Sir John Henry Pelly, Bart., Governor of HBC 1822-1852

Oil on canvas, 19th Century, by Henry Perronet Briggs, R.A.

HBCA P-313

Sir John Henry Pelly, 1st Bart., was involved with HBC for some 40 years. He became Governor after 10 years on the Board (during which time he served as Deputy Governor), and remained in the top position for 30 years. A fourth generation sailor, whose forebears had sailed in the employ of the East India Company, Pelly had himself served four years as a master. He is reported to have preferred being called "Captain Pelly" and although his official portrait shows him wearing a gold-braided Royal Navy jacket, there does not seem to be any evidence that he ever held a naval commission. Pelly was also Deputy Master of Trinity House, the U.K.’s pilotage and lighthouse authority.

A clever and cordial man who found making money something of an intellectual challenge, Pelly oversaw HBC’s affairs in the period immediately following the merger with the North West Company. His career coincided with the tenure of George Simpson as Governor of Rupert’s Land. Pelly and Simpson enjoyed a positive relationship. In 1838 they travelled together to Russia to negotiate a fur trade treaty for the Alaska trade between HBC and the Russian American Fur Company. The resulting agreement gave HBC trading rights in the Alaska panhandle in exchange for supplying fresh produce from its Oregon farms and an annual rent of 2,000 prime sea otter skins. The arrangement lasted until Alaska was sold to the U.S. in 1867. Along the way the two visited Pelly’s Scandinavian timber estate which supplied most of the wooden cobbles then used to pave London’s streets. In 1841 Simpson journeyed to the Company’s agency in the Sandwich Islands, modern Hawaii. This outlet, which sold salted salmon and timber from the Pacific Northwest, was run by George Pelly – the Governor’s cousin. Simpson’s youngest child, John Henry Pelly (nicknamed Moses), was named after the Governor.

Plan of the HBC premises in Honolulu, Hawaii at Queen and Fort Streets, 1860

HBCA B.191/e/1 fo. 1


Pencil drawing of Governor's House and Wharf at Sitka (Russian American Company's Headquarters, Alaska)

HBCA F.29/2 fo. 1

Pelly’s early sailing career may well be the reason behind the Company’s renewed interest in the Arctic. When he became Governor in 1822, Pelly reversed HBC's policy with regard to Arctic exploration and, partly as a result, the next few decades saw unprecedented activity in northern Canada. An editorial in The Times in February 1825 described the impact on Britain's search for a Northwest Passage:

"Indeed the union of the two Fur Companies into one, under the name of the Hudson's Bay Company, is a most fortunate circumstance for the interests of science, and has enabled the directors to remove stumbling blocks from the path of discovery that were nearly as formidable as the rigours of the climate in the former divided state of the country."

The careers of John Rae, Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson coincided with Pelly’s direction of the Company. As a result he is commemorated all over northern Canada: Pelly River in the Yukon; Pelly Bay on the Arctic Coast in Nunavut; Pelly Island on the Arctic Coast in the Northwest Territories; Pelly Lake on the Back River in the Northwest Territories; Pelly Mountains, Pelly Banks and Pelly Lakes in the Yukon; Pelly Mountain and Pelly Point on Victoria Island are all named for the Governor.

During his time at HBC, Pelly also served as a Director and finally as Governor of the Bank of England (1841-1842). The deep relationship between the two institutions was already of long standing but became solidified during this period. In fact, prior to the merger with the NWC, the advantage of HBC’s credit with the Bank – enhanced by the fact that many key shareholders were well-placed in London’s financial elite – enabled the Company to weather the economic stresses of the ongoing rivalry with its chief competitor.

Pelly, HBC's 2007 Heritage Charity Bear

Pelly’s guidance of HBC, assisted by Simpson’s able management, saw the Company move from strength to strength. It is reported that Pelly was so influential that wags suggested the Company's motto pro pelle cutem – “The skin for the fur” – should be changed to pro Pelly cutem – “The fur for Pelly!”

The 2007 HBC Heritage Charity Bear was named Pelly, in honour of the former Governor.