Address given at A Service to Celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Peabody

28 March 2012 at 11:00 am

The Right Reverend Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark (1998-2010)

May the words of my lips and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable to Almighty God now and always. Amen.

It’s a privilege to be invited to preach at this service honouring George Peabody and marking the 150th anniversary of the foundation of  Peabody. It’s a privilege but it’s an invitation which I approached with mixed emotions.

When my mother used to send me and my sister out to some important occasion she used to say to us, “Now remember who you are and where you come from.” The biblical prophets were won’t to say the same thing to the people of Israel as they sought to build settled, prosperous communities in the land they believed had been given to them by God. “Remember who you are and where you’ve come from. Remember that you haven’t always lived in your own land. Remember that you were slaves yourselves, exiles in Egypt, remember that for decades you were refugees, seeking asylum in a land where you could build new lives. And remember that you were given that chance, not so much through your own worth or your own efforts, but through the grace and goodness of Almighty God. “Remember who you are and where you’ve come from”, surely with that history, now that you have prosperity and power you should be particularly concerned for the welfare of the outcast and poor.”    

Our reading today from the Book of Ecclesiasticus spells out some of the practical consequences of this. Basically the writer is saying, “Live generous lives for others. In particular don’t cheat the poor out of their living, don’t avert your eyes from the needy, rescue the oppressed from the oppressor.” People say that the Church shouldn’t get involved in politics, I would suggest that with this kind of biblical teaching as our foundation documents it’s very difficult not to.

Remember who you are where you’ve come from. I’ve recently retired but I spent over twenty years in ministry in London, north and south of the river and I remember many incidents which brought me new insights into housing and homelessness.

When rough sleeping was endemic in the early nineties I went walkabout late one winter’s night with an outreach worker from Thames Reach. We were making our way along Bankside. There was a fair bit of building going on and my companion knew that a favourite shelter for several rough sleepers was under the arch of a particular bridge. But apparently the local council knew this also and didn’t approve, so that very day they’d sent a couple of workman along, to board up the arch with a stout fence and a gate.   

The two or three men for whom the arch had been home, watched in resignation whilst the door was firmly closed and padlocked. Then just as the workers were leaving, job done, one of them came up to the men and slipped them a key to the padlock -  an act of gratuitous kindness. So as we arrived, there the men were, snug in their home underneath the arches, but now with locked-in security.

George Peabody 150 years ago made rather more adequate housing provision for many of the people of this city. Urban slums in East and South London, with bad sanitation and polluted water inevitably often had epidemics of sickness and disease. During one such outbreak a “Times” leader  read, “It is very sad, but nothing can be done, it is a result of nature’s simplest laws.”

This was not good enough for George Peabody with his transatlantic “can-do” attitude.   He was one of the first in Britain to bring a more adequate solution to the problem of urban housing and homelessness by investing real money to address the challenge of providing decent, affordable housing for the urban poor. We’ll return to his vision and contribution shortly but first some therapy.

I said in my introduction that I approached the invitation to preach at this service with mixed emotions. Now let me tell you why. The House of Bishops of the Church of England is no place for someone wanting a quiet life. During my several decades in the House I was involved in some fierce battles. Some victories were won, the creation of the Church Urban Fund, and the ordination of women for example, some were dramatically lost, and the battle I lost which still wounds me was that with the Church Commissioners over the disposal of the Octavia Hill estates in London which had been handed down to them in trust.   

Far less extensive than the Peabody Estates, nevertheless the Octavia Hill properties brought decency and community to the heart of some of London’s urban estates, and they were an important plank in the mission of the Dioceses of London and Southwark.

For some 150 years the Church of England through the Church Commissioners valued the Octavia Hill Estates and invested money in them, but then came the hard financial times of a new millennium and a property portfolio in central London was an asset that the Commissioners believed they must realize and in 2005 the estates were sold.

“Urban Housing is not our core business, bishop”, I was patiently told, “helping to fund ministry is, and we need to sell the estates in order to continue to do that.” And that was the argument which won the day, and I still regret it.    

A parish priest who’s served in the area throughout all of this, last week wrote this to me, I quote “I think it's fair to say that the result of the sale has been extremely negative both in Walworth and Waterloo. As we predicted, the well-established communities there are now dying, and being replaced by short-term residents paying a high rent and with no local commitment. The school roll has dropped, and in Waterloo the church has not yet been forgiven for the sale. It's a deep wound, and I think the consequences will be with us for many years.”

“Urban Housing is not our core business” the Church Commissioners told me, but thank God, and I use those words seriously and profoundly, thank God, the provision of Urban Housing, and the strengthening of urban communities is the core business of Peabody , and long may it remain so. 

George Peabody, having made a fortune in commerce and banking both in America and Britain, took up permanent residence in London in 1837, remaining here for the rest of his life. During his time in London he was well placed to observe at first hand the deplorable living conditions of many of its inhabitants and in 1862 he founded Peabody and gave half a million pounds to provide housing of a decent quality, with affordable rents for, to quote him, “the artisans and labouring poor of London”.

150 years on Peabody today continues with his vision of providing, not only good, warm, safe affordable dwellings, but homes with a real sense of purpose.

There are residents who are proud of the fact that their family members over three generations have been Peabody residents, but also today, as from the first, Peabody residents reflect the composition of the communities in which the estates are set, and because today London is one of the most diverse cities on earth, with its citizens representing virtually every race, language and culture, that same diversity is reflected in the composition of Peabody residents and in those who work for Peabody and support its aims.  

The Old Testament prophets constantly reminded the people of who they were and where they’ve come from, and in this service Peabody is looking back to its founder and its heritage with thanksgiving and rightful pride, but it’s doing more than that.   

Earlier in this service a wreath was laid at the Peabody memorial. This reminded me of the French War Memorial which reads, “They don’t want our gratitude, they want to live on in our bravery.” So I suspect it would be for George Peabody, I can hear him saying in response to our plaudits, “Yes, yes, but what are you doing here and now to make the world of urban London a better place for all its citizens.”

I think that all involved with Peabody can say, with hand on heart, “plenty”. We all know that to be a Peabody resident is to be part of something special, to have both a home and a springboard of opportunity, for as well as providing decent affordable housing, tens of thousands of people in London have benefited from Peabody’s social and economic development programmes offered freely, not only to Peabody residents, but to those who live in the surrounding communities.

But London badly needs more homes. Many Londoners are caught in the trap between not qualifying for housing benefit, yet not being able to afford market rents, and with the proposed cap on housing benefit there are real worries that many people living in existing urban communities in inner London will be forced to move to the outer fringes of Greater London.    

For 150 years Peabody has put as much effort into building urban communities as it has into providing urban housing. It would be sad to see these urban communities weakened or fractured because of changes in public funding.    

I know that we live in challenging financial times but the argument must be made with our political leaders at local and national levels that investing public money on affordable urban housing is money well spent. The local citizens of London are its life-blood and enabling them to live in inner London is an essential component of the good and prosperous city.

Peabody is playing its part and never has it been served by people with more expertise and vision, and I believe that we can be confident that Peabody will continue to make major contributions to housing thought and practice long into the future. Ian Hislop in a remarkable TV programme last year spoke of George Peabody’s legacy as being “the gift that goes on giving”. So people of Peabody, having reminded yourself of who you are and where you’ve come from, go on giving that gift to a future that needs your dedication.    

Oh, and if there are any modern day bankers in the congregation, I don’t think that Peabody would say “No” if you followed George Peabody’s example and donated another half a million pounds. I can assure you that the money would be put to very good use.

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