Black History Month – introducing William Hall

Photo of William Hall, VC

By Rich Jones, RFEA Diversity Champion and Future Horizons programme manager.

William Hall

  • Born 1827 Nova Scotia
  • Died 1904 Horton Bluff

Awards

  • The Victoria Cross
  • Indian Mutiny Medal (Two Bars)
  • Turkish Crimea Medal
  • Crimea Medal (Three bars)

William Hall was the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian, and one of the first Canadians to receive the British Empire’s highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. William Edward Hall was born in Horton Nova Scotia, in 1827, the son of slaves who had escaped American Slave owners in Maryland during the War of 1812, who were brought to freedom by the British Royal Navy as part of the Black Refugee movement.

Hall first worked in shipyards at nearby Hantsport, Nova Scotia, before going to sea at the age of seventeen on merchant ships, and soon enlisted into the Royal Navy in Liverpool, England, in 1852. His first service, as Able Seaman with HMS Rodney, included two years in the Crimean War. Hall was a member of the naval brigade, and he received British and Turkish medals for his work during this campaign.

After the Crimean War, he was assigned to HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, then joined HMS Shannon as Captain of the Foretop. Shannon, under Captain William Peel, was escorting troops to China, in readiness for the expected conflict there, when mutiny broke out among the sepoys in India. The rebel sepoy army had taken Delhi and Cawnpore, and a small British garrison at Lucknow was under siege.

The Shannon, Pearl, and Sanspareil were dispatched along with Captain Peel, several officers, and about 400 seamen and marines including William Hall, who travelled 800 miles by barge and on foot from Calcutta to Cawnpore, dragging eight-inch guns and twenty-four-pound howitzers, progress was slow with fighting all along the way.

To relieve Lucknow the Shah Najaf mosque a walled structure itself enclosed by yet another wall had to be taken. The outer wall was breached, and the Shannon brigade dragged its guns to within 400 yards (366 m) of the inner wall. William Hall volunteered to replace a missing man in the crew of a twenty-four-pounder. The walls were thick, and by late afternoon the 30,000 sepoy defenders had inflicted heavy casualties. The bombardment guns from Shannon were dragged still closer to the walls and to little effect. Captain Peel ordered two guns to within 20 yards (18 m) of the wall. The enemy concentrated its fire on these gun crews until one was totally annihilated. Of the Shannon crew, only Hall and one officer, Lieutenant Thomas Young, were left standing.

Young was badly injured, but he and Hall continued working the gun, firing, reloading and firing again until they finally triggered the charge that opened the walls. “I remember,” Hall is quoted as saying, “that after each round we ran our gun forward until at last my gun’s crew were actually in danger of being hurt by splinters of brick and stone torn by the round shot from the walls we were bombarding.”

Captain Peel recommended William Hall and Thomas Young for the Victoria Cross, in recognition of their “gallant conduct at a twenty-four-pounder gun. Hall received his Victoria Cross aboard HMS Donegal in Queenstown Harbour, Ireland, on October 28, 1859. His naval career continued aboard many ships until he retired in 1876 as Quartermaster.

Hall moved back to Nova Scotia to live with his sisters, Rachel Robinson and Mary Hall, on a farm in Avonport. A modest man, he lived and farmed without recognition until his death in 1901, when HRH the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) visited Nova Scotia. A parade of British veterans was held, and Hall wore his Victoria Cross and three other service medals.