ELIZABETH FINN, A REMARKABLE WOMAN
Victorian England produced some remarkable women. Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler are well known; Elizabeth Finn, the founder of the Distressed Gentlefolk's Aid Association (DGAA), now Elizabeth Finn Care, is less celebrated.
This shy and modest woman was however also a social entrepreneur in the same mould as her distinguished contemporaries. In every sense she was a model Victorian. She spoke seven languages, was a talented musician, read widely and was a devout Christian. Like Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry, she devoted her life to charitable works.
Elizabeth Finn's life spanned nearly the same decades as Queen Victoria. When she founded the DGAA, Britain was the richest country on earth. The newly emerging middle classes increased in number and prospered distinguished by devotion to duty, education and success in the services, in business and the professions.
However, the end of the 19th century saw a particularly severe economic recession. Victorian society, like generations before, was used to poverty and want. Charitable societies for abandoned children and for fallen women sprang up alongside movements for women's rights and for enlightened legislation on working conditions and education. No one, however, was prepared for 'distressed gentlefolk'. With no welfare state there was nowhere to turn for those (many from an educated or services background) who had fallen into dire poverty because they were too old or too ill to work.
Elizabeth Finn, at the age of 72, decided that something had to be done for the silent suffering of people in this part of society. Elizabeth founded the Distressed Gentlefolk's Aid Association in 1897 with the help of friends and her daughter Constance, the Association's first and very able secretary.
The roots of her caring ethos started early in Elizabeth's life. She was born in Warsaw in 1825 where her father, the Reverend Alexander McCaul was a missionary. The young Elizabeth grew up with a clear vision of a world in which privilege and responsibility go hand-in-hand. Her parents chose to do what they could about the appalling social conditions they encountered in their missionary work. They taught their children to do the same. Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, helped raise her brothers and sisters, undertook schooling the younger ones and helped her parents in their charitable work.
The McCaul family returned to London in 1831 to what Elizabeth describes as 'a very simple life'. In her 'Reminiscences', written in 1913, she reveals that too many of her spare moments were taken up with vexatious, but necessary mending and sewing. At the age of twelve, she chose to rise at 3.30 am and translate German maxims until breakfast to earn a two guinea fee with which she could buy a dozen new pairs of stockings. To vision and virtue, it is clear we must add tenacity. Sixty years later, at the age of 72, when most of us would have thoughts of retirement, she founded the Distressed Gentlefolk's Aid Association. Over her eventful lifetime, Elizabeth had learned that the time to stop caring never comes.
Elizabeth's adult life began in the spring of 1846 at the age of 21, when she married James Finn, recently appointed Consul of Jerusalem. The couple moved to Palestine where they set up home on Mount Zion. They set about learning Arabic and getting to know the local people. Elizabeth took an immediate and particular interest in the poor and the unfair distribution of what little charitable money was available. That autumn the couple went on a tour of the surrounding country, sleeping in tents at night and travelling on horseback by day, she riding sidesaddle. "Poor thing", the locals thought, "she has only one leg"! James quickly became a focal point for those seeking formal aid and Elizabeth received the local women to see how she might help.
Together with another expatriate, Miss Cooper, Elizabeth secured donations from England and set up a workshop employing 150 people. In an initiative that today would be described as 'empowerment' they changed, forever, the lives of many people. Despite their demanding schedules, the Finns established the Jerusalem Literary Society and created a library and museum.
In 1851 Elizabeth records the birth of her second child, Constance, in a tent whilst travelling the country. Elizabeth's children were raised as she had been. They became involved at an early age 'running back and forth to dispense bread and charcoal from our house' and helping in a shop, which sold local folk art carvings to raise money. In what seems to be an early precursor to the DGAA, she set up a trust, 'to provide relief as appropriate'. By 1857, 1,500 poor families were receiving assistance and regular visits to assess their ongoing needs.
As part of Consular responsibilities, the Finns held weekly receptions instead of the customary, but expensive, dinner parties. Many of the most distinguished people of the day attended, including two of Queen Victoria's sons. In 1859 HRH Prince Alfred, Victoria's second son, stayed with the Finns and made a lasting friendship. In 1862, Edward, Prince of Wales visited; his first words to Mrs Finn being "Alfred sends you his love".
Every member of the family suffered some ill health during their stay in Palestine and in 1863 James' health began to fail. At the same time the local political situation began to deteriorate. In 1866 Elizabeth, James and the three children returned to England. The family moved into 75 Brook Green, 'an old-fashioned delightful house in Hammersmith in what was then little more than a rural and sequestered spot'. In 1872 James died and an appreciation of his life was published in The Times. Since leaving Palestine, Elizabeth had remained engaged in charitable work, organising drawing-room meetings at which she described her experiences in the region. She would give the same talk many years later as a fund-raiser for the DGAA. In the 1880s Elizabeth supported the cause of Jews in Russia where anti-Semitism was rife.
In 1897, Elizabeth Finn founded the Distressed Gentlefolk's Aid Association. The worsening economic conditions of the day prompted her to help those in her immediate circle forced to live miserably and without hope. The Association raised money to provide grants and loans that were disbursed quickly and efficiently to those most in need. Elizabeth's formal participation in the DGAA ended in 1901, at the age of 76, but the minute books of the Association reveal that for the next twenty years she continued to take an active interest in the lives and progress of the growing number of beneficiaries. As she had learned from her days in Palestine, a small amount of help may be just enough to get someone back on an even footing allowing him or her to live, as they would wish to.
At the age of 95, on 5th November 1920, Elizabeth attended her last committee meeting. Just ten weeks later, on 18th January 1921, Elizabeth dressed, came downstairs unaided. Constance wrote movingly of her mother's final moments in her book 'Reminiscences". After 'a brief fit of pain - a few sighs and God took her to her rest. Thus ended a wonderful and outstanding life of consistent Christian character and endeavour, beloved by all who had the honour of knowing her.'
Throughout the whole of the 20th century, Elizabeth's vision and wisdom have guided us. It is with justifiable pride that the custodians of her vision, the Trustees and our supporters, have chosen to honour her legacy with our new name, Elizabeth Finn Care.
Elizabeth Finn Care will continue to help people from a wide range of occupations and backgrounds and their families to provide outstanding support to people living independently in the community and in Elizabeth Finn Homes Limited Care Homes. Taking a leaf out of Elizabeth's book, we know that there is much to do - the time to stop caring has not yet arrived.
Read about Elizabeth Finn's experiences in Jerusalem
Whilst in Jerusalem, Elizabeth Finn penned a book outlining her life as the wife of the Consul of Jerusalem. You may purchase this book for £8.09 plus postage from the Amazon website. To order the book, visit A Third Year in Jerusalem.