Former Peabody Board Member and the American Ambassador to London, John Gilbert Winant, is one of the Second World War’s forgotten heroes.

John Winant sitting at desk When George Peabody founded the Peabody Donation Fund in March 1862, he appointed five trustees, one of which was Charles Francis Adams, who was at the time the ‘United States Minister in London’. From then until 2007, the current US Minister or Ambassador was a Trustee (later Governor) of the Peabody Trust. This formal role changed in May 2007, to that of Honorary President.

We are very proud of our 151-year connection with the US Embassy and American Ambassador, which is maintained through initiatives such as our support of the Fulbright Research Award which is aimed at tackling child poverty, and taking part in Embassy activities such as last year’s ‘Let’s Move’ event with Michelle Obama.

Meeting the Ambassador

I recently met the current Ambassador Matthew Barzun, at a ground breaking ceremony for the new embassy at Nine Elms. He spoke about his admiration for the US Ambassador to London during the Second World War, John Gilbert Winant. He said that his role in bringing the USA into the war had not been fully recognised. This convinced me to find out more about him.

Winant was appointed as US Ambassador to London in 1941, and announced upon landing at Bristol airport, "I'm very glad to be here. There is no place I'd rather be at this time than in England." He quickly developed close contacts with King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and went on to play a pivotal role in forging the alliance between the United States and Great Britain during the war. 

A forgotten hero

Winant’s dedication to supporting Britain in its time of need reminds me of his World War One counterpart, Walter Hines Page, who was also a Peabody Governor and is remembered on a plaque in Westminster Abbey as being “The friend of Britain in her sorest need.”

As well as lobbying politicians from the USA to support Britain, Winant also supported the war effort on the home front. During the Blitz he would walk the streets of London offering to help the injured. His actions, quiet determination and fearlessness endeared him to the British people.

On the home front

Similarly, many Peabody residents played their part in helping to sustain the war effort on the home front – I find it moving to see so many of their names on the war memorials around our estates. We recently uncovered a story about 6 men – all residents of Peabody’s Southwark Street Estate – who were killed on duty on 29 September 1940. These men included brothers Thomas (19) and Frederick (34) Darvell who were both killed whilst serving as air raid wardens, protecting their local communities. Thomas and Frederick are an example of the brave Peabody residents who lost their lives during World War Two.

It’s been inspiring to learn about John Winant, and his special role aiding Britain during the Second World War. I am delighted that Ambassador Barzun has accepted the role of Honorary President of Peabody and that we continue to maintain our long association with the embassy.