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Elizabeth Finn – a truly remarkable woman and visionary

Elizabeth Finn (nee McCaul)

As we celebrate those women around us who have made a difference, this International Women’s Day we pay tribute to our own founder, Elizabeth Finn, who enriched the lives of so many throughout her fascinating and often challenging life.

Here is a snapshot of her amazing life and her empathy and support for women and the elderly.

Elizabeth Finn in her early years

Elizabeth McCaul was born on 14 March 1825 to British missionary parents in the Zamoyski Palace, Warsaw, Poland.

Elizabeth had no formal education but had a real passion for knowledge and gained command of several foreign languages from an early age. By age five, she had received tutoring in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Greek and Latin, and by the time she was 12 had completed a translation of Lavater’s Maxims from German, being paid two guineas for her work. Elizabeth’s upbringing and early life prepared her well for her future and her early exposure to Jewish history and culture undoubtedly went on to affect her activities in Jerusalem later in life.

Elizabeth married James Finn in 1846 and the couple headed to Jerusalem. James was appointed British consul to the Ottoman administration, and they remained in the city until 1863 when they returned to Britain.

In November 1849 she helped to establish the Jerusalem Literary Society to explore the natural and ancient history of the region. The Finns who had formed a library of a thousand volumes and a small museum, would ride out into the countryside on Saturdays in search of antiquities and there make valuable discoveries.

Many eminent travellers attended meetings of the Jerusalem Literary Society, including Albert, Prince Consort. She was also able to entertain both Prince Alfred (second son of Queen Victoria) and latterly his elder brother the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in charming royal style, so forming the connections with Royal patronage that would later provide crucial early support for the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association, the forerunner of Elizabeth Finn Homes as we know it today.

Elizabeth undertook a great deal of humanitarian work while in Jerusalem, and her work helping the poor communities of the Old City is one of things she is most remembered for. She organised training and employment of local men and women as carpenters, farm labourers and seamstresses and raised money from abroad to battle malnutrition among the poor.

She oversaw the excavation of extensive cisterns at Abraham’s Vineyard to alleviate Jerusalem’s inadequate water supply. Elizabeth and her husband raised funds to purchase a farm outside the city where they offered employment and helped in training workers to become more productive, even producing soap to sell.

In January 1854 Elizabeth established the ‘Sarah Society’, an organisation to aid local women, making home visits to provide relief in the form or rice, sugar and coffee and giving them work sewing to earn money to sustain their families.

Elizabeth Finn and the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association

The Finns left Jerusalem with their family to return to England in 1862 and settled in Hammersmith. Later in life she embarked on a further important mission, in support of the elderly.

In 1897 as the age of 72, Elizabeth, along with her daughter Constance, founded the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association (DGAA) based in her home in Brook Green, Hammersmith – “in the hope of alleviating some of the distress which has overtaken ladies and gentlemen who have seen better days”. This was the predecessor of Elizabeth Finn Care.

DGAA either bestowed grants for the immediate relief of the elderly and infirm or empowered individuals capable of working to get back onto their feet and find employment through targeted support and micro-loans. Although ending her ‘formal’ participation with D.G.A.A. in 1901, Elizabeth continued to closely monitor and assist the society for the rest of her life, attending her final committee meeting on 5 November 1920 two months before her death.

She died at home in Brook Green, Hammersmith, at the age of 95. Elizabeth Finn Homes still have their head office based just a few hundred yards from her home, which is marked with a blue plaque to commemorate her charitable work.

Today Elizabeth’s legacy still guides everything we do at Elizabeth Finn Homes. We bear her name and all she stood for with pride.