William Hall earned the Victoria Cross for heroism during the relief of Lucknow

William Hall

DND

Petty Officer (PO) William Hall VC

In 1857, naval reinforcements were urgently needed to assist the British Army during the Indian Rebellion.

William Hall, son of freed African-American slaves living in Nova Scotia, was one of the sailors from His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Shannon who were formed into a naval brigade and sent as part of the force marching to the relief of Lucknow, then besieged by mutineers.

The key to Lucknow was the Shah Nujeef mosque, a walled structure itself enclosed by yet another wall.

The outer wall was breached by the 93rd Highlanders at mid-day on November 16, 1857, and the Shannon brigade, commanded by Captain William Peel, dragged its guns close to the inner wall.

Hall volunteered to replace a missing man in the crew of a 24-pounder.

 From The Romance of the King’s Navy by Edward Fraser (1908):

The “Shannon’s Brigade” lost no time in getting to work. On November 16 the bluejackets (naval personnel), with their 24-pounders and 8-inch howitzers, breached the walls of Secundrabagh, a fortified palace on the outskirts of Lucknow, and the neighbouring mosque of the Shah Nujeef, similarly fortified, in the face of a tremendous fusillade from the enemy’s innumerable loopholes.

The walls of Shah Nujeef were thick, and by late afternoon the 30,000 sepoy defenders had inflicted heavy casualties from their protected positions.

The 93rd and Captain Peel’s guns rolled on in one irresistible wave, the men falling fast, but the column advanced till the heavy guns were within 20 yards of the walls of the Shah Nujeef where they were unlimbered and poured in round after round against the massive walls. It was an action almost unexampled in war.

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.

The attack cost the Shannon 18 killed and wounded, but Hall and Young survived.

The action had come about when Lord Elgin, former Governor General of Upper Canada and then Envoy Extraordinary to China, was asked to send troops to the region.

The rebel sepoy army had taken Delhi and Cawnpore, and a small British garrison at Lucknow was under siege.

Elgin diverted troops to Calcutta and, as the situation in India worsened, ships were dispatched from Hong Kong to Calcutta. Peel, several officers and about 400 seamen and marines including Hall, travelled by barge on the Ganges River and on foot from Calcutta to Cawnpore, dragging eight-inch guns and 24-pound howitzers.

It was a long and toilsome journey and took nearly two months. The Ganges was in flood, swollen with the monsoon rains, and the current ran strong, making the work of the towing steamers, vessels with weak engines and of light draught, very slow. They had to anchor every night.

Following the action at Shah Nujeef, Peel recommend Hall and Young for the Victoria Cross, in recognition of their "gallant conduct at a 24-pounder gun...at Lucknow on the November 16, 1857."

Hall received his Victoria Cross aboard HMS Donegal in Queenstown Harbour, Ireland, on October 28, 1859, the first black person, first Nova Scotian and only third Canadian to be awarded the honour.

His naval career continued aboard many ships, among them Bellerophon, Hero, Impregnable, Petrel and Royal Adelaide, until he retired in 1876 as quartermaster. He returned to Nova Scotia to settle on the family farm near Hantsport.

Hall’s valiant actions during the hard fought battle at the relief of Lucknow serve as an inspiration to today’s members of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

In recognition of Hall’s bravery, perseverance and devotion to duty, the RCN honoured him by naming its fourth new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship William Hall.

Credits

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

The Romance of the King’s Navy, Chapter VI, by Edward Fraser