The philanderer philanthropist: Edward VII’s charitable contributions to health and medicine

Museum of the Order of St John

Painting of Edward VII


The Order of St John has unique connections to Royalty, from the founding of the Clerkenwell Priory under King Henry II in the 1100s, through to the modern Royal Family’s role today as patrons of the charity. 

Edward VII was a colourful character who lived much of his life in the public eye. The eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, he was born in 1841, but had to wait until 1902 to become King. His reign lasted only eight years, but in his lifetime he witnessed enormous changes in medical care, including the development of first aid from a new and unfamiliar discipline into an essential component of public health. While often overlooked today, Edward’s philanthropic contributions to the Order of St John, and to health and medicine more generally were widely recognised and praised in their time.

Edward, whose full name was Albert Edward, or “Bertie” to his family, held the title of Prince of Wales for longer than any of his predecessors, while his mother reigned as monarch into her eighties. He was a skilled socialite and built a wide circle of friends outside of his own aristocratic class, including wealthy industrialists and financiers. As a Royal, he lived his life under constant public scrutiny, but this didn’t stop him from enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle which many of his peers considered inappropriate for a monarch in waiting. He enjoyed fine dining, loved to host parties and was a keen gambler. In 1891 he was caught up in a scandal centring around accusations of cheating in a private card game, and was ultimately forced to give testimony in court in full view of the press. Throughout his life Edward conducted numerous affairs which were widely gossiped about among the public, and drew reprimand from his family in private.

Despite his rakish behaviour, Edward was a popular figure, known for his ability to socialise with people from all walks of life, and for his keen participation in public events. After her husband’s death, Queen Victoria retired from public life, and Edward took on many of her responsibilities, making Royal visits to India and North America on her behalf, and attending civic events like the opening of Tower Bridge in 1894, alongside his wife, Alexandra of Denmark. Alexandra had a high public profile in her own right, and the newly built Alexandra Palace was named in her honour shortly after her marriage to Edward in 1863.

Edward lived in an era where wealth and privilege offered no guarantee of protection from illness; his father died of probable typhoid fever, and Edward himself was later afflicted with the same illness, while his two eldest children both died at a young age. Despite this, there were many advances in medical practice over Edward’s lifetime, and he benefitted from pioneering surgery under anaesthesia to treat abdominal swelling before his coronation in 1902. In wider society, a similar drive was underway to improve public health through investment in hospitals, improvements in housing and sanitation, the development of first aid provision, and the introduction of modern methods of statistical analysis aimed at reducing the spread of disease.

Edward became interested in these issues while he was still Prince of Wales, and in 1884 he sat on a Royal Commission – a special investigative committee – which had been set up to explore the housing conditions of London’s poor. It was unusual for a Royal to be directly involved in such activities, and Edward’s decision to go “slumming” – travelling in disguise to some of the worst streets in London to observe the living conditions of the poor first hand – was more unusual still. Clerkenwell was the part of London where St John Ambulance had established its headquarters in the 1870s, but it also contained some of the city’s largest slums outside of the East End. On one of these visits, Edward met an ill and starving mother and was said to be so upset at her condition that he had to be physically restrained from giving her money in case his behaviour attracted the attention of needy people nearby and caused a riot.

Edward personally briefed the House of Lords on his findings, and later served on another Royal Commission investigating the quality of life of London’s elderly poor. His deep interest in public health causes soon attracted the attention of a financier called Henry Burdett, who had previously worked as a hospital administrator, and was known for his fundraising efforts for London’s hospitals. In 1889 Burdett published Prince, Princess and People, a book which celebrated Edward and Alexandra’s charitable work and promoted it as an example to others in society. He later cultivated a close working relationship with the Royal couple, acting as a kind of philanthropic adviser, and helping the pair to make the most of their publice profile to draw attention and financial support to good causes.

In an early success, Edward put his social skills and his network of wealthy friends to use by hosting a fundraising dinner for Guys Hospital, which raised £150,000 pounds for the struggling institution and helped to turn its fortunes around. Edward and Burdett’s friendships with figures in the world of finance and industry were key to their success, and wealthy donors to their causes included the owner of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, and several individuals from the famed Rothschild banking family.

By 1900 Edward was patron of 75 hospitals and over a hundred other charities and had set up a fund to raise money for hospitals in London. The fund, which still exists and is known today as the King’s Fund, raised £250,000 in its first year, with anyone who donated over £5000 receiving a signed letter of thanks from Edward. By 1900 the fund was worth £2 million and paid out £150,000 a year in financial support to London’s hospitals.  Meanwhile, Alexandra lent her name to a special army nursing corps founded during the Boer war, and became a supporter of the London Hospital, which she frequently visited. Later, she established Alexandra Rose Day, a special event where cloth roses were sold to raise funds for her favourite charities; it raised £32,000 on its debut in 1912.

While supporting London’s hospitals, Edward became interested in the Order of St John, getting involved in St John Ambulance while it was still a fledgling charity. Queen Victoria is remembered as a key figure in the organisation’s history for granting its Royal Charter in 1888, but Edward played a vital role in encouraging his mother to issue this honour. He also used his status to add recognition and credibility to the organisation’s work, even inviting members of St John’s Metropolitan Corps to serve as a guard of honour at a special memorial service for his late his son, the Duke of Clarence. At this event he praised St John’s work, famously proclaiming “this is a good uniform. I believe much good will come of it”.

In 1902, the year when Edward finally became King, the St John Ambulance Association’s annual report looked back over the previous five decades to assess changes in public health, focusing particularly on accidents and injuries in dangerous industries like mining, where first aid practice had taken hold with great success. The report noted that the number of coalminers grew from 171,893 in 1851 to 644,242 in 1902 – nearly a fourfold increase. At the same time, the average number of fatal accidents actually fell from 236 per annum in 1850-55 to 75 per annum in the years leading up to 1902. Put simply, in 1851, roughly one coalminer in every thousand died at work; by 1902 this was down to one in every ten thousand, a ten-fold reduction. There report included similar statistics for factory workers too, proudly noting that 1902 was the first year where there were no fatal accidents involving members of the public on trains – the first time this had happened since St John Ambulance was founded.

By the time Edward died in 1910, St John Ambulance had become firmly established as a national and international charity, and its important role in British public health was fully accepted. Meanwhile, Edward’s modern philanthropic practices were now widely adopted among the wealthy, and helped to set a template for future Royals. When Edward’s successor George V became King, he ditched his father’s exuberant lifestyle in favour of restraint and austerity, but built upon the strong charitable foundations Edward had created, establishing a tradition which continues to this day.

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