Newham history: ‘King’ Pelly, ruler of an icy empire

PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 August 2016

John Pelly      Picture: Richard Pelly

John Pelly Picture: Richard Pelly


He changed Canada forever, led the Bank of England, was chums with prime ministers and never forgot about his home.

The Pelly Memorial School, named after John Pelly      Picture: Newham ArchivesThe Pelly Memorial School, named after John Pelly Picture: Newham Archives

Sir John Henry Pelly, 1st Baronet of Upton, was born in 1777 – a year after thirteen British colonies in North America declared independence – and went on to lead an exceptional life.

His family estate was centred on the lush fields and fertile farms of what is now Upton Park.

As a young man, he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company – a vast trading organisation that explored, and exploited, huge parts of Canada.

Climbing to the very top of the firm, he did much to assist in the discovery of the Northwest Passage – a way to get to the Pacific from the Atlantic through the icy waterways of the Arctic.

Upton manor, the Pelly estate        Picture: Newham ArchivesUpton manor, the Pelly estate Picture: Newham Archives

“He was a very high achiever in our family,” Richard Pelly, 7th Baronet of Upton and John’s direct descendant, said.

“I do feel proud of him.”

Explaining that John was “extremely able” and “not your average bloke”, Richard said his illustrious ancestor is often discussed in conversation by the family to this day.

“He was described as the ‘uncrowned king of Canada’,” Richard said.

The John Pelly monument in West Ham Parish Church     Picture: West Ham Parish ChurchThe John Pelly monument in West Ham Parish Church Picture: West Ham Parish Church

“There are lots of places there named after him.”

Despite being born a century after John’s death – which was in 1852 – Richard said he nonetheless feels a connection with his relative.

As a younger man, the 65-year-old – who farms the Preshaw estate in Hampshire – hitchhiked to the Pelly River, in the far northwest of Canada.

“It was an odd feeling – it felt a bit like basking in the reflected glory of the man,” he said.

The Hudson Bay pub in Forest GateThe Hudson Bay pub in Forest Gate

Though John Pelly’s legacy is felt deeply in the Arctic, he never shirked his responsibilities as one of West Ham’s biggest landowners.

He was commissioner of sewers for southwest Essex, a county magistrate and chairman of the West Ham Poor Law Union.

He gave to St Mary’s Church in Plaistow – where he was buried – and Pelly Road, Pelly Bridge and the now-demolished Pelly Memorial School were all named for him.

“I imagine the place would be completely unrecognisable to him now,” Richard, who has visited Newham for work in the past, said.

“He was very public-minded – he was aware of what was expected of him and seems to have been well-loved in the area.”

But over the years the Pellys moved on from West Ham – and Essex – and have since lost all ties with the area.

“I was once told I have some ancient right to graze cattle on West Ham United’s pitch,” Richard said. “But I’m sure it was a wind-up – a quite funny attempt to get a Southampton fan into the stadium to make a fool of himself.”

But the great man’s presence can still be felt in Newham, even if his family ultimately moved away.

The Hudson Bay pub, in Upton Lane, Forest Gate, is named for John Pelly.

“We take great pride in giving our pubs names which reflect the history and characters of their respective areas,” Eddie Gershon, spokesman for owners Wetherspoon, said.

The pub’s historians, he added, decided it was the perfect link to the borough’s past.

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