Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer
Back a few weeks ago, in the early days of COVID-19 pandemic response, I, like many Albertans, was closely watching news coverage. One news story that caught my attention was about the lines of traffic of returning Canadian travelers at the Coutts/Sweet Grass International Border Crossing. The story really jumped out at me because I had just read about novelist Charles Dickens’ involvement with the philanthropic work of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. Being the geographical names guy, I was aware that the village of Coutts and the hamlet of Burdett were named for the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, so I started to think about how was it that these two communities ended up with names honouring and commemorating a Victorian-Age, aristocratic philanthropist and social reformer.
Angela Burdett-Coutts, the 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts was born Angela Burdett in 1814, the daughter of radical reformist politician and anti-slavery advocate Sir Francis Burdett and Sophia Burdett (née Coutts). In 1837, upon the death of her step-grandmother, the actress Harriet Mellon, Angela inherited the entire Coutts estate of £1.8 million ($191 million in 2020 Canadian dollars) including a substantial interest in the Coutts Bank, making her the second-wealthiest woman in the United Kingdom after Queen Victoria. In accordance with the conditions of the will, Angela Burdett sought and received royal license to combine her ancestral names to become Angela Burdett-Coutts.
Angela Burdett-Coutts established herself as a woman of substantial means. Following the examples of her grandfather, banker Thomas Coutts, and the social reformist zeal of her father Sir Francis Burdett, she used her wealth for philanthropic purposes. Burdett-Coutts helped fund schools in Irish fishing villages and in the working-class neighbourhoods of English industrial cities. She established the London (later National) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and supported humanitarian work for victims of wars, notably the Islamic refugees of the Turko-Russian War. She also purchased slums and built rent-controlled, good quality homes for the working poor, and established the Columbia Market, which was intended to combat rising food prices by providing high-quality, low-cost food for London`s working classes. She even had a network of water fountains—for dogs—installed throughout London.
Burdett-Coutts made the acquaintance of Charles Dickens by providing funding for Urania Cottage, which the novelist wanted to establish as a shelter and skills training centre for women trying to escape London’s sex trade. In 1871, Queen Victoria bestowed a peerage on Angela Burdett-Coutts, making her the 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts. She is very likely the first woman made a Baroness in her own right and not through marriage. So, how did her name become associated with two communities in the North-West Territories of Canada? Well, as great as her philanthropic efforts were, the naming honour was due to her business investments.
Both Coutts and Burdett were established as stations and townsites on narrow-gauge railway lines operated by Sir Alexander Galt’s railway and mining companies. Galt established the North Western Coal and Navigation Company in 1882 to mine coal in the Lethbridge area. Incorporated in England, the company drew investors from the United Kingdom’s aristocracy and financial elite, and one of the largest and most prominent investors was the Baroness Burdett-Coutts.
Initially, Galt shipped supplies and coal between the Lethbridge area mine and the Canadian Pacific Railway main line at Medicine Hat on a fleet of three sternwheel steamboats on the Belly (later renamed Oldman) and South Saskatchewan rivers. One of the steamers was named Baroness in recognition of the investment of Angela Burdett-Coutts. Water level fluctuations made the rivers an unreliable transportation corridor, so in 1884, Galt’s company received a charter to build a narrow-gauge railway line from Lethbridge to Dunmore, a railway point just east of Medicine Hat. Sidings, stations and stopping points were established along the line. One of which, approximately 50 kilometres west of Dunmore and 100 kilometres east of Lethbridge was named Burdett, continuing the company’s recognition of one of its primary investors.
At the same time, Galt was also looking to the south for markets and customers. He incorporated two additional railway companies with charters to build a railway between Lethbridge and Great Falls in the Montana Territory, which was soon to be reached by the Great Northern Railway. In 1884, the Galt-controlled Alberta Railway & Coal Co. received a charter to build a narrow-gauge railway from Lethbridge to the Canada/United States border; the Great Falls and Canada Railway (also controlled by Galt) received a charter to continue the line further south from the border to the Missouri River at Great Falls.
A crossing station, customs house and townsite were laid out and built at the border. The American side of the town was named Sweet Grass after the nearby Sweet Grass Hills, and the Canadian side of the townsite was named Coutts. Many historical accounts say that Coutts was named for William Burdett-Coutts, husband of Baroness Burdett-Coutts. However, this writer takes the view that in reality, both communities were named for Angela Burdett-Coutts.
In the Victorian-age, women were expected to be married. A woman of substantial financial means, like the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, was also expected to let her husband manage her finances. So, for most of her life this is exactly what Angela Burdett-Coutts did not do. When she was 33 years old, a few years after receiving her inheritance, she did propose marriage to her good friend and confidante, the Duke of Wellington (former Prime Minister and defeater of Napoleon at Waterloo), but the 78-year old Duke refused, allegedly telling her not to throw her life way on an old man like himself. After that marriage proposal, Angela Burdett-Coutts remained single and in full control of her own life (and wealth) until 1881.
In that year, when she was 67 years of age, she married her personal secretary and manager of some of her philanthropic endeavours, the 29-year-old, American born William Lehman Ashmead-Bartlett. The marriage was controversial not only because of the age difference, but because William was a commoner, a foreign national and, Heavens-to-Betsy, an American! Even Queen Victoria summoned the Baroness to counsel her against the marriage.
In addition to the age difference, by marrying a foreign national, a clause in the terms of the 1837 inheritance was invoked, requiring her to forfeit three-fifths of the inheritance to her younger sister. Despite the controversy and the suspicions amongst her friends and confidantes that William was very likely a gold digger, Angela Burdett-Coutts went ahead with the marriage. Of note is that William assumed her name, becoming William Burdett-Coutts, although he did not receive a peerage through the marriage. However, the marriage seemed based on genuine respect and mutual admiration. William did use his new name, wealth and connections to start a successful political career, serving as a Member of Parliament from 1885-until his death in 1921.
Angela Burdett-Coutts died on December 30, 1906 at the age of 92. She laid in state at her home and was visited by 30,000 people. She is buried at Westminster Abbey.
Burdett and Coutts grew slowly. With a population of 113, Burdett was incorporated as a village in 1913. The population grew to over 200 by the mid-1920s and stayed relatively stable at around 250 until 2003, when Burdett was dissolved as a village to become a hamlet in the County of Forty Mile No. 8.
Coutts grew more slowly. It became Alberta’s primary port-of-entry with the United States, but its population seems to have remained negligible until it was incorporated as a village in 1960 with a population of 505. The population began to slowly decline, reaching an official population of 245 in 2019.
Alberta Geographical Names Database, Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women.
Galt Historic Railway Park, “The Galt Company Sternwheelers,” available from http://galtrailway.com/2015/11/10/the-galt-company-sternwheelers/
Municipal Affairs. “Population List”, available from https://open.alberta.ca/publications/2368-7320
St. Stephen’s Church (London, UK), “Angela Burdett-Coutts,” available from http://www.sswsj.org/angela-burdett-coutts.html.
University of Alberta Libraries, “The Galt Enterprises,” Atlas of Alberta Railways, available from https://railways.library.ualberta.ca/Chapters-7-2/.
Westminster Abbey, “Angela Burdett-Coutts,” available from https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/angela-burdett-coutts.