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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.