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An American philanthropist in London

US entrepreneur George Peabody invested his fortune into making life better for the capital’s poor and the housing association he founded continues his good work today, says Simon White

Many think housing associations are a recent idea so you may be surprised to learn that the oldest active one in London was founded in 1862. It still manages over 20,000 properties spread across most of the capital’s boroughs and serves over 50,000 people. It is called the Peabody Trust and has a remarkable history.

George Peabody was a US philanthropist and entrepreneur. He made his fortune in Baltimore during its rapid growth as a port and centre of trade in the 1820s.

In 1837 he moved his business empire to London and in 1862 founded the Peabody Trust by donating £500,000 to improve the lot of London’s poor.

In contemporary terms this is the equivalent of someone handing over £60m of their own money to fund a housing scheme with no profitable returns.

At the time Queen Victoria acknowledged the gift’s generosity and she was right.

In 1863 the trust built its first buildings near Commercial Street in Spitalfields, east London. They included an area for children to play plus communal laundry and toilet facilities. The rent was set at two shillings and sixpence a week for a single room, four shillings for two rooms and five shillings for three rooms.

The first scheme was immensely popular and over the next 40 years the Peabody Trust built many similar developments, most of which survive today.

As an indication of Peabody’s lasting influence on the capital, a glance at the index of a London A-Z reveals 28 references to him, with no less than 15 Peabody estates dotted throughout London.

The best preserved one is Peabody Square at the southern end of Blackfriars Road.

Here you will find solid red brick mansion blocks that still house London’s poor just as Peabody intended 150 years ago.

As a measure of the high regard Peabody was held in by the British people, he was made a Freeman of London, the first American to receive the honour.

Only Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Western Allied forces in World War II and later US President, has been similarly honoured since.

When he died in 1869 the Prince of Wales unveiled a statue of Peabody on Threadneedle Street (pictured), which still stands today.


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