Exceptional generosity at a critical moment

The Siege of Paris and the Commune 1870/1 saw 4,500 British lives saved and 500 repatriations successfully organized by the British Charitable Fund, thanks largely to ‘a most private, mysterious and unexpectedly philanthropic of Victorians’.

‘Of all the British residents in Paris during the Siege, by far the most personally popular was a tall figure with a grizzled moustache’, who, ‘accompanied by a black and tan retriever dog, made his way from one Mayoral centre to another, leaving at each place a large packet of banknotes for the relief of the poor of the district.’

‘He looked like a Frenchman to the end of his days, spoke with a French accent, and was always courteous, courtly and charming.’

His name was Richard Wallace.

Richard Wallace was born in England in 1818, the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford.  He spent his childhood at his father’s home, the chateau de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne, and later became his secretary. In July 1870, at the age of 52, he became one of the richest men in Europe when is father died, leaving him a huge estate and priceless art collection.

One month later, the Prussians were to hold Paris under siege and Wallace’s connection with the British Charitable Fund began. It was to last until his death 20 years later in 1890.

Since 1823 the Charity’s ledgers had neatly recorded beneficiaries’ stories and the grants awarded to them.  But over the months of the Siege, the ledgers quickly turned into a simple and ever-lengthening list of names, with columns for staple goods such as chocolate, bread, rice, soup and ‘Liebig’ meat extract. As the crisis worsened, starvation began to kick in.

When Wallace arrived at the door of the Charity’s office, several thousand English people were trapped in the city, 800 of them destitute, and the Committee was already coping with increasing numbers in desperate need of assistance.

Wallace immediately volunteered to help.  He came regularly to sit with the small group of fellow Committee members to dispense aid to the long lines of people queuing for help. And as the situation grew increasingly desperate, Wallace poured more and more money into the Fund’s coffers.

There is no doubt that hundreds of British men, women and children would have died of cold and hunger without his support.

The Times of 20 February 1871 ‘British subjects are being kept from starvation by the Committee (British Charitable Fund) for the distribution of charity to the distressed English in Paris. Between August and December 1870, 68,000 francs was spent on relief of British subjects in Paris, one third of which was contributed by Mr. Richard Wallace.’

By the end of the Siege and the Commune his contributions to relief of both French and British citizens and provision of two field hospitals for the sick and wounded are estimated to have totalled 2.5 million francs, an enormous sum at that time.

In early 1871, the BCF Committee agreed a vote of thanks to Richard Wallace for “his munificent assistance to the English poor in Paris during the successive periods of the siege” and a commemorative photograph, now in the National Portrait Gallery, was taken of the team that had worked hard throughout such dreadful times to help their fellow countrymen.

Once the crisis had passed, honours fell fast and thick upon this great philanthropist. From France he received the Legion of Honour and in England Queen Victoria conferred a baronetcy on him.

Sir Robert Peel said in Parliament: ‘It is impossible for any Englishman to speak in higher terms than I would of the philanthropy and conduct of Mr. Wallace during the whole time of the siege’

Utterly disheartened by the Siege and the destruction of the city by the Communards, Sir Richard decided to leave Paris for London, where he and his wife took up residence in Hertford House, now home to the Wallace Collection.

But he continued his humanitarian work in Paris, building a hospital in Levallois and gifting the famous Wallace drinking fountains to the poor of the city. His attachment to the British Charitable Fund continued too. He remained Chairman until 1890 and every year gave generously to its work.

After the death of his only son in 1887, Sir Richard returned to his chateau, where he lived alone, almost as a recluse, until his death in 1890. He was buried in the Hertford  family vault at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

For the French he is ‘le grand philanthrope dont la mémoire restera chère à la population parisienne.’

For the British Charitable Fund Paris this extraordinary and deeply compassionate man stands out as the greatest of our many benefactors and a stalwart partner in the fight against poverty in the British community in 19th century France.

2018 is Sir Richard’s bicentenary year. We are proud to carry his tradition forward.




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