Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) and Greyfriars Bobby

Guest contribution by Diana Leat


Image: Fountain with statute of Greyfriar’s Bobby, May 2018

After the Scott Monument, Greyfriars Bobby – a granite drinking fountain topped by a statue of the dog Bobby sculpted by William Brodie – is one of Edinburgh’s most famous sights. The traditional view of Bobby’s life is that he belonged to John Gray, a nightwatchman in Edinburgh. Grey died of tuberculosis in February 1858 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard; his dog Bobby spent the next 14 years sitting by his master’s grave, leaving every day at 1 o’clock to eat lunch at a local coffee house. While there are other accounts of Greyfriars Bobby in circulation, it is this story that captured the public imagination – including that of 19th century philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts.


Background: Angela’s grandfather, Thomas Coutts, born in Edinburgh, was the fourth son of John Coutts successful banker and Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Thomas later moved to London, intent on further developing the family’s banking success, and worked towards establishing what is still known as Coutts & Co, private bank and wealth managers.

Both Angela’s father, Sir Francis Burdett, and her grandfather’s second wife, Harriot Mellon, were influential in shaping Angela’s views on, and approach to, philanthropy. As a wealthy Radical politician, the former influenced Angela’s ideas about poverty and justice; the latter’s larger than life personality and accompanying high profile and, at times indiscriminate, charity, led Angela to reflect on the most appropriate approaches to her own philanthropy. Furthermore, when Angela’s grandfather died, it fell to Harriot to decide who should inherit the Coutts fortune. Her choice fell on Angela. Thus, in 1837, at the age of twenty-three, Angela Burdett-Coutts inherited a fortune worth an estimated £200 million in contemporary value, making Angela the richest women in Europe and enabling her to become one of the leading philanthropists of the 19th century.

Alongside mixing with many of the leading political and intellectual figures of her day, Angela also maintained a long-term friendship with Charles Dickens with whom she discussed and collaborated on a number of philanthropic endeavours.


Philanthropy: Angela’s philanthropy was huge, varied, usually practical, sometimes eccentric and always low profile. Alongside extensive work addressing ‘fallen women’, one example of Angela’s practical philanthropy was the drying machine she and Dickens commissioned to be sent out to the Crimea where Florence Nightingale had complained of the sodden misery in the hospital; another one was the re-building of an area of London’s Bethnal Green providing a development of four blocks of model flats with gas, water, drainage, light, air and a huge communal laundry with a spin-dryer.

Angela Burdett-Coutts was perhaps unusual in caring about those whose labour provided her fortune. She used her influence to raise the bank clerks’ salaries and shorten their day, and paid for free lunches and set up a library and reading room for their use.

Not all of Angela’s schemes were successful. Probably her most spectacular failure was her effort to move unhygienic street traders and barrows to a covered market in London’s East End where cheap and healthy fresh food could be sold. The market hall itself was spectacular – but despite various re-inventions the initiative failed.


Scottish Philanthropy: The full extent of Angela’s philanthropy in Scotland will probably never be known as she frequently made anonymous donations or gave

through other agencies. For example, in 1869 she helped 1,200 weavers from Girvan to emigrate to Australia (Healey, 1978:179). Another illustration of her work in Scotland was her ‘ambulatory schoolmaster’ idea. At the time, teachers were untrained and often relatively uneducated. Her idea was to provide a trained and certificated teacher to be the ‘ambulatory centre’ of a group of schools under his superintendence. The scheme was adopted in Scotland; Angela visited the schools and even gave demonstration lessons in at least one village school (Healey, 1978:145).

Image: Commemorative plaque on the fountain

Angela’s love of animals was legendary; she believed that all life – man or beast – is sacred. To this end, she ran various campaigns against cruelty to animals, including one in Edinburgh against the over-loading of horses on tramways. Her most famous gift to Scotland was, of course, the seven-foot drinking fountain dedicated to Greyfriars Bobby – an example of a private-public partnership between the City and a private philanthropist. While the precise amount that Angela donated to the building of the fountain remains unclear, the City’s gratitude for her philanthropy was marked in 1874, when she was made the first woman Freeman of Edinburgh.


Messages for Philanthropy: Some of the advice in the correspondence on philanthropy between Angela and Dickens, could have been written today. For example, he advised her to ‘try to interest the Government’, then to research existing initiatives including those abroad. ‘Give the partial schemes that exist a chance and learn from their success or failure’ and, finally, Dickens recommended that ‘[i]f you cannot improve on their performance then help existing ones rather than establish new ones’ (quoted in Healey, 1978:81-2). (Dickens had little time for some of the leading philanthropists of the day describing Lord Shaftesbury, for example, as ‘an amiable bull in a china shop of good intentions’ Healey, 1978:127).

Her philanthropy – perhaps especially in the case of Greyfriars Bobby – also highlights the unintended consequences of gifts. Bobby has undoubtedly become a source of tourist revenue but is also a burden on the City’s coffers. In 2014 Bobby’s ‘nose-job’ (repairing the damage caused by tourists’ touching Bobby’s nose for good luck) cost the City £400 – and he will need another one soon!


Diana Leat is an Associate of the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy & Public Good, Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, London, UK, and at the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, QUT Brisbane, Australia.


Healey, E. (1978) Lady Unknown. The Life of Angela Burdett-Coutts, Sidgwick and Jackson: London.


Drawing on findings from our How Philanthropy shapes Scotland project, our monthly Scottish Philanthropy Snippet explores the spectrum of people, places and practices that have contributed to the history of philanthropy in Scotland.