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

The Peabody Estate at Abbey Orchard Street. Image: Peabody Trust.

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:

“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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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.