George Peabody was born in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1795, into a family of modest means. Without family connections or formal education, he achieved international success as an investment banker in London. He is considered by many to be the founder of modern philanthropy.

While serving as a volunteer in the War of 1812, Peabody met Elisha Riggs of Baltimore. In 1814, Riggs supplied the financial backing to found the wholesale dry goods firm of Peabody, Riggs, & Company. The thriving Baltimore business soon established branches in Philadelphia and New York. Seeking still wider business opportunities, George Peabody travelled to England in 1827 to purchase wares and to negotiate the sale of American cotton in Lancashire. In 1837 (the year Queen Victoria ascended the throne), he took up residence in London. His fortune increased dramatically in the years that followed, but Peabody had settled in an England that was anything but tranquil.

British society reeled under the impact of industrialization and uncontrolled urban growth, with the homeless and destitute increasing at an appalling rate. Agricultural and railroad laborers, runaway apprentices, and children fleeing from overcrowded homes made their way to London in the hope of improving their lot. Great numbers came from Ireland during the winter of 1848-1849 to escape the famine. The problems plaguing England spurred the adoption of the Poor Laws and gave rise to a host of charitable causes. Charles Dickens’ writings reminded the more affluent of the plight of the poor. The Ragged Schools received Lord Shaftesbury’s parliamentary backing and Angela Burdett-Coutts’ financial support. George Peabody knew these people, and shared their concerns.

Britain had been moving towards free trade for a generation. The repeal of the Navigation Laws in 1849, just three years after that of the Corn Laws, removed the last bulwark of protectionism. Britain’s industrialists prepared to meet foreign markets. At this auspicious time the Prince Consort lent enthusiastic support to the brainchild of Henry Cole—a Great Exhibition that would demonstrate Britain’s place in the mercantile world. The Exhibition received virtually universal support, and Punch dubbed Joseph Paxton’s daring exhibition building the “Crystal Palace.”

Although President Fillmore provided transportation for American wares to Britain, Congress, plagued with the slavery controversy and still suspicious of the British, denied funding for U.S. participation in this ‘speculative venture.’ The American exhibits languished in crates on the docks while the British press heaped scorn on the former colony. George Peabody, recognizing the importance of his country making a good showing, put up £3,000 (about $15,000) of his own funds to install the American exhibits. His investment paid off handsomely. Interest in the American exhibit was immense as people flocked to see Colt’s revolver, Cyrus McCormick’s reaping machine, fine daguerreotypes, and other wonders.

Peabody’s philanthropic activities began after the Great Exhibition. All of his charitable activities were aimed towards improving society, and particularly at providing the less fortunate with the means to improve themselves. Some critics imply that his motive was simple self-aggrandizement, but there seems to be little evidence of this in his personality. Unlike many philanthropists of the period, his benefactions were not intended to promote religious belief; in fact, he clearly stated that his institutions were not to be used to nurture sectarian theology or political dissention. An 1831 letter from Peabody to his nephew David Peabody, written from London and now in the collection of Peabody Papers at the Essex Institute, probably provides the best insight into the reasons for his philanthropy:

“Deprived, as I was, of the opportunity of obtaining anything more than the most common education I am well qualified to estimate its value by the disadvantages I labour under in the society in which my business and situation in life frequently throws me, and willingly would I now give twenty times the expense attending a good education could I possess it, but it is now too late for me to learn and I can only do to those that come under my care, as I could have wished circumstances had permitted others to have done by me.”

One exhibit at the Great Exhibition, erected outside the Crystal Palace, was a model working-class house. Comfortable housing for the rapidly growing urban population was a special interest of Prince Albert’s, and this was to directly influence George Peabody. He established the Peabody Donation Fund, which continues to this day to provide subsidized housing to the working class in London.

In his home country, George Peabody founded and financially supported numerous institutions in New England and elsewhere. At the close of the Civil War, he established the Peabody Education Fund to “encourage the intellectual, moral, and industrial education of the destitute children of the Southern States.” His grandest beneficence, however, was to Baltimore, where he achieved his earliest success.

Towards the end of his life, Peabody was approached by a friend of the Queen’s Private Secretary to see if he would accept a baronetcy before returning to the United States. He politely declined, but received instead a letter of gratitude from Queen Victoria for his benefactions, and asking that he accept a miniature of herself. Hearing that he was ill, she hoped he could visit Windsor to recuperate, but the gravity of his illness prevented that. Peabody’s failing health precluded the possibility of a final return to his native country, and he died on 4 November 1869 at the age of seventy-four in the presence of a few close friends. At the request of the Dean of Westminster, and with the approval of the Queen and the people of London, Peabody was given a temporary burial in Westminster Abbey. Peabody’s will stipulated that he was to be buried in the town of his birth, Danvers, Massachusetts, and Prime Minister Gladstone arranged to have his remains returned to America on the Monarch, the newest and largest ship in Her Majesty’s Navy.

George Peabody is known to have provided benefactions of more than eight million dollars, most of them made in his own lifetime. They included:

1852 The Peabody Institute, Peabody, Mass. $217,600
1856 The Peabody Institute, Danvers, Mass. $100,000
1857 The Peabody Institute, Baltimore $1,400,000
1862 The Peabody Donation Fund, London $2,500,000
1866 The Peabody Museum, Harvard $150,000
1867 The Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass. $140,000
1867 Peabody Education Fund $2,000,000