Who was George Peabody?
George Peabody was an American-British entrepreneur and philanthropist often referred to as the “father of modern philanthropy” for his relentless commitment towards giving back to the society. Equally well-known and respected both in the United States and Britain, he established several charitable initiatives including the Peabody Trust, the Peabody Institute and George Peabody Library. Born into a large family in Massachusetts, he endured a lot of hardships during his boyhood. Hailing from a family of modest means, he could not receive much formal education and was apprenticed at the age of 11 to the owner of a general store. His early struggles taught him to be hard working, determined and thrifty with money. He was an intelligent boy and learned the basics of conducting business pretty quickly. Within a few years of completing his apprenticeship he became a partner in a wholesale dry goods business and was very successful. Eventually he ventured into a much lucrative career as a merchant banker and before long amassed a great fortune. As he neared his retirement, he decided to give away a vast portion of his personal wealth to charitable causes. It is estimated that he gave over $8 million of his fortunes to philanthropic causes, especially those concerning education as it was something which he himself had been deprived of as a young boy.
Childhood & Early Life
George Peabody was born on February 18, 1795, in Massachusetts, U.S. to Thomas Peabody and Judith Dodge as one of their eight children. His family had Puritan ancestors but was poor.
His parents were unable to provide the children with good education owing to the family’s dire financial situation. Thus George went to school for just four years before dropping out.
At the age of 11 he was apprenticed to the owner of a general store. A great tragedy befell the family when his father died in 1811. Now George and his brothers were faced with the challenge of earning enough money to take care of not just themselves, but also their mother and sisters. It was a very difficult period for the young boy, yet he toiled on with single-minded determination.
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Peabody moved to Washington, D.C., and opened a dry goods store. He served in the army when the War of 1812 broke out. There he met an older merchant named Elisha Riggs Sr. who was greatly impressed by the young Peabody’s determination and entrepreneurial spirit.
Riggs asked Peabody to become his business partner, and in 1814 the two men established the wholesale dry goods firm of Riggs, Peabody & Co., specializing in importing dry goods from Britain. The business proved to be very successful and within years Peabody was able to pay off his father’s debts and was in a position to provide a more comfortable life for his family.
The business continued to grow and prosper, and by 1822, the company had established branches in New York and Philadelphia. The senior partner Riggs retired in 1829 and the firm was renamed Peabody, Riggs & Co., with the names reversed as Peabody became the senior partner.
During the late 1820s he regularly travelled to London to negotiate the sale of American cotton in Lancashire and established many influential connections in England.
In 1835, he established the banking firm of George Peabody & Co. in London which offered securities in American enterprises—railroads, canals—to British and European investors.
He found unprecedented success as a merchant banker within a period of two years and moved to London in 1837. Over the ensuing years the bank rose to become the premier American house in London.
In 1854 he entered into a partnership with Junius Spencer Morgan to form Peabody, Morgan & Co. The two men worked together until Peabody’s retirement in 1864.
George Peabody was a highly successful businessman and merchant banker, but he is best remembered as the founder of the Peabody Trust which is one of London's oldest and largest housing associations with around 27,000 properties. The primary objective of the trust was to provide housing of a decent quality to London’s poor and needy citizens.
George Peabody had struggled a lot in his early years. Thus he could empathize with the underprivileged and was totally dedicated to giving back to the society. In April 1862, Peabody established the Peabody Trust in London to provide housing for the poor and in 1867 he founded the Peabody Education Fund to provide quality education to underprivileged children and young adults.
Awards & Achievements
He was awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal in 1867. The same year, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Harvard University, and an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law by Oxford University.
The town of South Danvers, Massachusetts, was renamed the City of Peabody, Massachusetts, in his honor in 1868.
In 1900, Peabody became one of the first 29 honorees to be elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Personal Life & Legacy
George Peabody was briefly engaged in 1838 but the marriage never took place. It was later rumored that he had a mistress in England with whom he had a daughter.
He died in London on November 4, 1869, aged 74. In accordance with his will, his remains were transported to the place of his birth and he was laid to rest in Harmony Grove Cemetery, in Salem, Massachusetts.