stored there.” Others chose to emigrate to Canada and Australia. Despite its failures, there were hundreds of success stories. Many girls found a safe haven from the crime-infested neighborhoods of Fagin-type rookeries. They learned to read, write, sew, and garden.

Although Urania Cottage was funded with Miss Coutts’ money, it was Dickens’ idea. He “knew very well that he was only touching a huge social problem which had its roots in society’s neglect of the housing and education of the poor, its tolerance of the grim conditions in which workhouse children were raised, its acceptance… of the miserable pay and treatment of the lowest grades of female domestic servants.” But to those whose lives he touched, it mattered.

Dickens, too, was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Quotes are from Charles Dickens, A Life, by Claire Tomalin, The Penguin Press, New York 2011.


  1. That was very kind of Dickens and Coutts to provide such services. I always feel bad when I read about women who were subjected to such a life.
    Talk about being hard up for some liquor to break in using a knife. Those women must have been very cunning.
    As always, thanks for sharing this interesting tidbit with us, Mary!

  2. Thanks mary. Dickens indeed had amany many interest. he was deeply concerned about the social conditions of many. His books helped highlight many of the injustices in the society of the time. He worked at an incredible rate. Sometimes writing two novels simultaneaousy, editing and writing articles for his own magazine, helping to dramatise and bring some of his stories to the stage, acting himself, giving readings of his novels at various thetares in the evening and also giving time to the social care of these women and helping families of friends who needed help. To top it all he would often walk the streets of London at night observing the city. When he lived in Gads Hill, near Rochester, about 36 miles from London he would walk to work in Wellington Street at his office for All The year round, next to the Lyric theatre just off The Strand.he walked very quickly. It is estimated at about 5 miles per hour.He died at the age of 58. He was probably burnt out!!!!!!!

  3. Thanks, Jakki, and you are very welcome.

    Tony, Dickens sounds you. Always walking or biking or on the go.