Pelham Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Pelham Surname Meaning

The place-name Pelham, thought to have derived from the Old English peol meaning “house by the pool” and ham or “homestead,” cropped up in various places in England.

Peleham, which appeared in the 1086 Domesday Book in Hertfordshire, later became the village of Ferneux Pelham. Pelham manor in Cambridgeshire, part of the Bishopric of Ely, was held by Peter de Pelham in 1201. Either of these two place-names may have been the origin of the influential Pelham family of Sussex.

Pelham Surname Resources on The Internet

  • Brocklesby Pelhams in Brocklesby in Lincolnshire.
  • Pelham Pelhams from Sussex to Australia.

Pelham Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Sussex)
  • to America

England.  According to family lore, the Pelham family in Sussex has as its emblem the buckle – the result of a supposed surrender of the French king to Sir John Pelham in 1356 after the Battle of Poitiers. Tradition says that when the king handed over his sword, Pelham kept the sword buckle and henceforth used it as his crest.

A more prosaic ancestry has these Pelhams originating from Cambridgeshire. John Pelham was a vicar at West Wickham in 1347 and a later John Pelham, from this Cambridgeshire line, was the son of a sometime coroner in Sussex.

Sussex.  This John Pelham’s fortunes rose during the reign of Henry IV and, on the king’s death in 1413, he was named as one of the five executors of his will. From that point onward the Pelham family of Sussex was a wealthy and influential one. Their principal homes in Sussex were Laughton Place from 1390 to 1595, Halland Place from 1595 to 1730, and Stanmer House near Brighton from 1730 to 1926.

In 1545 Sir Nicholas Pelham defended the Sussex coast against an attack by the marauding French. His exploit was recorded on a memorial in St Michael’s Church in Lewes:

  • “What time the French sought to have sacked Seaford 
  • This Pelham did repel them back again.”

Sir William fought on French soil at Le Havre in 1562 and later served as Lord Justice in Ireland. His son Sir Thomas was made a baronet in 1611 and a subsequent Sir Thomas was the father of two British Prime Ministers during the time of the Whig supremacy:

  • Henry Pelham in 1743-1754
  • and Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle, in 1754-1762.

One Pelham family came from Chichester in Sussex. Peter Pelham, who had been born there in 1695, was trained in London in the then new technique of mezzotint engraving. He left London for America in 1725. Another Pelham line, traced from Playden in the early 1700’s and later settling in Brede, emigrated to Australia in 1841.  

Elsewhere.  Pelhams from Sussex spread elsewhere in England. They came to Brocklesby near Immingham in Lincolnshire in 1565 and, as the Earls of Yarborough, have remained there to this day. In Brocklesby Park stands the Pelham Mausoleum, completed in 1787.

Another line was to be found in Hull where Peregrine Pelham had been apprenticed to a merchant in the 1620’s and became a prosperous merchant there himself. He was an ardent Parliamentarian and one of the regicides of the King in 1649. However, the Civil War had ruined him and he died penniless the following year.

America. Herbert Pelham had been among the founding investors of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630. In 1638 he departed for America with four of his children and bought a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

During his short time in America he was appointed the first Treasurer of Harvard University and  his house almost burned down.  He returned to England in 1646. But his daughter Penelope remained to marry Josiah Winslow in 1651.

Peter Pelham, who had arrived in Boston in 1725, made his mark there as a portrait painter. One son Henry, another painter and engraver, was a Loyalist who departed America for London in 1776. Another son Peter was an organist and harpsichord teacher who made his home in Williamsburgh, Virginia:

  • one of his sons William was a well-known bookseller and publisher in Boston in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
  • another son Charles fought in the Revolutionary War and later settled in Maysville, Kentucky. His grandson John Pelham, born in Alabama, was an artillery officer in the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War. He was dubbed the Gallant Pelham for his military prowess and personal courage.

Pelham is a well-known place-name in the New York area but has no connection with the Pelham family. Thomas Pell bought the area known as Pelham from the local Indians in 1654. He named his manor Pelham in honor of his tutor Pelham Burton.

Pelham Surname Miscellany

John Pelham in Search of a Wife.  John Pelham may have come from humble origins in Sussex.  But he was a pushy type.  In 1376 he was brought to trial for an alleged trespass on the land of a royal clerk at Brede and for assaulting a carpenter.

However, he had some friends in high places which helped his subsequent rise to public prominence.  His relations in Cambridgeshire provided one source of support, the influential de Vere family. He also had the patronage of Henry of Bolingbroke who was to become King Henry IV in 1399.

In 1387 Pelham laid siege by night to the house of Sir John Shardelowe at Fulbourn in Cambridgeshire and gained entry by placing ladders against the walls.  Once inside he abducted Shardelowe’s step-daughter and son’s widow Margaret. He subsequently married his captive. She was the principal heir of the estates of her late father, Sir Roger Grey, which came under his possession.

His action was seen as a crime.  But he was able to obtain a royal pardon for this crime in 1389 two years later, thanks to the intercession of Henry of Bolingbroke.

The Pelhams and Stanmer House.  Thomas Pelham it was, cousin to two British Prime Ministers, who built the new Pelham home at Stanmer House in the 1720’s, having succeeded his elder brother Henry to the family estates. Thomas had been apprenticed at a young age to a Turkish merchant in Constantinople, from which he got the nickname Turk.

But Thomas did not meet with his cousins’ approval. They complained of his drunkenness and “imprudent and extravagant” talk when at his cups.  Thomas in fact died in 1737 at the young age of 32 from the effects of alcoholism.

The house was built of sandstone quarried in the Weald.  Much of the interior decoration of the house was carried out by Thomas’s son Thomas who was created the Earl of Chichester.  Both he and his son were skilled in forestry and it was through their initiative that the woods at Stanmer had been so well planted.

The Pelhams lived at Stanmer House until 1926 when the 6th and 7th Earls died of flu within a few days of each other.

The Pelham Mausoleum.  In 1763 at the age of 14, Charles Pelham, having inherited Brocklesby Park, was already extremely rich.  He met his future wife, Sophia Aufrere, during a Grand Tour of the continent while still in his teens.

Though beautiful, Sophia had little fortune of her own and was not considered a suitable match by his friends at home. Despite this, however, Charles and Sophia were married as soon as he came of age, she being only seventeen at the time. When she died some sixteen years later, Charles, by then the 1st Baron Yarborough, built the mausoleum to contain her remains.

The Pelham mausoleum, completed in 1787, was based on that of the Temples of Vesta at Rome and Tivoli. Twelve Doric columns, standing on the plinth formed by the rusticated burial chamber, encircle the upper chamber and support the cornice and balustraded copper dome. Inside is a statue of Sophia by Joseph Nollekens.

The memorial also houses fitting memorials to his forbears, starting with Sir William Pelham, a former Lord Deputy of Ireland who died in 1587.  There are also monuments to Francis Anderson, Charles’s father, and to Charles Pelham, his great-uncle from whom he had inherited Brocklesby Park.

The Fire at Herbert Pelham’s House.  In 1641, in the middle of a bitterly cold New England December night, Herbert Pelham’s house in Cambridge almost burned down and his 8 year old daughter Penelope narrowly avoided death.

The dramatic incident was described by Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop in his journal:

“Mr. Pelham’s house in Cambridge took fire in the dead of the night by the chimney.  A neighbor’s wife hearing some noise among her hens, persuaded her husband to arise, which, being very cold, he was loath to do, yet through her great urging and pestering he did, and so espied the fire, and came running in his shirt, and had much to do to awake anybody, but he got them up at last, and so saved all.  The fire being ready to lay hold upon the stairs, they had all been burnt in their chambers, if God had not by his special providence sent help at that very instant.”

The Gallant Pelham.  John Pelham, a young West Point-trained artillery officer in the Confederate Army, was buried in Jacksonville, Alabama, on March 31, 1863.  Pelham, who had been killed two weeks earlier at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, a relatively minor engagement in Virginia, had been promising and widely respected.

None less than Robert E. Lee had remarked, after observing Pelham’s skills at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he used two small cannons to disrupt the entire federal formation for almost an hour: “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”

The hagiography began almost immediately.

According to The Richmond Sentinel, Pelham’s body was placed in a metal coffin and lay in state at the Capitol.  The mourning public poured in to see the man people quickly came to call “the Gallant Pelham.”

The honors continued after Pelham’s body returned to Alabama.  A lavish funeral, planned by the city leaders, was held at the First Baptist church, after which a procession followed the funeral the few blocks south to the city cemetery.

Nor was he later forgotten.  In 1873 a monument was placed over his grave and in 1905 the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a marble statue on the site, which still stands today. Pelham was far from the only promising young officer to die in the war. But the outpouring of collective and official grief over his death, which only seemed to grow louder in subsequent years, underlines how thoroughly Pelham’s memory became a part of the Lost Cause narrative.

Born in 1838, Pelham grew up in northeast Alabama, in and around Jacksonville and Alexandria.  His father, Dr. Atkinson Pelham, was an Alabama planter with several hundred acres who owned four slaves at John’s  birth.  At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Pelham owned 25 to 30.  When
John Pelham died, he owned a trunk, a sabre, two servants, and two horses.

Pelham Names

  • Sir John Pelham, advisor to Henry IV in the early 1400’s, was the forebear of the Sussex Pelhams. 
  • Henry Pelham and Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Dukes of Newcastle,  served as consecutive Prime Ministers of England in the mid-18th century. 
  • John Pelham was a Confederate cavalry officer during the Civil War who was dubbed the Gallant Pelham because of his military prowess and personal courage.

Pelham Numbers Today

  • 800 in the UK (most numerous in Sussex)
  • 1,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 400 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Pelham and Like Surnames

Some surnames have come from SE England, in particular the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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