Generous Christians: George Peabody
George Peabody (1795-1869) was an American-British entrepreneur who felt that riches were a gift from heaven to be used for the good of the world and not to be laid away. He founded the Peabody Trust in Britain and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and was responsible for many other charitable initiatives. The Peabody Trust continues to this day and houses 50,000 people across London.
Born in Massachusetts, George Peabody was the third of eight children. With only four years of education he started as an apprentice in a dry goods store. When he was just 16, his father died and Peabody took responsibility for his mother, his younger siblings and the large mortgage on the family home. His business acumen soon became apparent and within a few years he had earned enough money to pay off his father's mortgage.
As a young man, Peabody set up a business importing and exporting goods between the USA and Britain. As the business grew he took the opportunity to build up the trade in cotton between the United States and Lancashire. In 1837 he took up permanent residence in London where he left behind his import-export business career to concentrate on merchant banking. In partnership with Junius Spencer Morgan, his investment banking company, George Peabody & Co., ultimately went on to become Morgan Grenfell, which survived as a leading investment bank until its sale to Deutsche Bank in 1999.
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. 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. 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.
Despite his immense wealth, Peabody never actually owned a home in London, preferring to rent apartments or stay with friends. He lived modestly and often went without a servant when travelling.
When he died, his body was interred in the nave of Westminster 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, in Peabody's own words:
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"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."