The Peabody Flats

One of the major problems that the Victorians had to face up to in the latter half of the 19th century was to provide sufficient housing for London’s ever increasing population. The districts of Spitalfields and Whitechapel were extremely overcrowded; so it was here, in 1864, that a new experimental form of social housing, pioneered by the Peabody Estate, built its first property.


In the City of London, just behind the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street, there is a seated figure of a rather proud looking man, resplendent in fine clothing to show that he must have been extremely prosperous in life.

The statue is of George Peabody (1795 – 1869), a  Massachusetts born financier who is often referred to as the “father of modern philanthropy,” and whose legacy to the working people of London can still be seen to this day in the form of the Peabody Trust tenement blocks that are located all over the Capital.

The seated statue of George Peabody.
The George Peabody Statue


Having made his fortune, George Peabody retired from business in 1862 and, in March of that year, he presented the sum of £150,000 to the City of London.

According to a contemporary newspaper report:-

“The object of his gift was specifically stated in a letter, in which he expressed a wish that the sum he had given to the city should be applied to the purpose of benefiting the working-classes by the erection of comfortable and convenient lodging-houses. The first block of these buildings, in Spitalfields, was opened in 1864.”


On 27th November 1864, shortly after the Spitalfields building had opened, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, treated its readers to an article that looked at the type of tenants that the new building was now home to, and also took a close look at the interior of some of the apartments. At the time that the article was written, the trust was about to commence building another property in Islington and the article mentions how changes would be made based on what had worked, and what had not, in spitalfields.


“About a third of the £150,000 munificently given by Mr George Peabody to the poor of London has already been invested in buildings and land.

A stately edifice, containing fifty-seven tenements, all occupied, and nine shops, [has been built] in Commercial-street, Spitalfields… which is thus subdivided:-

The prices of the Peabody Flats.
From Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 27th November 1864


This portion of the building is of course altogether a thing apart from the main objects of the Peabody donation, except that the money accruing from it is invested and added to the original fund.

The corner shop is let, but three or four of the others are still unoccupied; and as the [new] Islington building is to be composed of dwelling tenements exclusively, it would seem that the trustees regard the shops as the least successful portion of their investment.


On inspection of the Peabody buildings in Spitalfields the visitor would do well to remember that he sees before him an experiment which has been eminently satisfactory, but which is an experiment still, and that its daily working will not improbably suggest emendations and improvements, each of which will be carried out in the other buildings of the trustees.


Leaving Shoreditch by the street skirting the southern portion of the Great Eastern railway station, and passing bare patches of enclosed ground, alternately with new buildings, churches, and factories, and other symbols of a neighbourhood in a transition state, a walk of a few minutes brings the visitor to a handsome block of red building, with a frontage of more than two hundred feet.

Although the street itself is broad and airy, its tributaries run into some of the most over-populated districts in London, and the situation of this knot of dwellings is admirably suited to the requirements of an immense number of working men.

A view of the Peabody Building.
The Peabody Building, Commercial Street, Spitalfields.


In the centre of the ground-floor, and dividing the shops pretty equally on either hand, are the offices and dwelling-rooms of the superintendent, an old soldier, whose duty it is to keep the books, receive the weekly rent, and see that the few and simple rules laid down by the trustees are properly observed.

A copy of these is supplied to each tenant at the commencement of his term, and runs thus :-


1. The rents will be collected on Mondays, from nine a.m. till one p.m.

2. No arrears of rent will be allowed.

3. The passages, baths, closets, &c., must be washed every Saturday, and swept every morning before ten o’clock. This must be done by the tenants in turn.

4. The windows of the rooms must be kept in perfect repair, as regards the glass. No clothes, etc , shall be hung out.

5. Children will not be allowed to play on the stairs, or in the passages.

6. No carpets, mats, &c., can be permitted to be beaten or shaken after ten o’clock in the morning.

7. Drunken or disorderly tenants will receive immediate notice to quit.

8. The gas will be turned off at eleven p.m.

9. Tenants will pay for all damage not caused by fair wear.

10. Tenants are forbidden to keep dogs in the building.

Considerable care has been exercised in the selection of tenants, and in only one instance has there been a case of arrears (4s.), or such a violation of rules as has called for summary treatment.


This exemption from the ordinary vicissitudes of letting can be readily explained, for when the buildings were finished there were more than a hundred applications for the fifty-seven tenements to let, and this enabled the trustees to select from the recommendations in writing from employers and landlords, and by only accepting such lodgers as were of orderly habits and reputable antecedents, to secure the benefits of the fund to the deserving poor.

And though it may be considered a stretch of language to apply this definition to the great bulk of the Peabody tenants, who seem to be labourers and artisans earning a fair wage, it will be useful to remember that these are the very people who need better accommodation than they can obtain at present, that the trustees are bound in common prudence to let the rooms to tenants who are likely to pay their rent, and that in future buildings a larger number of low-priced chambers will probably be set aside.


We have been at some pains to ascertain the incomee of the people actually housed in Spitallields, and found them to range from 16s. to 30s. a week.

The two half-crown rooms are occupied by a charwoman and a female boot-binder respectively, whose precise earnings vary according to circumstances.

The tenements at 3s. 6d. are let to a monthly nurse, a charwoman, a policeman with 20s. a week, and to a basket maker, a warehouseman, and a mechanic, all with 25s. a week.

As will be seen from the figures given above, the number of tenements at 4s. a week is nearly three times as many as the rest combined, and the wages and position of the men occupying them with their wives and families may be fairly estimated by the following examples.

There is a tobacco preparer, with 30s. a week: and there are boot-closers, glass-cutters, carpenters, French polishers, shoemakers, basket makers, and coopers, with from 25s. to 28s. a week; labourers, police-constables, warehouse and railway porters, and tailors, with 20s. a week; two or three porters with 18s , and one with 16s. a week.

So much for the 4s. tenements.

The seven sets of rooms at 5s. are occupied respectively by a widow with nine children, some of whom earn a little, and whose eldest son has 18s. a week as a clerk, by a warehouseman with 30s. a week, a tailor’s cutter-out with 30s. a week, a cooper earning shout 30s. a week a fireman receiving the sum of 25s. a week, and a dock labourer with six children and 15s. a week.

The wife of the man last named has a sewing-machine, and by her earnings enables her family to live in such rooms as are occupied by men of double her husband’s means. It is, however, an open question whether the noise caused by this apparatus will not interfere with the comfort of the other tenants, and so necessitate removal.


Ascending a well-lit stone staircase, we see, opening out of each side of a long corridor, the entrances to the different tenements. The three single rooms at half a crown are larger than any one of those comprising the four or five shilling sets, as is necessary where eating, sleeping, and perhaps bread-winning take place in the same area.

The sets at 3s. Od. differ from those at 4s. only in size.

On visiting one at the latter rent, we found ourselves in a comfortable, well furnished little apartment, wherein every article, from the highly polished mahogany drawers and neat sofa, to the small shelf of books and the framed certificate of odd fellowship of forestry on the walls, spoke of well-to-do prudence and prosperous thrift.


The modern improvements in the cooking-range, oven, boiler, and hot plate, the ventilators in the wall, the large cupboard, and the good proportions of the room, were cheerfully pointed out by the tenant’s wife, who with her two children was busily preparing for her husband’s return.

The bed-room opened out of the sitting-room by a door on the left, the sole entrance to the main corridor being through the door whereby we entered, and which opened into the dwelling-room without intermediate passage or standing place.

The first and most prominent advantage which the visitor sees in the five-shilling tenements is a sort of miniature hall between the front, or corridor entrance and the parlour door. But once inside, their superiority in other matters is very perceptible. The sitting-room divides the bed-rooms, so as to place an intermediate space between the sleepers in the two chambers; and the effect here is that you seem to be in small and snug chambers in a modernised inn of court.

There were photographs, and books, and engravings in the sitting-room we inspected, and besides the usual complement of good furniture, a piano against its wall. This, we found on inquiry, was not due to the musical tastes of the tenant or his family, but to his son being “in the cabinet way,” by which euphemism we understood that it was warehoused and for sale.


It was as impossible to leave this bright and cheerful little suite of rooms without reflecting on the number of poor gentlemen to whom such a home would be an infinite boon, as it was to avoid comparing their spotless cleanliness, solid comfort, and perfect independence with the frowsy chambers or squalid sordid lodging-houses to which so many of our middle class youth are doomed.

The living rooms throughout the Peabody building average 13 feet by 10 feet, and the bedrooms 13 feet by 8 feet, while their uniform height is 8 feet.

The staircases and corridors are well lit with gas, and the fourth or top floor is occupied by laundries, areas for drying clothes, and as a playground for the children in wet weather, and by bath rooms.


There are lavatories on every floor for ordinary toilet purposes, and a bath can always be obtained by the short and simple process of asking the superintendent for the key of the room.


In fine weather the enclosed yard is an admirable playground for the tenants’ children, and a rule excluding all playmates from the outside being rigidly enforced, they are preserved from evil associates and consequent contamination.

The original sum of £150,000 will, it has been estimated, build ten large houses, the income from which will amount to £6,000 per annum; and is not the least interesting fact connected with Mr. Peabody’s noble gift, that from this source alone the trustees will probably be able to build a new house every two years, and by investing its rental in a like way, make the charity a constantly increasing one.”