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BENTLEY, JOHN, musician and office holder; b. c. 1756 in England; d. 10 Nov. 1813 at Quebec, Lower Canada.

John Bentley, a young English harpsichordist, was living in Philadelphia, Pa, at the end of the American revolution. In 1783 he founded the City Concerts in Philadelphia, the first city in the new republic to have regular musical entertainment. This fortnightly series of vocal and instrumental music drew capacity audiences during runs lasting from October 1783 to April 1784 and from November 1784 to April 1785. In August 1785 Bentley and his wife, Catherine, left for New York with the Lewis Hallam troupe of comedians. Bentley played the harpsichord, led the orchestra when one was required, and composed incidental music as well as the music for three pantomimes, The cave of enchantment, The genii of the rock, and Touchstone, or harlequin traveller. At the end of the New York season in November 1785 , two members of the Hallam troupe, William Moore* and Edward Allen, formed their own company; Bentley joined it as musical director, and with his wife played minor roles.

In the first week of March 1786, after having performed for two months at Albany, N.Y., the troupe arrived at Montreal, where they were welcomed with pleasure by the military and the new commercial class. One of their productions was a new pantomime, The enchanters, or the triumph of genius, with music by Bentley. After some months the company moved to Quebec, starting its summer season on 21 July. Catherine died there in October, shortly after giving birth to a son. In January 1787 Bentley returned with part of the company to Montreal, where, late in the year as the group was breaking up, he advertised as a teacher of geography, Latin, and English, “known to be the most Sublime, Beautiful, Copious, Energetic and comprehensive Language now us’d on the Habitable Globe.”

In January 1788 Bentley was again at Quebec, and there on 11 Jan. 1789 he married Mary Colley Gill, 32-year-old widow of a Quebec businessman, William Gill. They rented a house on Rue des Remparts, where in February 1790 she died in childbirth. Bentley moved to a house along the Rivière Saint-Charles, but it was destroyed by fire in May 1791. He had entered fully into the musical life of the city, being active in subscription concerts of vocal and instrumental music, and was associated with local and touring theatrical groups. At a meeting held on 26 Dec. 1791 to celebrate the passing of the Constitutional Act, he sang an ode which he had set to music; the text was printed in the Quebec Gazette of 5 Jan. 1792.

In 1797 Bentley was appointed overseer of highways and bridges for Saint-Charles Ward. In August 1798 he was sworn in as high constable, and on 21 Dec. 1799 he married Deborah, daughter of Hugh McKay, his predecessor in the office. In December 1798 Bentley had been appointed surveyor of the city and suburbs of Quebec, and in May 1801 he replaced William Vondenvelden as inspector of roads for the city and parish at a salary of £100 per annum. One of his responsibilities was to enforce the law requiring citizens to maintain the streets in front of their property, and he regularly warned them through the newspapers of this duty; in early March 1811 he successfully prosecuted John Neilson* “for having neglected to cut the Cahots” before his house. Bentley also supervised road construction and paving, and during his tenure the Upper Town market and Rue de la Montague were paved and streets constructed in the growing suburb of Saint-Jean. When in 1810 a contractor complained in the Quebec Mercury that Bentley had sent him a French advertisement for submission of tenders, Bentley apologized in the Quebec Gazette, adding that he was “likewise sorry that your education has been so much neglected as not to understand the French language, especially, being now in a part of the world where it is so universally spoken that I should suppose you must pass some of your hours unpleasantly without the knowledge of it.”

Bentley was responsible as well for maintaining the integrity of public roads, which were being continually encroached upon, particularly by merchants desperate to expand their quarters in cramped Lower Town. His task was rendered difficult by the failure the justices of the peace, who administered the city and of whom the most influential were merchants, to confirm a city plan proposed by Vondenvelden in 1801 which would have delineated clearly public and private property. Bentley seems to have been the first road inspector to make a serious attempt to defend public property when in 1802 he sued the shipbuilder John Goudie* for blocking a public road over a beach lot owned by William Grant (1744–1805).

Bentley appears to have encountered serious financial difficulties in the early 1800s. In March 1803 he and his wife sold for £45 to the auctioneer John Jones 1,400 acres of land that they had been granted in Tring Township in 1801. In July 1804 Bentley’s debts to a number of creditors, including Jones and Louis Dunière, totalled £211, excluding a sum, not then determined, that he owed to the firm of Lester and Morrogh [see Robert Lester]. He was obliged to turn over to his creditors two horses and harnesses, two carrioles, one train, one cart, and a large amount of furniture, dishes, and sundry items from his home at the Bateau Yard in Lower Town.

Bentley continued to be active in the theatre, acting as ticket agent for touring American troupes and managing a theatre until December 1806. The touring companies visited Quebec at least once a year between 1804 and 1811, although absent in 1805 and 1807. Local troupes, except that formed by officers of the garrison, were few and short-lived, competition from the officers and the visitors being so strong. Individual local actors might, however, join the officers or the touring companies. Productions were given in theatres which were actually rooms arranged temporarily in barracks or over taverns, such as the Military Theatre, the Garrick Theatre, or one situated over the New Tavern and described by an American actor as “a paltry little room of a very paltry public-house, that neither in shape nor capacity merited the name of theatre.” Two theatres for the performing arts, constructed in succession in 1804, the Brobdignac and the Patagonian, died within a year.

Bentley’s primary interest, however, remained music; indeed, in 1805 some citizens, writing in the Quebec Mercury, had complained that “it would serve the public materially if the High Constable would attend a little more to his duty in having the streets properly levelled . . . and not bestow his entire attention on his Crochets and Quavers.” He had been engaged by the Church of England congregation in 1801 as an organist and in 1802 as choirmaster. When the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity was consecrated by Bishop Jacob Mountain* on 28 Aug. 1804, the surpliced choir consisted of thirteen boys and four men. The Reverend James Sutherland Rudd of William Henry (Sorel) wrote to the Reverend John Strachan* that the service “was chanted and had a fine effect. The organ is a fine ton’d instrument.” In 1813 Bentley was receiving £40 per annum for teaching singing to the choir and a dollar for each time he played the organ. From 1810 to 1813 he was also organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral, at a salary of £40 per annum with the responsibility of training a successor.

Bentley’s third wife had died in 1809, and on 2 Nov. 1811, at age 55, he married Margaret Hutton, 28, widow of Captain James Hutton. In April 1812 they rented for £80 a year a house and garden on the Chemin du Roy at Saint-Sauveur, just outside the city. Bentley died on 10 Nov. 1813. According to Oscar George Theodore Sonneck, he “deserves to be considered one of the most important figures in the musical history of Philadelphia”; in the 25 years he lived at Quebec his main interest had been music, and he deserves to be considered an important figure in that city’s musical history as well.

Dorothy E. Ryder

Two chants attributed to John Bentley are published in A collection of original sacred music, arranged in full score, with organ or piano forte accompaniment, comp. F. H. Andrews (Montreal, 1848), 81–82.

ANQ-Q, CE1-61,. 11 janv. 1789, 21 déc. 1799, 2 nov. 1811, 11 nov. 1813. AP, Notre-Dame de Québec, Cahiers des délibérations de la fabrique, 1777–1825: 345. PAC, MG 24, B1, 79; 84. Montreal Gazette, 16 March 1786; 1 March, 4, 11, 25 Oct., 11 Nov. 1787. Quebec Gazette, 1790–1813. Quebec Mercury, 1805–13. Encyclopedia of music in Canada (Kallmann et al.), 79. Baudouin Burger, L’activité théâtrale au Québec (1765–1825) (Montréal, 1974), 109, 111, 113–14, 118, 144–49, 192, 321. J. T. Howard, Our American music; three hundred years of it (rev. ed., New York, 1939), 70, 105–6. J. N. Ireland, Records of the New York stage from 1750 to 1860 (2v., New York, 1866–67; repr., 1966). Millman, Jacob Mountain, 89. T. C. Pollock, The Philadelphia theatre in the eighteenth century, together with the day book of the same period (Philadelphia, 1933; repr., New York, 1968). Ruddel, “Quebec City, 1765–1831,” 518–19, 543, 562. G. O. Seilhammer, History of the American theatre (3v., Philadelphia, 1888–91; repr., New York, 1968), 2: 165, 170–75, 194–200. O. G. [T.] Sonneck, Early concert-life in America (17311800) (Leipzig, [German Democratic Republic], 1907), 78–79, 125–26. F. C. Würtele, “The English cathedral of Quebec,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans. (Quebec), new. ser., 20 (1891): 86. Nazaire LeVasseur, “Musique et musiciens à Québec: souvenirs d’un amateur,” La Musique (Québec), 1 (1919): 26–27.

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Cite This Article

Dorothy E. Ryder, “BENTLEY, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bentley_john_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bentley_john_5E.html
Author of Article: Dorothy E. Ryder
Title of Article: BENTLEY, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: July 24, 2014