Peabody, George (DNB00)


PEABODY, GEORGE (1795–1869), philanthropist, was born in Danvers, Massachusetts, on 18 Feb. 1795. His ancestors were of a Leicestershire family, one of whom, Francis Paybody, sailed for New England in 1635. His parents, who came of an old puritan stock, were poor, and at the age of eleven the boy was apprenticed to a Danvers grocer. In 1811 he became clerk in a dry goods store, which his brother David had opened in Newburyport; but a fire burned the premises to the ground, and in May of the following year he went to Georgetown, Columbia, to manage a business for an uncle. Shortly afterwards Peabody joined the volunteer company of artillery raised in Georgetown to oppose the progress of the British fleet, which had entered the Potomac, and was threatening Washington. But on the withdrawal of the fleet he returned to his uncle, and remained with him for two years, when, fearing financial complications, he deemed it expedient to seek other employment.

In 1814 the foundation of his future prosperity was laid, when, in conjunction with Elisha Riggs, who supplied the money, he opened a wholesale dry goods warehouse at Georgetown. Next year the house was established in Baltimore, and in 1822 branches were opened in New York and Philadelphia. In connection with this business Peabody first came to England in 1827, and after several such visits took up his abode permanently in London ten years later. Meanwhile Mr. Riggs had retired, and Peabody became senior partner in 1829. In 1843 he withdrew from the firm of Peabody, Riggs & Co., and began business in London as a merchant and banker. He was thus engaged when he died, at the house of a friend in Eaton Square, on 4 Nov. 1869. His body, after lying for a month in Westminster Abbey, was removed to Portsmouth in December, was taken to America on board the Monarch, specially granted for the purpose by the queen, and was buried at Danvers on 8 Feb. 1870.

Peabody is justly esteemed as a public-minded citizen and humane philanthropist. Throughout his life he was a zealous American, and his first great public service was rendered to Maryland, the state where he lived. During a visit to London on business in 1835, at a time when Maryland was near bankruptcy, he negotiated a state loan of 1,600,000l. For this he refused the monetary reward to which he was entitled, but received the special thanks of the state assembly in 1848. Again in 1837, when American credit in England was greatly shaken, he freely used his influence and name to restore confidence; and when the United States Congress refused to support the American section of the industrial exhibition of 1851, and the English press were commenting unfavourably on the American exhibits, Peabody promptly paid for arranging and decorating the section. With a view to promoting friendly relations between England and America, he made his London residence the meeting-ground for English and American public men, and his Fourth of July dinners were important political functions. Another of his earlier services to the honour of America was his contribution of 2,000l., which enabled Dr. Elisha Kane, in 1852, to fit up his expedition in search of Franklin. From this circumstance Peabody Bay has its name.

But it is as the friend of education and the reformer of the homes of the working classes that Peabody is best known. In 1852, when his native town was celebrating the centenary of its corporate existence, he gave 6,000l., afterwards increased to 50,000l., to found an educational institute; on the occasion of his visit to the United States in 1857 he founded the Peabody Institute at Baltimore with a gift of 60,000l., afterwards increased to 200,000l.; and when he revisited America in 1866 he gave Harvard University a sum of 30,000l. to found an institute of archæology, and Yale received a similar gift from him in aid of physical science teaching. In the same year he gave 420,000l. for negro education in the south, and three years afterwards increased the sum to 700,000l. The presentation of 150,000l. to the city of London in 1862, to be spent for the benefit of the poor, was the beginning of a series of gifts amounting in all to 500,000l., from which the ‘Peabody Dwellings' have been built. The first block of these buildings was opened in 1864 in Spitalfields; others quickly followed in Chelsea, Bermondsey, Islington, and Shadwell.

Although many public honours were offered to him, he accepted few. In 1867 the United States Congress voted him its thanks and conferred a gold medal on him; and in the same year he accepted an address from the working men of London. The queen offered him a baronetcy and the grand cross of the Bath, both of which he declined. During Peabody's absence in America in 1869 the Prince of Wales unveiled a bronze statue of him by Story, erected on the east side of the Royal Exchange, and the city of London conferred its freedom upon him. Oxford University also made him a D.C.L. in 1807. The centenary of his birthday was commemorated in Newburyport on 18 Feb. 1895.

[Times, 5 Nov. 1869; Appleton's Journal, 21 Aug. 1869; Winthorp's Eulogy on Peabody; H. E. Fox-Bourne's English Merchants; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886, iii. 1082.]

J. R. M.