Autograph letter signed, London, 3 November 1847, to Angela Burdett-Coutts
Purchased with the assistance of the Fellows, 1951
Dickens's letters to Burdett-Coutts are, by any standard, extremely long and detailed and reveal his extraordinarily competent administrative abilities as well as shrewd insight into the minds and motivations of the women who would enter Urania Cottage. He insisted "that their past lives should never be referred to." He also recognized "that these unfortunate creatures are to be tempted to virtue. They cannot be dragged, driven, or frightened." Dickens's meticulous attention to detail is apparent in this letter, in which he informs Burdett-Coutts that "I have laid in all the dresses and linen of every sort for the whole house... I have made them as cheerful in appearance as they reasonably could be—at the same time very neat and modest."
From 1840 Dickens guided the charitable work of philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906), the wealthiest heiress in Victorian Britain. Dickens served as her official almoner and helped to assess the merits of the thousands of letters she received from those seeking financial assistance. He also advised on her plan for improved sanitation in the slums of Westminster and drew her attention and support to the Ragged School Union, which provided education to London's poorest children. A pragmatist, Dickens encouraged Burdett-Coutts to direct her philanthropy toward the causes of distress. In 1847 they founded a home, Urania Cottage, in Shepherd's Bush, as a shelter for homeless women—prostitutes or petty criminals who sought to rehabilitate themselves by learning practical skills and developing self-discipline. Many of the women were assisted to eventually emigrate to one of Britain's colonies to begin a new life. For more than ten years, Dickens administered Urania Cottage on behalf of Burdett-Coutts and played an extremely active role in its day-to-day management.
in them, and is impracticable without them. It is for this vital reason that a knowledge of human nature as it shews itself in these tarnished and battered images of God—and a patient consideration for it—and a determined putting of the question to one's self, not only whether this or that piece of instruction or correction be in itself good and true, but how it can be best adapted to the state in which we find these people, and the necessity we are under of dealing gently with them, lest they should run headlong back on their own destruction—are the great, merciful, Christian thoughts for such an enterprize, and form the only spirit in which it can be successfully undertaken. Do you not feel, with me, that this must be kept steadily in view, and that a chaplain imbued with this feeling in the outset, is the only Minister for this place?
I forgot to mention in its right place, about the temptation, that I saw, at Mr. Tracey's prison the other day, a girl who was there, some time ago (merely, if I remember right, for being in the streets, or, if for felony for some offence arising out of that life) whose appearance and behaviour had so interested some lady or other, living hard by, that when her term was over, she took her for a servant. That girl, although she had the reputation of being a drunkard, worked hard and honestly in this employment for seven or eight months, and had wine and spirits constantly in her keeping, which she never touched. But in an evil hour her Mistress gave her a holiday. She fell among her old companions