How England's Richest Woman Started London's Prettiest Market

By Zoe Craig Last edited 16 months ago
How England's Richest Woman Started London's Prettiest Market
Photo: Aidan_CK.

In 1837, Angela Burdett-Coutts became England's richest woman.

Her banker grandfather Thomas Coutts died, leaving the 23-year-old Angela an endowment of £1.8million.

Burdett-Coutts managed to refuse the many suitors who were after her money, and while she wasn't averse to hosting lavish parties (she counted Dickens, Gladstone, Disraeli and even Queen Victoria as friends), her real passion was for philanthropy.

Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, ca. 1840

Burdett-Coutts gave money hundreds of causes, at home and abroad.

She opened Ragged Schools, helped workers out of the sex trade, placed destitute boys into the Royal Navy and supported soldiers in the Crimean War. She helped set up the RSPCC, and worked for the RSPCA.  

In 1871, Queen Victoria made Burdett-Coutts a peer; the first woman to ever receive the honour.

It's almost impossible to count how many good causes received help from this remarkable woman: often her account entries simply recorded the sums and the description 'donation'.

But we do know that she carried out a great deal of development work in poverty stricken areas of east London; in the mid-1800s, Bethnal Green was a notorious slum.

Burdett-Coutts bought the land and founded the Columbia Market Buildings, designed by architect Henry Darbishire: a grand, covered market in the style of a shopping 'cathedral'.

Columbia Market Buildings

The idea was to provide jobs and houses for local people and supply East Enders with affordable and nutritious produce.

The market was a huge Victorian Gothic pile, with room for 400 stalls, surrounded by shops, and with flats for the traders above the shops.

Columbia Market in the Illustrated London News, 1869

It was a hugely ambitious project.

Without a decent railway connection (a planned line out of Bishopsgate station never materialised) and with competition from Billingsgate and other established London markets, the Columbia Market failed to make money.

It closed in 1886.

19th century glass side of Columbia Market, courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute, via Spitalfields Life.

Burdett-Coutts also concerned herself with improving housing in the East End. Prompted by Dickens, she also built the separate U-shaped Columbia Dwellings, of several storeys, with a three-storey Gothic arch built into the brickwork of the central section.

None of these Coutts building survive today; they were replaced by Sivil House and the Dorset Estate in the 1960s.

Columbia Market's changing fortunes

But Columbia Market's fortunes changed. First, a move from Saturday trading to Sunday, giving Jewish traders back their Sabbath, meant sellers from Covent Garden and Spitalfields started to bring their weekly leftovers to Columbia Road. The market began to specialise in plants and cut flowers.

Photo by Aidan_CK.

The second world war saw Columbia Market stumble again; but a new rule in the 1960s whereby traders would lose their stalls if they failed to show up regularly injected some much-needed energy into the street.

When gardens became 'fashionable' again in the 80 and 90s (thanks, Ground Force), interest in the market surged.

Photo by Nicky Napkins.

Today, Columbia Road is as packed with tourists as it is with locals on a Sunday morning; popular shops, pubs and cafes throng the surrounding streets.

We can't help thinking Angela Burdett-Coutts would enjoy spending a few hours roaming around this particularly beautiful part of her legacy.

Last Updated 16 December 2022