Today (March 12) in London History – the American father of modern philanthropy

March 12th, 1862 – the Day of Munificence. This Today in London podcast takes up the tale.


Just a few more days of these. Well, nine more months of the Today in London History podcast. And maybe more. It’s like training for and simultaneously doing the marathon, this. Come the end of this year of a Daily London History podcast I might just see if I can keep it going. 

No, by “just a few more days of these” I meant the heart-on-the-sleeve request that you vote for us – and get your friends to vote for us – vote for London Walks and the London Walks team – in the nationwide Tourism Superstar 2022 competition. 

The voting ends next week. It’s a secret ballot. It takes about five seconds. You get to the polling station by clicking on the link prominently displayed at the top of this website:

Many thanks.

Now, first, Today in London. Something a bit different today. Not recommending a show or a museum or a restaurant or a walk – instead, recommending that you read Andy Beckett’s thoughtful piece in today’s Guardian. 

Google the title: How the British Upper Class Came to Serve the Global Elite. The money quote, so to speak, is: “Britain has become butler to the world.”

And speaking of the rich, how do you like the sound of a rich man who became butler to the poor? How’s that for a fanfare for this Today in London History podcast. Here we go…

The headline said it all: A munificent gift to the London poor.

It’s not all that common a word, munificent, I wanted to make sure, so I looked it up: 

Characterised by or displaying great generosity. That’s the dictionary definition.

And that was borne out by the response of the three trustees who received the letter. They spoke of their “gratitude for an act of beneficence which has few (if any) parallels in modern times.”

The letter’s dated March 12, 1862.

The writer of the letter was George Peabody, who has, ever since,

 been regarded as the father of modern philanthropy. 

He wrote to the three trustees to say he was putting, in their stewardship, the equivalent in today’s money of many millions of pounds to, in his words, “ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis.” George Peabody’s gift – his munificent gift – was turned into what today would be called decent quality “affordable housing” – affordable housing that ameliorated the condition and augmented the comforts of the poor. 

It’s now 160 years later and George Peabody’s generosity is still making things better for a lot of Londoners.

About 50,000 of them, to be exact. That’s about one in 200 Londoners. But that half of one per cent is not the significant proportion. Because the majority of Londoners are not poor. My educated guess would be that probably 3 per cent or thereabouts of struggling Londoners have their condition ameliorated and their comforts augmented thanks to the generosity of an American who died over a century and a half ago. 

Any way you look at it, it’s a telling statistic.

The organisation George Peabody effectively founded with that letter that he wrote on March 12, 1862 is today called, simply, The Peabody. Previously it was The Peabody Trust.

Stephen Howlett, the chief executive of the Peabody, doesn’t beat around the bush. He says, “George Peabody set the template for social housing not just in the UK but around the world.”

The timing could not have been better. London was in the grip of the railway craze. Lines and stations were everywhere displacing thousands of Londoners. Affordable housing was desperately needed.

That’s the big picture. Here are the takeaways. 1. Curiously, George Peabody himself never owned a house in London. 2. His was a classic rags to riches tale. He was born in 1795 in Massachusetts, in a little town called South Danvers. Today it’s known as Peabody, Massachusetts. He had English roots: Yorkshire on his mother’s side, Leicestershire on his father’s. The forbear on his father’s side had crossed the Atlantic in 1635. Bearing in mind that 1620 was the year of the Pilgrim fathers, the Peabodys were true blue American stock. But rich – or even modestly prosperous – they weren’t. George Peabody worked as a farmhand. He clerked in a store. He was a travelling salesman on horseback in Virginia. And then it happened. Peabody impressed a successful merchant of dry goods in Georgetown. The successful merchant had some money. The two of them went into business together. Money was made, the firm expanded. Before long Peabody was making business trips to Britain. He opened a counting-house, which became a bank. Then a merchant bank. And, well, soon enough he got to that stage where it was impossible for him not to make money – the stuff was pouring in. Unmarried – though he did have a mistress in Brighton who gave him a daughter – he had far more money than he needed, more money than he knew what to do with. Except he did know what to do with it. He started giving it away. On both sides of the Atlantic. In the land of his birth it went into libraries and educational institutions. Over here, it was housing. Though he had considered both drinking fountains and giving a significant financial boost to Lord Shaftesbury’s ragged schools. Shaftesbury convinced Peabody that the need for decent housing – model dwellings they were called – for the poor was more pressing. 3. Remember I’m setting out some takeaways here – I was intrigued to discover that Dr Gull of Jack the Ripper fame – if you don’t know the story you’ll have to go on the walk – was George Peabody’s physician. Mind you, Dr Gull was also the royal physician – which of course was why the Ripper book purporting to make a connection – via Dr Gull – between the royal family and Jack the Ripper became an overnight bestseller.

4. The point every guide makes – well, most every guide – is that George Peabody was the only American to be buried in Westminster Abbey. He was there a short while – because Peabody Massachusetts wanted him home. But he was so loved here this country wanted to honour him and the best way they could do that would to bury him, if only temporarily, in Westminster Abbey.

There’s something that can be added to that story, though. Something very telling. After Nelson’s, George Peabody’s funeral procession was the longest one London saw in the 19th century. Longer, bigger than Wellington’s. Bigger than Dickens’s. 

It’s said bigger than Queen Victoria’s, Ok,  strictly speaking Queen Victoria’s funeral procession, was in the 20th century. She died in 1901. But what’s a year or two against the general point. Thousands of Londoners lined the streets. What’s more, basically London shut down as a token of respect. And that wasn’t top-down – it wasn’t ordered. It just happened. It was spontaneous. It was Londoners – thousands of them – expressing their feelings, paying their respects for this much loved, munificent old American gentleman.

And all of that becomes even more telling when you remember that at the time – the second half of the 1860s – relations between this country and the United States were very strained indeed. There was a lot of bad blood. Why so? Because a British shipyard had built a couple of warships for the Confederacy that had sunk a lot of Northern shipping in the American Civil War. The North wasn’t best pleased. When the Civil War was over the victorious North leaned heavily, threateningly on this country. America, Americans, Washington DC wanted reparations. Britain’s response was “no chance, not on your life.” So there was a lot of ill will. But the death of this one American was not part of that equation – London and the U.K. was not happy with the US trying to throw its weight around, importuning, threateningly, for reparations, but it wasn’t going to let any of that have any bearing at all on its love for the kindly, munificent old gentleman from Peabody, Mass.

And for a fifth and final takeaway – and this one is surely food for thought – In our day Russian oligarchs have been readily invited into the heart of the British establishment. 160 years ago George Peabody was invited into the heart of the British establishment. You can draw your own conclusions. But I know for me, if I’ve only got one plaudit – one “good for you, you got it right” blue ribbon – and one booby prize – one “you should be hanging your heads in shame” red card…well, I know how I’d distribute them.

And that’s a wrap. Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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