Happy Birthday, Peter Pelham

The heart of a church is its organ; and the heart of its organ is its organist. This year we celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bruton Parish Church, and the 293rd birthday of the first man to grace its organ bench: Peter Pelham. Colorful and well-connected, this musician was at the center of the American Revolution.

Learn more: Bruton Parish Church


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. This year marks the 300th anniversary of Bruton Parish Church, the historic brick structure that anchors the center of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. Today we celebrate not only the birthday of the church, but the birthday of its first organist: Peter Pelham. Peter Pelham was a colorful citizen of Williamsburg, and he is portrayed today by Michael Monaco. Michael, thank you for being here today.

Michael Monaco: My pleasure, good morning!

Harmony: Well tell us a little bit about Pelham and his connection to Bruton Parish Church.

Michael: Very simply, it’s probably even greater than we can imagine because we know that Pelham arrives in the Tidewater area as early as 1749. He is registered in St. John’s parish in Hampton. There is some anecdotal evidence that perhaps he was at Bruton Parish as early as 1751, rather than the official appointment time of 1755. However, the scholars are out to lunch on that one. They’re still debating, but it seems to me that there is no account that he left the area, so he may have had contact earlier on and perhaps played at the church using a borrowed instrument, a small organ, similar to what the Governor Dunmore had in the palace, a little bureau organ, something like that.

His influence in the city and the church, it really is very fascinating how he ingratiated himself. He was in a society of people that was far above his level, far above his station. That’s not uncommon with somebody that has a great talent, an actor, a musician. Considering the smallness of Williamsburg, and being a little colloquial place, he gets his finger in several different pies, the church of course. He’s also a civil servant. He serves as clerk or secretary to Governor Fauquier and Lord Botetourt. Lord Dunmore promotes him to be the keeper of the public gaol -- all civil service jobs.

There are several people that were Bruton Parish parishioners who on various occasions came to his aid, financial and otherwise, when things were tough, particularly St. George Tucker, Benjamin Powell. They vouched for him and helped him out. As a matter of a fact, St. George Tucker, in his later years, Pelham really fell on really hard financial times, he helped him out time and time and time again. They had this wonderful warm relationship that you could see when he just talks about him. It’s very nice to see that.

Harmony: These are some of Williamsburg's really untouchable people.

Michael: They are the elite, they are the elite.

Harmony: So when we celebrate Pelham’s 293rd birthday this December, what are we celebrating? What are we remembering about this man?

Michael: The more research that I have done, and as I’ve told many people, now that the digital age has opened up, my gosh, there are so many wonderful things to find on the internet about him. I think that for many years we sort of soft-pedaled his importance. I think he was a far more prominent musician than people tend to think of him in the past. We have now some concrete evidence of his compositions in the form of a notebook that dates to 1744 that Colonial Williamsburg now owns. That’s wonderful and I was able to hold that in my own little hands and play some of those compositions.

Just judging by what people said about him, first person accounts. For instance, we have a lady, a very fine lady in Charleston, South Carolina, by the name of Lady Deloraine. She’s from the famous Fenwick family. She encountered Peter Pelham when we was in a Charleston, South Carolina with his teacher, Carl Theodore Pachelbel. He performed, and this lady happened to know Pelham’s grandfather in London. She writes this wonderful letter, and she describes him as a very agreeable entertaining young man, very comical, and entertaining, who performs very well on the harpsichord; a very clever genteel young man. She was really laying it on, so obviously he impressed her.

Many years later, in his silver years, in 1783, there was a gentleman from Scotland by the name of Sir Alexander McCauley, and Pelham played a concert at Bruton Parish, and this fellow was there. He described him as the modern day Orpheus, the inimitable Pelham. He also describes the organ there of 100 tones, well there were a lot than a 100 pipes, but he said it was a 100 tones, and he was very impressed. That opinion was also shared by St. George Tucker. I feel very fortunate that I’m able to put him out in the public and present those sides of him.

Harmony: But it’s an inspiring story. Where does Pelham’s story begin? What’s his early training like?

Michael: Actually it’s very interesting. He was born in London. I was able to digitally access all the records at St. Paul’s Covent Garden. He was born December 9, 1721 and shortly thereafter was christened. His father, for whatever reason, that’s another wonderful story, he decided to come to Colonial America leaving a fairly lucrative career behind. It seems some people suggest perhaps there may have been some financial difficulties, perhaps even some sort of scandal. He finds his way to Boston. He settles in Boston, Mr. Pelham’s father, in 1726. Little Peter was but 5 years of age. So God knows what memories may or may not have had of London.

What’s of interest is on December 30, 1731, when little Peter would have been 10 years of age, there’s an advertisement in the Boston Gazette, that his father is hosting a concert in the great room of their house. That’s the very first example we have of a public concert in Colonial America. To have the Pelham name associated with that is fascinating. I just love it.

From that point, his father procures for him a wonderful teacher. You may have heard of the great German composer, Johan Pachelbel, of Pachelbel Canon fame. Well his son, Carl Theodore Pachelbel, sometimes referred to as Charles Pachelbel, or Charles Percival -- they kind of mangled names back then -- shows up in Colonial America. Peter Pelham is apprenticed to him, and spends ten years with this man sucking up all of this information and knowledge, this great wonderful European heritage of truly classical music, as well as the art of organ building. He teaches him to assemble organs, which is going to come in handy because Mr. Pelham is the gentleman who assembles the organ at Bruton Parish church in 1755. That’s a great pedigree. He takes him around, they go to New York, they go to Charleston, South Carolina. He is being exposed to various cultures that he would not have had in Boston.

When he returns to Boston in 1744, he finds himself in a great job. He is appointed the organist of Trinity Church in Boston at a wonderful salary of £100 a year. The very next year they raise it to £120, and he’s paid to install the organ there. You would say, “Wow! He’s set up fine.”

For whatever reason again, his father remarried in 1748 to a young lady by the name of Mary Singleton Copley. She brought her little young son, John, and he adopts him as John Singleton Copley, as Pelham’s half brother, the great portrait painter. There was some sort of tension, and Pelham leaves right after that. In 1749, he is recorded in the parish records in St. John’s in Hampton here in Virginia.

One can only speculate because he never again will make that money that he was making in Boston, the £120 a year. When he is paid, at Bruton Parish to be the organist, and that is the question, “When he is paid,” it’s £20 a year. That’s a fair reduction of £100, which was a considerable sum of money. His entire life in Williamsburg, despite what he accomplished, he was always chasing his tail financially. There never seems to have been a moment where there was prosperity for him.

We do have some good fortune in his life as I said, St. George Tucker and Benjamin Powell helping out. Also Lord Dunmore paid Benjamin Powell £500, no small amount, to add another four rooms on the apartment at the jail. So there was an eight-room apartment at the gaol when Pelham became the gaoler. You know Pelham and his wife Ann were blessed with 14 children. At the time he was keeper of the jail, there would have been eight of those children living with him. Shortly thereafter his sons go off and marry and whatnot.

It is interesting. There were some good times for that, but always always seeking out funds. Then of course, once we start to become our own nation, everyone is in financial trouble. Let’s consider Bruton Parish Church. That is the Church of England. Well, we reject the king, who is the head of Church of England, what does Bruton Parish become? Is it a part of the Church of England anymore? You’ve rejected the leader. These were big conflicts that they had to deal with, and of course, eventually we will have the American Episcopal Church, but that’s not going to happen right away. So there’s the question, the fact, that Mr. Pelham is paid for these positions. These were government positions. The church was a government position to be the organist of the church. We cut the head off so to speak, so financially where does his salaries come from, who’s going to pay him now?

Harmony: This is a fascinating idea I never thought of before, but to worship at the Church of England, in a way, is to worship the king. The king is the head of the church.

Michael: This was a big problem, and believe me, they figured that out early on. They were dealing with this conflict. What do you do with a community of believers who’ve had this their whole life? It’s very very, very traumatic when you have something as secure as a familiar religion, and then all of the sudden, the rug is pulled out from under you. What do you do? Where do you go?

This was a problem that existed, of course, throughout the colonies. There were other churches that were creeping up, but what do you do with basically The Mother Church? That was the official state church. You could worship in other places, but you still had to show up occasionally in the Church of England, or pay a fine. There were many people who loved to show up and fling that shilling at the court clerk saying, “Here’s my fine!” and not go to church. That be said, that’s a dynamic that’s rarely touched upon, those transition years. What’s going to happen? The uncertainty of it all. That in and of itself, for me, is a book.

Harmony: So when we think about Pelham, alongside early American heroes, like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, all of these great luminaries of the American Revolution, what’s Pelham’s place among them? What’s Pelham’s mark on early America, on our culture?

Michael: The best way to answer that is to respond with what we have facts for, what we can actually say about him. On June 4, 1777, an event happens at the capital, which was that benefit concert for Pelham, the fundraiser. In order for him to have that happen, he needed to get the permission of our first American governor, Patrick Henry. If you know anything about Mr. Henry, Mr. Henry never would have granted that permission had not Pelham clearly demonstrated what side of the fence he was on.

Two of his sons were decorated heroes in the Revolutionary War. We know there was this fervor of patriotism, and that’s something that stayed with the family for generations. Of course, in the Civil War, you may of heard of the gallant Pelham, John Pelham, Major John Pelham. That’s Peter Pelham’s great grandson. They had this honor of country. He would have been definitely a patriot. There’d be no question that he would have been embracing all that would have been coming down. Despite, the fact that, financially speaking, had he had the monies to do so, it would have made perfect sense for him, like so many of them did, to go back to England. He had ties there. He had people that knew him, financial assistance if necessary, but he didn’t. He stayed here, and clearly chose his lot. I would say there’s no trouble that we could qualify him as a patriot.

Harmony: Michael, thank you so much for being here today. I feel like we could talk all afternoon about the different facets you’ve brought up, but suffice to say, we’re celebrating his birthday this December. We hope that all of our listeners will learn more on our websites, on their next visit, and at your next presentation. Thank you so much for being here today.

Micael: My pleasure, thank you! 


  1. Wonderful podcast about Peter Pelham. I’ve always enjoyed having the opportunity of listening to Michael Monaco “doing his Peter Pelham thing” so when I saw this podcast, I was more than glad to listen to it. I really gained the additional insight into the life of Peter Pelham and was glad I had the chance to listen to it. Thank you, Mr. Monaco!!

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