On 23 July 1869, the Prince of Wales unveiled a statue of George Peabody (1795-1869), the American merchant banker and philanthropist. It stands at the north-east corner of the Royal Exchange in what was once St. Benet Fink’s Churchyard. It was designed by William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), a fellow American who spent most of his time in Rome. Story was chosen after a design competition and was paid £2,300 for the work. Sir Benjamin Phillips, the chairman of the Peabody Memorial Committee stated that the statue was a symbol of the gratitude of the English people to Peabody for all he had done for the poor of London.
Peabody had been born in New England in a time of rapid growth. He started collecting his fortune in Baltimore and did much to promote the railway lines to the West. In the Civil War, he acted as an unofficial diplomat to pave the way for Lincoln’s side, because he was a fervent abolitionist. After the War, he donated a large sum of money to set up an education system in the Southern States for both black and white people. Rather than collecting books, art or other things to be stored for private delight, he preferred “practical philanthropy as an investment for the sake of happiness”.(1)
In 1837 Peabody moved to London where he continued in business and also to share his wealth with those he thought needed it most. In a letter to his Trustees, published by The Times on Wednesday 26 March 1862, he announced the establishment of the Peabody Donation Fund to “relieve the poor and needy of this great city, and to promote their comfort and happiness”. The fund started with £150,000, but was increased by Peabody later in life and also by a bequest in his will, so that by 1873 when the bequest was made available to the trustees, the capital had grown to £500,000. The main activity of the fund was – and still is – to provide decent housing. The first Peabody Estate opened in 1864 in Spitalfields.(2)
Unfortunately, due to illness, Peabody could not be present at the unveiling of his statue. He had gone to America, according to the Illustrated Police News
“very unexpectedly, and without letting his departure to be known beyond a narrow circle of his friends. But the fact of his embarkation and of his extremely feeble health, found its way into the English journals, and soon came to the knowledge of her Majesty, who, with, that goodness of heart that has always characterised her […] gave immediate expression to her feelings in the following autograph note […] Windsor Caste, June 20, 1869: The Queen is very sorry that Mr. Peabody’s sudden departure has made it impossible for her to see him before he left England, and she is concerned to hear that he has gone in ill health. She now writes him a line to express her hope that he may return to this country quite recovered, and that she may have the opportunity of which she has now been deprived, of seeing him and offering him her personal thanks for all he has done for the people.”(3)
Peabody did come back to England, but he did not recover his health and died on the 4th of November that same year at Sir Curtis Lampson’s residence at 80 Eaton Square where a blue plaque can be seen on the wall.
It had been his wish to be buried in the tomb he had built for his mother in Danvers, but that did not happen before a service was held in Westminster Abbey attended by representatives of the American government, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. The funeral procession from Eaton Square also included the carriages of the Queen and the Prince of Wales decked out in mourning. Peabody’s remains were transferred to H.M.S. Monarch on the 26th to be transported to the U.S. Most newspapers carried a story about Peabody after his death, but the Illustrated Police News and the Illustrated London News also included an illustration of the service in Westminster Abbey.
Peabody’s name is still found in combination with numerous social and philanthropic activities both in London and in America, some of which are known under various names, although they are in fact one and the same, but they are all part of the Peabody organisation, now known simply as Peabody: Peabody Dwellings, Peabody Estate, Peabody Buildings, Peabody Trust, Peabody Institute, Peabody Academy, Peabody Museum, Peabody Library and the Peabody Conservatoire.
I like to thank Christine Wagg of Peabody for her helpful comments.
(1) Illustrated London News, 20 November 1869, Obituary.
(2) The website of the Peabody organisation can be found here.
(3) The Illustrated Police News, issue 285, Saturday, 31 July 1869.