Philanthropist, Industrialist, and Merchant Banker: George Peabody, his life, his love and his legacy to the homeless poor of 19th Century Clerkenwell.

Museum of the Order of St John Judi McGinley, Museum Assistant

Many would describe modern day Clerkenwell as a colourful, vibrant and trendy location, after all its an area peppered with fancy restaurants and bars, quirky pop up shops and boutique hotels. I think it would be safe to conclude that Clerkenwell is definitely the place to be and be seen.  But it would also be fair to say that over the years, Clerkenwell has had a somewhat chequered past.

During the 19th century social conditions in Clerkenwell and indeed many other parts of London were pretty desperate for large sections of the community as swathes of Londoners were living in abject poverty, which is difficult to envisage considering that the 1850s were a time of real prosperity for Britain. For a start, the British Empire had expanded to cover one fifth of the surface of the globe, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and was producing impressive innovations which were making a large number of manufactures and  industrialists extremely wealthy,  while 1851 was to witness the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park which proved to be an excellent platform  for Britain to showcase her industrial clout.



                                                 The Opening of the Great Exhibition. 

 Coloured lithograph, 1851, Ackermann (printer), V&A.

So on the face of it Britain was in great shape! It had a steady supply of coal and steam power to operate factory machinery, and as the leading colonial power it also had vast quantities of raw materials at its disposal. However, the 19th century was also to witness a huge growth in the population of Great Britain which was possibly due to a wide range of factors such as families becoming larger, more children surviving infancy and people living longer. In addition to this, Great Britain  also  experienced a large influx of Irish immigrants who were fleeing  poverty, hunger and mass unemployment as a result of the potato famine.

By the close of the 19th century there were three times more people living in Britain than there were at the beginning of the century and this increase meant that there was insufficient housing to meet the population explosion which resulted in swathes of Londoners living in cramped and filthy conditions or simply becoming homeless.

It was also clear that the Industrial Revolution had indirectly contributed in perpetuating these substandard living conditions that the vast majority of factory workers had to endure. A large number of these workers and their families had been drawn away from their homes in the countryside to cities like London where they could find employment in these brand spanking new factories, but low wages meant that they were unable to afford transportation to their places of work and consequently had no option but to reside in slum accommodation located near these factories.

Traditionally Clerkenwell had been a centre for small-scale artisan commerce but the Industrial Revolution  pushed a large number of artisan crafts  into decline and these were being replaced by larger industrial enterprises so that by the mid 19th century, Clerkenwell had become a diversified industrial, engineering and manufacturing area which was to witness some major innovations in infrastructure which  included the creation of the Farringdon Metropolitan Railway station in 1863 and the construction of Clerkenwell Road in 1878.

In order to carry out these projects, slum clearance was essential but unfortunately no new homes were created to rehouse the tenants that had been evicted from the slum housing. It is believed that over 56,000 people were displaced by London’s railway schemes between 1854 and 1884 and a large proportion of these were as a result of the Farringdon Railway project. This of course meant that homelessness became a major problem for the area.

For a large number of London’s poor, sleeping rough was the only option. In addition to parks and public gardens, homeless men, women and children could often be found sleeping in churchyards, doorways, on steps and in other public areas while some individuals could be found sleeping in the recesses of London Bridge.  Those who were able to afford it, could avoid  sleeping rough by finding a ‘bed’ for the night. Mass destitution in 19th century  London meant that there were a large number of refuges, lodging houses and of course the dreaded workhouses, and Clerkenwell  had its fair share of these miserable institutions which included the Field Lane Ragged school for pauper children which doubled up as a night shelter for pauper men and boys.



Paupers who were ‘lucky’ enough to live in rented accommodation were housed in filthy, cramped and overcrowded tenements which were often damp, dilapidated, rat infested and heaving with fleas, bedbugs and lice.


Lodging House in Field Lane Clerkenwell. Circa 19th Century. 

 (Wellcome Library collection).

George Peabody was a wealthy American philanthropist from Massachusetts, who had come from humble beginnings. Being born into a poor family meant that he had undergone a limited amount of education, although he did not allow this to hold him back as he eventually became a successful industrialist,  making a name for himself in dry goods and textiles.

In 1837 Peabody arrived in Britain to seek further fortune in banking and within a few years had established George Peabody and Company and was now a phenomenally wealthy merchant and  banker who used a large proportion of  his immense wealth to fund philanthropic initiatives.

A statue of George Peabody located at Threadneedle Street London.


 George Peabody statue, Threadneedle Street London. ©  Christine Matthews

Peabody fell in love with London and decided to settle here on semi-permanent basis. During his time in the capital he was able to witness homelessness and the miserable living conditions of many Londoners first hand and consequently decided to do something about it.

In 1864, he created the first of a series of housing estates in Spitalfields which was closely followed by Islington Estate in 1865 and Pear Tree Court Estate, Clerkenwell  which was constructed in 1884 and is located just off Farringdon road.


 Peabody Estate, Clerkenwell. © David Williams

Each flat contained between one and four rooms costing two shillings and sixpence (12 1/2p) to rent a single room and five shillings (25p) for three rooms.  The flats were not self-contained and had communal sinks and toilets on the landings which enabled the facilities to be inspected for cleanliness on a regular basis, while the blocks were separated from one another to allow good ventilation. Residents were expected to take it in turns to sweep the communal passages and steps every morning before 10.00am and to clean the laundry,  windows, communal sinks and toilets.

Peabody embraced Victorian values with open arms and stipulated that this new affordable housing that he had created was specifically for  those who were in work and were of good moral character.

When he died in 1869, the American philanthropist  bequeathed £500,000 (£25,000,000 in today’s money) to the Peabody donation fund and the Peabody Trust now owns and manages 27,000 homes across the capital.

Latest blog posts