1. Built environment
February 28, 2017updated 04 Aug 2023 8:32am

It's been housing Londoners for 150 years – but what is the Peabody Trust?

By Rachel Holdsworth

Editor’s note: this article was amended on 1 March to reflect the fact Peabody was to merge with Family Mosaic.

Wander around London for any length of time, and you’ll soon stumble across Victorian mansion blocks, set around pleasant courtyards, in prime locations. We’re talking the heart of Westminster, Covent Garden, Victoria, Farringdon: the kind of places normal people have given up thinking they’ll ever be able to afford.

Look closely and you’ll notice signs fixed to the walls saying “Peabody Trust”. A quick Google later, and you’ll discover that Peabody is a housing association. How the hell did they end up with all these great buildings?

To explain, we have to go back to the mid 19th century and one of the great Victorian philanthropists. George Peabody was an American, born in Massachusetts to a poor family, and didn’t get much education. However, after being taken on by a businessman uncle, Peabody amassed a fortune in finance. (His business partner was Junius Spencer Morgan, father of J.P., and their joint business would eventually morph into JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, among others.)

Peabody didn’t hoard his wealth, and gave tens of thousands of dollars to found educational and cultural institutes in America. Other generous donations included $10,000 to retrieve the remains of Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin’s crew after a tragic expedition to the Arctic, and £50 to help a Hungarian revolutionary escape prison.

By the late 1850s Peabody was slowing, down and starting to think about giving what his biographer Franklin Parker calls “a lasting memento of his gratitude” to the city he’d made his home. He toyed with the idea of giving London a network of drinking fountains with purified water, but this was the time when Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley and John Ruskin, among others, were agitating for social and housing reform.

It was Lord Shaftesbury – he of the not-actually-Eros-statue – who, in January 1859, brought up the state of London’s slums, and ensured that Peabody’s imagination was caught by the idea of model housing. To quote Parker:

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“Education continued to be his greatest concern and interest, but he was aware that no children or adults anywhere could possibly be receptive to education while they lived in such slums. For only clean, self-respecting living conditions would combat filth, disease, the evils of unhealthy proximity in cramped quarters, and the apathetic stupor of these slum dwellers… Without respectable, clean homes even intelligent boys and girls would remain stupid and illiterate all their lives.”

It’s perhaps not how we would phrase the benefits of decent housing these days, but that’s the mindset of the Victorian reformers for you.

Charity at three per cent

In March 1862 Peabody set up a trust and gave it £150,000. He increased this to £350,000, before his death in 1869, with a further £150,000 in his will.

The first of his new housing projects opened in Commercial Street, Spitalfields, in February 1864. Other sites followed, including one on a slum behind Westminster Abbey known as “the devil’s acre”. It’s now Abbey Orchard Street. It’s really nice.

The Peabody Estate at Farringdon. Image: Peabody Trust. 

By 1882 the fund owned 3,500 homes and housed 14,600 people. By 1914 it had 6,400 homes, and by 1939 more than 8,000. To get one of the homes, you had to meet Peabody’s two founding tenets:

  • be Londoners “by birth or residence”;
  • be poor, but “have moral character and be a good member of society”.

Then, there was a third tenet which made clear that nobody should be excluded on the basis of religion or politics.

These days, the way to get one of Peabody’s 29,000 London homes is to be on your local council’s waiting list.

Not everyone’s a fan. Paul Barker, writing in the June 1995 edition of the Royal Society of Arts Journal, called the Farringdon estate

“one of the grimmest monuments to Victorian benevolence… You can still almost always tell a Peabody estate when you see one. They usually keep what Nikolaus Pevsner called their ‘crushingly unattractive, vaguely Italianate’ style, rather like mid-Victorian penitentiaries.”

That’s a bit harsh. Yes, there’s a faintly institutional air, but that’s possibly down to a lack of balconies, or bay windows, or architraves. The buildings are made from honey-coloured brick, with patterns picked out in a lighter hue. It’s not fashionable or modern, but it’s certainly not grim.

Barker also notes that

 “It was the shortcomings of enterprises like Peabody’s, and other housing charities, which routinely sought a return on their capital (‘charity at three per cent’, one contemporary called it), that caused legislation to be passed to allow local authorities to start building on their own account.”

The current chief executive of Peabody, Stephen Howlett, confirms that George Peabody expected the trust to match returns that he would have got from other investments, in the region of three per cent. He wanted his organisation to still exist in 100 years: to do that,it had to provide for its own future.

And it’s worked. “Last year, for every pound of public money we spent £15 of our own money,” Howlett confirms.

Homes for the future

The money is being spent on building: 1,080 homes in 2016, with a third being for sale, a third for shared ownership and a third for low cost rent. The tenancies are secure – some tenants on older contracts are able to pass their homes to family members when they die – and the average rent is £121 a week.

Peabody manages this through a combination of buying land (increasingly moving east, where land is cheaper), being given land by councils and by working with other developers to meet their Section 106 obligations. Unlike councils, the trust is able to borrow against its considerable assets and income stream, as well as having the experience baked in. “We’ve got the teams to [build], we’ve got the routes into funding, we do a lot of work with private funders,” says Howlett.

Peabody will also play a role in the redevelopment of Thamesmead. It’s secured permission for 1,500 homes near the Crossrail station at Abbey Wood, with an application for a further 1,500 homes on Woolwich Arsenal’s old pitch in Plumstead going in later this year.

“What we’re developing, you might call them the mansion blocks of the 21st century,” says Howlett. “They’re five to eight storeys, bigger accommodation than the mansion blocks of the Victorian era, good outside facilities, modern courtyards.”

Further down the line, when the DLR arrives in Thamesmead as promised by Sadiq Khan, Howlett says Peabody will be able to create a new riverside town with 20,000 homes. “We own the land,” he continues. “We’re custodians of it but we’ll work with developers and funders over the next 25 years to make it happen. It’s fulfilling George Peabody’s vision for the 21st century.”

Peabody announced in December that it was merging with another housing association, the 26,000 home Family Mosaic. But the combined 55,000 home group will retain the former’s name.

This is perhaps little wonder: there are other, larger housing associations, but none with the history, visible identity or philosophical tenets of the Peabody Group. What would it take for a modern philanthropist to replicate George Peabody’s gift in 2017, to create a legacy that will be written about in 2172?

“If you built what George Peabody’s money built in Victorian London, you’d probably need £1bn with London land values today,” says Howlett.

That’s right: one billion pounds. So unless you know Mark Zuckerberg, or someone a bit less loaded but wanting to create a housing legacy in Middlesbrough or Carlisle, Peabody’s use of Victorian principles to alleviate a very modern social crisis will remain an outlier in philanthropy.

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