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An American philanthropist in London

By Boc Ly
BBC London

George Peabody
George Peabody had fairly humble origins in Danvers, USA

From Gordon Selfridge to Kevin Spacey, Americans making their mark in London is nothing new.

George Peabody is another American figure who has left behind a lasting legacy in the capital.

Today, the organisation that he founded in 1862, Peabody (formerly called the Peabody Trust), houses 50,000 people across London.

"George Peabody set the template for social housing not just in the UK, but around the world," says Peabody's chief executive Stephen Howlett.

"He understood that simply providing a roof over someone's head is not enough. In addition to bricks and mortar, there must be a social framework to support and encourage the development of people and communities."

Humble origins

George Peabody was born in Danvers, Massachusetts, a small town near Boston, on 18 February 1795. He was the third of eight children.

George only had four years of education between the ages of seven and 11 before he started as an apprentice in a dry goods store. It was a humble beginning in life.

When George was just 16, his father died and George took responsibility for his mother, his younger siblings and the large mortgage on the family home. It was an early indication of his philanthropic nature.

Business success

Peabody's business acumen soon became apparent. He did well as an apprentice, and had earned enough money to pay off his father's mortgage within a few years.

Portrait of a young George Peabody

He set up a business of his own, in partnership with another man 15 years his senior, importing and exporting goods between the USA and Britain.

As the business grew, Peabody seized upon the chance to build up the trade in cotton between the United States and Lancashire. In 1827, he visited Britain for the first time.

By 1838 he had set up an office at 31 Moorgate and London had become his primary home.


As well as a new country of residence, George Peabody also left behind his import-export business career to concentrate on merchant banking.

For many years he ran his investment banking company, George Peabody & Co. by himself. When he did choose a business partner to help him run things, he chose wisely.

Junius Spencer Morgan was 18 years younger than Peabody, and their company Peabody, Morgan & Co. would ultimately go on to become Morgan Grenfell, which survived as a leading investment bank until its sale to Deutsche Bank in 1999.

Peabody's London

While his professional life might have been going from strength to strength, it would be fair to say that his personal life was less successful. He was never married, although he was engaged on one occasion, and he bore no children.

Christine Wagg
He was quite reserved in many ways but he was also very sociable in that he liked entertaining
Christine Wagg

"It has been said that it was his disappointment in love that made him decide to devote his life to good causes, whether that's true or not we don't know," says Christine Wagg, a legal assistant at Peabody, but who has spent a lot of time studying the history of the organisation's founder.

"He was quite reserved in many ways but he was also very sociable in that he liked entertaining," says Christine.

"He used to like taking people out to restaurants and entertain them at the theatre or the opera particularly Americans visiting this country.

"He gave some advice to a nephew: 'Be friendly with selected people but not intimate with anyone.'"

The Philanthropist

When Peabody decided that he wanted to give something back to London he approached Lord Shaftesbury through an intermediary asking for the best way he could use his money to benefit his adopted city.

Drawings of Peabody Huosing 1850
Peabody Square, Blackfriars, built as 'working men's tenements' for the poor

Lord Shaftesbury's answer was housing. The building of railway stations meant that a lot of people were being displaced from their homes and many families were sharing very poor accommodation.

Between 1862 and 1869 George Peabody donated over £500,000 towards establishing the Peabody Trust for the provision of social housing in London.

It was one of George Peabody's largest and most significant gifts. He also made donations to many other causes and organisations, particularly in America. One estimate states that he gave the equivalent of £60 million in today's money to good causes.

Going home

Read our Q&A wth Peabody's chief executive Stephen Howlett:

Despite his immense wealth, Peabody never actually owned a home in London, preferring to rent apartments and staying with friends. He lived modestly and often went without a servant when travelling.

Peabody's reputation was already assured by the time of his death in November 1869. He had received the Freedom of the City of London in 1862 and a statue of him had been unveiled outside the Royal Exchange in July 1869. His home town of Danvers was renamed Peabody in 1868.

A funeral was held in Westminster Abbey, which was highly unusual for a foreign citizen, and thousands of people lined the streets for the procession. His body was interred in the nave of the Abbey for a month before he was buried in America, as he had always wished.

A plaque is now placed on the floor of Westminster Abbey where his body was interred. It reads with Peabody's own words:

"I have prayed my Heavenly Father day by day that I might be enabled before I died to show my gratitude for the blessings which he has bestowed upon me by doing some great good to my fellow men."




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