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Peter Pelham

Peter Pelham

Colonial Williamsburg’s Michael Monaco often portrays musician Peter Pelham.

  • Born 1721
  • Keeper of Public Gaol
  • Organist at Bruton Church
  • Died 1805

Arrived in Boston from England

Peter Pelham, the keeper of the Public Gaol from 1771 until 1779, also was a man of many talents. Born in England in 1721, Pelham came to America in 1726 with his father and spent a number of years in Boston, where he studied music and became the organist at Boston's Trinity Church.

Pelham moved to Williamsburg around 1750. He was the organist at Bruton Parish Church, taught young ladies to play the harpsichord and spinet, and served as musical director when "The Beggar's Opera" first was performed in the city.

Music career not sufficient to support family

Like many musicians then and now, Pelham's art and talent were insufficient to maintain his growing family. He and his wife, Ann, had 14 children, some of whom died in infancy. He supplemented his income by acting as a clerk to Governors Fauquier and Botetourt. Governor Dunmore, Lord Botetourt's successor, named Pelham keeper of the Public Gaol.

Ability as a gaoler questioned

After Pelham assumed his duties at the Gaol, he conveniently and habitually – took a prisoner to the church to pump the organ while he played. It appears that Pelham was more successful as an organist than as a gaoler. He was criticized for occasionally "appearing much disguised with liquor," and some felt that his laxity led to a number of escapes. An inquiry ordered by the General Assembly cleared Pelham of all charges, however.

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