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.
—her removal from whom had been the main cause of her reformation, poor creature—never went back again, fell into her old way of life, and is in prison now. I saw her with Mr. Chesterton, and talked to her, but thought it best to decline her: for besides the danger of her attachment to liquor (though I do not, like Mr. Chesterton: neither does Mr. Tracey attach overwhelming importance to that, in a young woman of that way of life, who drinks because she is utterly miserable—a middle aged woman who drinks, is another thing, and is always hopeless) she had a singularly bad head, and looked discouragingly secret and moody.
I must tell you of one of the two young women who were remaining in Prison voluntarily, until we could take them. When I first went there, about your home, she was produced to me by Mr. Chesterton, before I saw any of the others, as a model. She was the Matron's model, and the head female turnkey's model, and the peculiar pet and protegée of Mr. Rotch the Magistrate, who is a very good man, and takes infinite pains in the prisons—though I doubt his understanding of the company he finds there. She was much better educated than any of the others (some of whom are extremely ignorant), had a very intelligent face, and a remarkably good voice; but she impressed me as being something too grateful, and too voluble in her earnestness, and she seemed, in a vague, indescribable, uneasy way, to be doubtful of me.