Top 10 London Social Philanthropists

By Londonist Last edited 84 months ago
Top 10 London Social Philanthropists

Following on from our Top 10 London Art Philanthropists, we turn to those who invested in our city for social good. Listing them in chronological order it's notable that the majority are nineteenth-century philanthropists. The only one still alive is rather surprising. Who would you include on this list?

Captain Thomas Coram (1668-1751)

At the eastern extremes of Bloomsbury you'll find a curious area of land devoted to children. The Foundling Museum and neighbouring park were once part of the Foundling Hospital, a refuge and school for abandoned infants. This worthy institution was set up by Thomas Coram in 1739, becoming the world's first incorporated charity. Over the next two centuries, thousands of lives were saved and enriched by the Hospital.

George Peabody (1795-1869)

Reversing the trend of the British seeking their fortune in the USA, George Peabody made his money there and came to London in 1827 where he lived and worked for many years. On seeing the poverty and slums, he resolved to help the working poor.

The first Peabody estate was built in Spitalfields, then came estates in Islington, Shadwell, Westminster and Chelsea. Each estate had a play area for children and laundry facilities, while the shared toilets were monitored for diseases. Later came the addition of coalholes and pram stores. Resident superintendents and porters helped provide a safe and secure environment. The Peabody Group now owns and manages more than 19,000 homes across the capital.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885)

Politician and social reformer, Shaftesbury was president of the Ragged Schools Union for nearly 40 years. Set up to provide free education to destitute inner city children, it is estimated that during the good Lord’s tenure, 300,000 London children, who might otherwise have gone on to the streets, were taught trades. He also campaigned for better conditions in asylums, for the rights of child chimney sweeps, a reduction in the working hours of mill workers and animal rights. Shaftesbury lent his name to the Shaftesbury Park Estate in Battersea, 1,200 houses with gardens built specifically for the working classes.

The statue of Eros (which isn’t Eros but his twin brother Anteros...or the Angel of Christian Charity depending which 'authority' you read) in Piccadilly Circus sits atop the Shaftesbury Memorial and, as The God of Selfless Love, was intended to symbolise the love Shaftesbury had for the poor. Shaftesbury Avenue is also named in his honour and was itself built as part of slum clearance measures.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911)

A great Victorian philanthropist and reformer, Passmore Edwards started out as a carpenter’s son from Cornwall. He first became editor of the London Echo, then its owner. He published other magazines, made a fortune and became an MP. With his credo that by ‘funding the ladder, the poor may be encouraged to climb,’ he built hospitals, drinking fountains, libraries, schools, convalescent homes, art galleries and the Passmore Edwards Settlement in Tavistock Place. Among his extraordinary benefactions are the Canning Town Boys Club, East Ham Hospital, Tilbury Cottage Hospital, a children's holiday home in Clacton, Whitechapel Gallery and South London Art Gallery.

Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906)

Scion of the loaded Coutts banking family, Angela found herself the wealthiest woman in England upon her inheritance of 1837.

She went on to become one of the towering figures of Victorian society and poured great sums into helping the working classes, funding numerous churches, societies, schools, housing schemes and even drinking fountains for dogs. Her greatest work was in the East End of London where, among other things, she founded Columbia Market.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912)

Although she donated less personal wealth to good causes than others on this list, Octavia Hill's contributions to society through dogged campaigning were so immense that she surely deserves a place on a list of London philanthropists. With financial help from John Ruskin, Hill set up numerous experiments in social housing throughout the capital (a good example can be seen today at Red Cross in Southwark). She also campaigned to save open spaces, such as Hampstead Heath, for recreation, and was one of the founders of the National Trust.

Thomas John Barnardo (1845-1905)

Still a household name thanks to his extant charitable organisation, Barnardo made a major contribution to alleviating Victorian poverty by establishing homes for children. The first of 112 opened in Stepney in 1870. By the end of his life, an estimated 100,000 children had benefited from his efforts. A museum devoted to Barnado's works can be found in Mile End at the Ragged School.

Andrew Carnegie (1853-1919)

A lowly Scot who at the age of 12 was working in an American cotton factory, Andrew studied hard and invested wisely, eventually becoming the richest man in the world. When he sold his steel company in 1901, Carnegie personally trousered $225,000,000 and embarked on a suitably grandiose plan to educate the world. “I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution.” He built 3,000 libraries, (380 in Britain). In London there are Carnegie libraries in Brentford, Crofton Park, Hanwell, Herne Hill, King’s College, Leyton, Sydenham, Teddington and Twickenham. Bromley knocked theirs down.

Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936)

Sir Henry established a fortune from the pharmaceutical industry. He also amassed a magnificent collection of cultural artefacts relating to medicine and health. Both achievements are with us today. After his death, Sir Henry's moneybags were poured into the Wellcome Trust in 1936. This is now the largest charity in the UK, funding medical research. The Trust also plays a role in shaping London, funding a wing of the Science Museum, acting as a major partner in the new research centre going up behind the British Library, and even had big plans for the Olympic Park, which sadly won't now come to fruition. Sir Henry's collection of cultural artefacts forms the core of the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road.

Richard Desmond (b. 1951)

Yes, the one time publisher of Asian Babes, Horny Housewives, Readers’ Wives and 40 Plus, has a giving nature. As the drummer with the RD Crusaders, whose members have included Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant and Lulu, Desmond has raised around £14 million for charitable causes and also finances the Richard Desmond Children’s Eye Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital.


By Steve Overbury and M@. Steve has a blog here and another one here and plugs his book London Babylon here.

Last Updated 30 October 2011