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He was a financier known for his miserly ways, but George Peabody became a Victorian poverty pioneer. As his first estate reaches its 150th anniversary, Philippa Lewis looks back at the development of social housing in Clerkenwell and Peabody's legacy...

George Peabody is the father of modern philanthropy. An American, he had already become wealthy from textiles when he came to Britain in 1837 to build a new fortune as a merchant banker. He embraced Victorian values of thrift and even took a packed lunch to work.

Peabody had supported US education initiatives and, in 1862, launched a series of donations to improve living conditions for Londoners, with the proviso that Peabody residents were in work and of 'good moral character'. When he died in 1869, aged 74, he had endowed £500,000 to the Peabody Donation Fund – worth approximately £25 million today. The first estate opened in Spitalfields in 1864 and, following slum clearance, a Peabody estate was built in Clerkenwell in 1884 at Pear Tree Court, off Farringdon Road.

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The northern end of Farringdon Road was a brand new wide highway begun in the 1840s. Its creation covered over the stinking remains of the Fleet Ditch and the notorious crime-ridden slums in West Street and Field Lane, stalked by Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838). However, the clearances exacerbated overcrowding and homelessness. There was an urgent shortage of housing for the workforce employed in the hundreds of small craft workshops and businesses in Victorian Clerkenwell. Fares were too high for working people to live far from their jobs.

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A solution was provided by the City Corporation in 1865 who built Corporation Buildings on Farringdon Road, which was, in effect, the first 'council housing' in England. The augustly named Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Working Classes followed suit and erected Farringdon Road Buildings. These five parallel blocks had 20ft courtyards and balconies, which architect Frederic Chancellor thought would be good for growing flowers.

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"I do not believe that a man who is fond of his flowers could ever thrash his wife, or that a wife who takes a pride in her flowers will ever have a slovenly and untidy dwelling," he said. Over a thousand people lived there and the daunting vastness is commented on by George Gissing in his 1889 novel The Nether World. Both these schemes survived for scarcely a century and had been demolished as unfit for habitation by 1976.

Peabody's Pear Tree Court has survived where other schemes failed. Alongside other reformers such as Lord Shaftesbury, Angela Burdett-Coutts and Dickens, Peabody determined to improve the living conditions in his adopted city. Such was the success in providing good quality housing for artisans that by 1879 his bequest had created 11 estates providing 2,377 tenements for 9,905 people.

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A further seven sites were earmarked for development, including slum housing called Yates's Rents and 'ruins' at Pear Tree Court, acquired for £12,923. Eleven blocks of tenements were built on the site, some around the central courtyard for children to play in – a typical feature of Peabody buildings. Residents had to abide by rules to ensure good health; there were rotas for cleaning communal steps, laundry rooms, sinks and toilets and everyone had to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Peabody Trust has moved with the times, modernising its flats but staying true to its original purpose of providing affordable housing in inner city London. The Clerkenwell estate was chosen to feature in Terry Gilliam's 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus because of its perfect London atmosphere. And there's another movie connection: Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor- Johnson grew up on the estate.

The Peabody Trust now owns and manages more than 27,000 homes across the capital, with more than 80,000 residents. Peabody ploughs profits from the sale of new-builds into its social housing, while careful management of George Peabody's bequest has kept his vision intact.

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The unmarried banker's philanthropy may have been motivated by poverty in childhood, or he may have been seeking to strengthen US-British relations. Perhaps he wanted some lasting glory. Whatever his thinking, George Peabody has been a housing hero to generations of residents.

Philippa Lewis is the author of "Everyman's Castle", the story of our cottages, country houses, terraces, flats, semis and bungalows (Frances Lincoln; £20).

 

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