New Englander George Peabody made the beginning of his fortune in Baltimore during the city's rapid growth as a key port and center of trade. In 1837, he moved to London where he directed his empire from the financial capital of the Victorian world until the end of his life.
The story of the founding of George Peabody and Co., one of the largest financial empires of the 19th century, which later became the House of Morgan, is intertwined with the development of the era's greatest technological and scientific ventures. Peabody amassed the capital needed to push the American railroads westward and was a director of the company that laid the first transatlanticcables.
As a youth of seventeen, George Peabody joined as a volunteer soldier when the British fleet was advancing on Washington. Ironically, years after enlisting to fight the British in the War of 1812, George Peabody became an unofficial diplomatic eminence in London, fostering commercial relations and political good will between America and the country in which he made his home.
In 1851, Britain mounted a Great Exhibition that would demonstrate England's place in the mercantile world. George Peabody, recognising the importance of his country making a good showing, put up his own funds to install the American exhibits. His investment paid off handsomely. Believing that business is often best transacted in pleasurable social circumstances, Peabody hosted a series of entertainments that created headlines in the London Press of the day.
In London, Peabody was part of a circle of like-minded illustrious reformers which included Lord Shaftesbury, William Cobbett, Richard Cobden, Angela Burdett-Coutts and Charles Dickens. Unlike most philanthropists of the period, however, Peabody's benefactions were not intended to promote religious beliefs. He clearly stated that his institutions were not to be used to nurture sectarian theology or political dissension.
The outbreak of the Civil War sharply divided the American community in London. While reformers stood firmly behind the Union, the majority of the British upper classes were sympathetic to the plight of the South. The emissaries dispatched to England by Abraham Lincoln received Peabody's help in securing Great Britain's continued support of the Union.
Horrified by the devastation of the South after the American Civil War, George Peabody made his single largest benefaction, The Southern Education Fund, to establish a public education system for the Southern states. Astonishingly for that era, Peabody insisted on providing educational opportunities for both races. A teacher's training college in Nashville, now part of Vanderbilt University, bears his name.
Peabody was as intent on expanding the intellectual horizons of America as he was its commercial and geographic frontiers. George Peabody recalled his Baltimore years with a special fondness. In 1857, he founded a multi-faceted institute to promote the cultural life of the city that is now known internationally for its conservatory of music. George Peabody also directly inspired his Baltimore friends and business associates - Johns Hopkins, Enoch Pratt and William and Henry Walters - to found the Johns Hopkins University, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Walters Art Gallery, respectively.
Peabody maintained a strong interest in science and technology. He provided funding for the expedition that searched for explorer Sir John Franklin, lost in the Arctic ice. Peabody was the driving force behind the laying of the first transatlantic cables. He was directly involved with the expansion of the West through his railroad interests and, remarkably for his time, he was keenly aware of its devastating effects for Native Americans. His concern prompted the establishment of a museum and professorship of American archaeology and ethnology at Harvard University as well as a professorship in palaeontology (the first in the western hemisphere) and a museum of natural history at Yale.
Peabody's most dramatic benefaction in London was the establishment of the Peabody Trust to house the city's poor, which exists to this day, now housing over 27,000 people. The then Prince of Wales unveiled a statue of George Peabody on Threadneedle Street in the heart of London's financial district to commemorate the event.
In 1862, he founded the Peabody Donation Fund, providing �500,000 for "the construction of such improved dwellings for the poor as may combine in the utmost possible degree the essentials of healthfulness, comfort, social enjoyment and economy" for Londoners, a gift acknowledged by Queen Victoria as "wholly without parallel".
When Peabody died in 1869, the carriages of the Queen and the Prince of Wales followed the hearse to Westminster Abbey, where Gladstone was among the mourners. Some weeks later, the newest vessel in her Majesty's Navy, the Monarch, carried George Peabody to his final resting place near Danvers, Massachusetts.
Today, there are over twenty organisations, located in both London and America, which owe their existence to George Peabody and reflect his varied interests in the fields of housing, education, music, science and merchant banking. Accorded many honours, George Peabody was the first American to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London.Text Source Peabody Website