George Peabody; Victorian Munificent Banker

On February 29th in 1864 the first Peabody Trust homes were opened in Commercial Street, Spitalfields, London intended for the “artisan and labouring poor”.  The Peabody Trust was set up in 1862 with a significant donation of £150,000 (raised to a massive £500,000 in 1869) by American-born banker and philanthropist George Peabody who by that time was based in London.  Considering various options for the alleviation of poverty, Peabody elected for a Model Dwellings Company, one of a group of private companies whose aim was to improve the housing conditions of the poor while still operating as a commercial entity with a competitive rate of investment return. In all, George Peabody is estimated to have donated over $8 million  in benefactions. Cited as a possible future US president, such was his reputation in London that upon his death in 1869 he was briefly laid to rest in Westminster Abbey before his body was returned to America in accordance with his will.

Over 150 years later The Peabody Trust (today a charity simply called Peabody) is still going strong and together with the provision of homes, is active as a regeneration agency. It stated aims include the provision of a good home, a real sense of purpose and a strong sense of community. Peabody now has 27,000 homes with 80,000 residents and a mix of tenures including social housing, leasehold, shared ownership, supported housing, key-worker accommodation and commercial units. It also sells homes to support the provision of private affordable housing and has a range of training and community involvement activities. Significantly, two of the eleven person Peabody board are residents thus allowing a significant input by its tenants, although this is far from perfect as a look at the unofficial residents forum will confirm.

At the time of George Peabody, Victorian Britain had no welfare state and partly as a consequence, taxes were much lower than today. But with present government intention to force down taxes while pushing ahead with further austerity these times are returning. Unfortunately large multinationals and banks are behaving in the opposite manner to Peabody, dodging taxes without a consequent major investment in communities. Instead we have hugely wealthy individuals hiding their money in tax havens, a lost productive investment which impoverishes all of us.

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