by Helen Breen
Question: What Do Wakefield and Peabody Have In Common?
Answer: Both renamed their Essex County towns in the mid 19th century to honor their “favorite sons” and benefactors – Cyrus Wakefield (1811-1873) and George Peabody (1795-1869).
The 19th century “merchant princes” of Boston were ambitious, clever men who made their fortunes in trade and industry. With little formal education, these future entrepreneurs left their homesteads as boys and learned their business first hand in counting houses and aboard cargo ships. The careers of Cyrus Wakefield and George Peabody were a perfect examples of such enterprise.
Although he descended from an old “Redding” (later Wakefield) family, Wakefield was born in southern New Hampshire in 1811. He later recalled that his homestead “was one of the roughest farms to be found in that rocky, rugged locality … a spot where the school master was deemed qualified for teaching only because he was disqualified physically from any other occupation.”
Such cultural deprivation fueled, rather than dampened, his imagination. Young Cyrus admired the career of another successful New Hampshire lad, Nathan Appleton (1779-1861). By the age of thirty, Nathan had established a successful retail trade and built an elegant home on Beacon Street in Boston. Appleton later aligned with the Lowell and Lawrence clans in various mill undertakings.
His success story inspired Cyrus Wakefield when he ventured down to Boston and entered the grocery business. Later it was said of Cyrus that “during all those years he was studying men and the circumstances that made them.” With the goal of self-improvement, the young man attended church services and public lectures which were popular at the time.
The China Trade and the Industrial Revolution were in full gear. The exploits of the shipping magnate extraordinaire Thomas Handasyd Perkins also interested Wakefield. Soon Cyrus began importing rattan (a species of climbing palms) from Southeast Asia. He then discovered various ways of utilizing the whole cane in the making of chairs. In 1856 he established a huge rattan works in South Reading, his ancestral home. According to the local historian Charles Eaton “the manufactories and warehouses covered an area of ten acres … and gave employment to a thousand men and women.” Meanwhile, the Wakefield Rattan Company was served by a fleet of seven ships which brought the raw material stateside to be fabricated in the furniture factory.
A gala celebration was held on July 4, 1868 when the town of “South Reading” changed its name to “Wakefield” in honor of her favorite son. Mr. Wakefield became the impetus for the incorporation of the Wakefield Savings Bank and the local utility companies. His benefactions were numerous, including the gift of a magnificent town hall dedicated in 1871. Earlier Cyrus Wakefield had built a luxurious estate on the west side of Main Street where he lived happily with his wife Eliza, daughter of Henry Bancroft of Lynnfield, a retired sea-captain.
The townspeople mourned the sudden death of Mr. Wakefield on October 26, 1873. The industrialist left no children. A nephew of the same name, Cyrus Wakefield II, was recalled from China to carry on the responsibilities of the family business for the next quarter century. His furniture enterprise, afterwards known as Heywood-Wakefield, continued for many decades in the town. In later years, the firm moved to Gardner, Massachusetts.
A descendant of the early Massachusetts settler Francis Peabody (1614-1697), George was born into modest circumstances in what was then called South Danvers. Little in his background presaged his success in international banking and philanthropy. George Peabody entered the world of business with only four years of formal education, but with beautiful handwriting and exact ciphering skills. Tremendously successful in the dry goods trade, George extended his ventures to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Washington, DC. All of these cities in which Peabody prospered would later be the recipients of his largess.
THE INTERNATIONAL BANKER, LONDON
Given his commercial interests, Peabody established an office in Liverpool in 1827 which was the chief center for cotton importation from the American South. Britain was approaching the zenith of its cloth production and trade during the Industrial Revolution. Peabody served ably as an interlocutor in trans-Atlantic business dealings. Peabody eventually became a financier, establishing himself in London in 1837, the year which also began the long reign of Queen Victoria. His integrity and enterprise made him the most trusted banker abroad. Later he invited a new partner to join him, Junius Morgan of Boston. Soon the latter’s son entered the business – J P Morgan. The rest, as they say, is history. In 1864 George Peabody, a bachelor who lived unpretentiously himself, retired from the firm having amassed some $20,000,000. George never forgot his American roots and was remembered for the festive July 4 celebrations that he hosted every year.
George Peabody proceeded to share his wealth just as enthusiastically as he had acquired it. He built the first public housing in England for London’s poor, a deed which endeared him to Queen Victoria. Her Majesty’s appreciation can still be seen in the magnificent tributes that she gave him which are permanently displayed at the Peabody Institute (the public library), 82 Main Street, Peabody. His benefactions in the United States were numerous. Most familiar to us would be the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. A tremendous reception was held for George Peabody when he triumphantly returned to his hometown in 1857. Clearly, he was moved by his townsfolk’s decision to change their name from “South Danvers” to “Peabody”, Massachusetts. Peabody would be incorporated as a city in 1916.
DEATH and RETURN
George Peabody did not revisit his native soil until he was laid to rest there on February 8, 1870. His death in London on November 4, 1869 was followed by a spectacular funeral service at Westminster Abbey. The British royal family offered to have him buried in the Abbey, the first American to be so honored. But the terms of his will and his dying words (“Danvers—Danvers! Don’t forget!”) determined otherwise.
Prime Minister Gladstone arranged for Peabody’s remains to be returned to America on the newest ship in the British fleet, HMS Monarch. Ostentatious mourning rituals were popular in Victorian times. The body lay in state in Peabody for eight days. Over 25,000 people passed the closed bier. The elaborate funereal appointments, the imposing line of march, and the impressive service were described in the national and world press. One observer remarked that the number of foreign mourners was surpassed only by the funerals of Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. Prince Arthur, son of Peabody’s friend Queen Victoria, was present for the occasion in full dress regalia as was the English Minister Sir Edward Thornton. However, on the actual day of the interment, an untoward event occurred – a devastating New England blizzard raged and sent many of the dignitaries scrambling for cover in local Peabody and Salem farmhouses. Finally, he was laid to rest in Harmony Grove Cemetery in Salem, not far from his ancestral home.
The Wakefield and Peabody clans had lived inauspiciously in Essex County for generations until the circumstances following the American Revolution provided the opportunity for their ambitious sons to thrive on a grand scale. Cyrus Wakefield and George Peabody were the products of their times, men with the grit and guts to make a fortune. Without the restraints of income tax, that success gave them the privilege of dispensing their fortunes as they chose. Both men were deeply moved by their neighbors’ decision to rename their towns in their honor. While neither had issue, the memory of their largess lives on in Wakefield and Peabody today.