Monday, March 7, 2011

March 26, 1862 --- An American Benefactor

George Peabody, whose London banking house was among the most successful in the City, announces in The Times the creation of a fund to "ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy in this great Metropolis." Born in Massachusetts, Peabody had worked in London for a quarter-century and says he acts in partial repayment for the "courtesy, kindness and confidence" he has received from the British people. In an accompanying editorial, The Times praises Peabody, noting that "he that gives during life shows an earnestness in well-doing that is beyond suspicion." Even the Queen responds with gratitude for his "more than princely munificence."

The initial investment is £150,000, soon growing to £500,000 or $2,500,000. Trustees decide the money should be spent on housing, Lord Shaftesbury noting "the impossibility of doing people any good till they can dwell better." Applicants for lodging must be Londoners of good moral character, otherwise Peabody insists on absolutely no religious or political bias.

The first of the "Peabody Buildings" opened in Spitalfields in 1864. Behavior standards are strict; a visiting reporter noted:  "As regards the moral conduct of the tenantry, the superintendant reports that habitual drunkenness is unknown, and intoxication infrequent; and where the latter does occur, to the annoyance of others, it is judiciously dealt with by giving notice to the offender, that, in the event of its recurrence, he must prepare to leave."  Despite the salubrity of the surroundings, a contemporary observer thought the square blocks of flats bore a "prison like appearance."' Modern critics have been no less unkind. Pevsner calls a surviving Peabody estate in Chelsea "remorselessly rectilinear." A guidebook, while noting that the interiors have been modernized, describes the exteriors as "beyond visual redemption."

At his death in 1869, Peabody was afforded a rare tribute for a foreigner, a funeral at Westminster Abbey. His body was then carried aboard one of Her Majesty's warships to Massachusetts for burial.

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