About George Peabody
George Peabody (/ˈpiːbədi/PEE-bə-dee; February 18, 1795 – November 4, 1869) was an American-British entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the Peabody Trust in Britain and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and was responsible for many other charitable initiatives.
Peabody was born in what was then South Danvers (now Peabody), Massachusetts. His family had Puritan antecedents in the state, but was poor, and as one of eight children George suffered some deprivations during his upbringing: these factors influenced his later philanthropic tendencies. His birthplace at 205 Washington Street in Peabody is now the George Peabody House Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving his life and legacy. In 1816, he moved to Baltimore, where he would live for the next 20 years.
Peabody first visited the UK in 1827 for business reasons, and over the next decade made four more trans-Atlantic trips, establishing a branch office in Liverpool, and later the banking firm of George Peabody & Co. in London. In 1837 he took up permanent residence in London, remaining there for the rest of his life.
In February 1867, on one of several return visits to the United States, and at the height of his financial success, Peabody's name was suggested by Francis Preston Blair as a possible Secretary of the Treasury in the cabinet of President Andrew Johnson. At about the same time, his name was also mentioned in newspapers as a future presidential candidate. Peabody described the presidential suggestion as a "kind and complimentary reference", but considered that he was too old for either office.
Although he was briefly engaged in 1838 (and later allegedly had a mistress, who bore him a daughter, in Brighton), Peabody never married. He died in London on November 4, 1869, aged 74, at the house of his friend Sir Curtis Miranda Lampson. At the request of the Dean of Westminster and with the approval of the Queen, Peabody was given a temporary burial in Westminster Abbey.
His will provided that he be buried in the town of his birth, Danvers, Massachusetts, and Prime Minister Gladstone arranged for Peabody's remains to be returned to America on HMS Monarch, the newest and largest ship in the Royal Navy. He was laid to rest in Harmony Grove Cemetery, in Salem, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1870. Peabody's death and the pair of funerals were international news, with hundreds of people participating in the ceremonies and thousands attending.
While serving as a volunteer in the War of 1812, Peabody met Elisha Riggs, who, in 1814, provided financial backing for what became the wholesale dry goods firm of Riggs, Peabody & Co., specializing in importing dry goods from Britain. Branches were opened in New York and Philadelphia in 1822. Riggs retired in 1829, and the firm became Peabody, Riggs & Co., with Peabody as senior partner.
Peabody first visited the UK in 1827 to purchase wares, and to negotiate the sale of American cotton in Lancashire. He subsequently opened a branch office in Liverpool, and British business began to play an increasingly important role in his affairs. He appears to have had some help in establishing himself from William and James Brown, sons of another successful Baltimore businessman, the Irishman Alexander Brown, who managed their father's Liverpool office, opened in 1810.
In 1835, Peabody established the banking firm of George Peabody & Co. in London. It was founded to meet the increasing demand for securities issued by the American railroads, and – although Peabody continued to deal in dry goods and other commodities – he increasingly focused his attentions on merchant banking. The bank rose to become the premier American house in London. Peabody took Junius Spencer Morgan (father of J. P. Morgan) into partnership in 1854 to form Peabody, Morgan & Co., and the two financiers worked together until Peabody’s retirement in 1864. Peabody frequently entertained and provided letters of introduction for American businessmen visiting London, and became known for the Anglo-American dinners he hosted in honor of American diplomats and other worthies, and in celebration of the Fourth of July. In 1851, when the US Congress refused to support the American section at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, Peabody advanced £3000 to improve the exhibit and uphold the reputation of the United States. During the run on the banks of 1857, Peabody had to ask the Bank of England for a loan of £800,000: although rivals tried to force the bank out of business, it managed to emerge with its credit intact.
Following this crisis, Peabody began to retire from active business, and in 1864 retired fully (taking with him much of his capital, amounting to over $10,000,000, or £2,000,000). Peabody, Morgan & Co. then took the name J.S. Morgan & Co.. The former UK merchant bank Morgan Grenfell (now part of Deutsche Bank), international universal bank JPMorgan Chase and investment bank Morgan Stanley can all trace their roots to Peabody's bank.
Peabody is the acknowledged father of modern philanthropy, having established the practice later followed by Johns Hopkins, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates. In the United States, his philanthropy largely took the form of educational initiatives. In Britain, it took the form of providing housing for the poor.
In America, Peabody founded and supported numerous institutions in New England and elsewhere. At the close of the American Civil War, he established the Peabody Education Fund to "encourage the intellectual, moral, and industrial education of the destitute children of the Southern States." His grandest beneficence, however, was to Baltimore; the city in which he achieved his earliest success.
In April 1862, Peabody established the Peabody Donation Fund, which continues to this day as the Peabody Trust, to provide housing of a decent quality for the "artisans and labouring poor of London". The trust's first dwellings, designed by H.A. Darbishire in a Jacobethan style, were opened in Commercial Street, Spitalfields in February 1864.
Peabody's philanthropy was recognised and on 10 July 1862 he was made a Freeman of the City of London, the motion being proposed by Charles Reed in recognition of his financial contribution to London's poor. He became the first of only two Americans (the other being Dwight D. Eisenhower) to have received the award. A statue of him was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1869 next to the Royal Exchange, London, on the site of the former church of St Benet Fink (demolished 1842-6).
One of his longtime business associates and friends was renowned banker and art patron William Wilson Corcoran.
George Peabody is known to have provided benefactions of well over $8 million, most of them in his own lifetime. Among the list are included:
1852 The Peabody Institute (now the Peabody Institute Library), Peabody, Mass: $217,000
1856 The Peabody Institute, Danvers, Mass (now the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers): $100,000
1857 The Peabody Institute (now the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University), Baltimore: $1,400,000
1862 The Peabody Donation Fund, London: $2,500,000
1866 The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University: $150,000
1866 The Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University: $150,000
1867 The Peabody Academy of Science, Salem, Mass: $140,000
1867 The Peabody Institute, Georgetown, District of Columbia: $15,000 (today the Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch, DC Public Library).
1867 Peabody Education Fund: $2,000,000
1875 George Peabody College for Teachers, now the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. The funding came from the Peabody Education Fund
1866 The Georgetown Peabody Library, the public library of Georgetown, Massachusetts
1866 The Thetford Public Library, the public library of Thetford, Vermont: $5,000
1901 The Peabody Memorial Library, Sam Houston State University, Texas
Recognition and commemoration
In 1862, Peabody was made a Freeman of the City of London.
On March 16, 1867, he was awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal.
Also in 1867, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Harvard University, and an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law by Oxford University.
In 1869, the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN, was named in his memory.
The town of South Danvers, Massachusetts, changed its name in 1868 to The City of Peabody, Massachusetts, in honor of its favorite son.
A statue sculpted by William Wetmore Story stands next to the Royal Exchange in the City of London, unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 1869: Peabody himself was too unwell to attend the ceremony, and died less than four months later. A replica of the same statue, erected in 1890, stands next to the Peabody Institute, in Mount Vernon Park, part of the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1900, Peabody was one of the first 29 honorees to be elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, located on what was then the campus of New York University (and is now that of Bronx Community College), at University Heights, New York.