William Hall was the first black man to win a Victoria Cross (VC). Born in 1827 in Nova Scotia, the son of a freed slave, Hall volunteered for the Royal Navy some time before 1852. In November 1857 he was part of the Naval Brigade from HMS ‘Shannon’ which helped to relieve the British Residency in Lucknow, winning the VC alongside Lieutenant Thomas Young. Hall remained with the Navy, rising to the position of Quartermaster and Petty Officer in HMS ‘Peterel’ before he retired in 1876.
The Daily Times – Moncton N. B. (Thursday January 11th 1900)
A Nova Scotian – VC
The list of VC’s on which are now, some 180 names, will doubtless be augmented during the present war. In running over the list of those who are entitled to wear the little bronze cross, one encounters the entry, “Hall, Seaman William, India, 1857” and if it were known to the reader that Seaman Hall is one of the two coloured men who have won the Victoria Cross, and lives near Avonport, Kings County, it would probably “register” as much interest for him as such names as Redvers Buller, Evelyn Wood, Roberts of Kandahar, Sir George Stewart White, and others of prominence which appear in this distinguished category.
Mr. Hall was seen by the writer three years ago in his neat little home. He invited the Times reporter in, and told as much of the story of his exploit as his fading memory would allow. As an introduction he brought out a small box of medals, among which was the Crimean medal, bearing the clasp inscribed *‘Sebastopol’. Beside this were many others, any one of which would cause a soldier’s breast which bore them to swell with pride. But the trophy for which even the commander-in-chief would gladly barter his baton was the one which engrossed the writer’s attention, as he held it almost reverently. It is not much to look at. In fact, it is rather a clumsy affair; there is no beauty in it or value either, intrinsically that is. But the little piece of metal told that its humble possessor had once gone unflinchingly into the jaws of death for his country’s sake.
Mr. Hall used to wear the cross upon his watch chain, and has lost the blue ribbon from which it was suspended. He was captain of the foretop on one of H M (His Majesties) ships that went to India during the mutiny, and accompanied the famous naval brigade to Lucknow. It was during the siege of that place by Sir Colin Campbell that Mr. Hall performed the exploit of “conspicuous valour,” indeed, that won him the Victoria Cross.
Mr Hall is well advanced in years and the circumstances regarding that celebrated campaign are fading from his memory, but he recalls well how he and a lieutenant fought their gun after the rest of the crew had been killed beneath the high wall they at length succeeded in breaching. They ran the gun close to the walls. The slant of the loopholes were such that they were safe from the fire of the garrison when within a certain point, but at every shot the gun recoiled and ran back into the fire zone. As often as the gun ran back Hall and his companion would dart out after it amid deadly hail of bullets, roll it back again, load up and bang away at the ever growing breach, until their heroic task was done.
Their country owned their services, and the gallant young lieutenant and his devoted coloured comrade received the highest distinction reserved for British heroes and the height of a British soldier’s or sailor’s ambition. Few men can boast of such splendid service as can this fine old Nova Scotia Negro, who is ranked among those whom the nation loves to honour.
*Sebastopol – (Russian – Sevastopol), Seaport in the Crimea in southern Ukraine. In 1804 it became the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet. It was captured after a prolonged siege of 322 days -1854-55.
Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole are names associated with the Crimea.
6 September 1904
William Hall the only negro who ever won the Victoria Cross died recently at Horton Bluff, Nova Scotia where he has resided since his retirement from the navy, twenty years ago. He was seventy-eight years old. Mr. Hall entered the British Navy at an early age and served his Country faithfully for many years. At the relief of Lucknow he was one of the squad of Marines who volunteered for a very difficult service and he received the Cross for standing to his gun while the company was engaged in blowing open a gate to make an entrance into the City. He and another man were left alone to work the gun, their comrades having been killed and by their pluck and perseverance succeeded in effecting an entrance for the British Troops.
September 14, 1938,
A KINGS COUNTY HERO
A correspondent of the Toronto Globe and Mail calls attention to the fact that August 25th was the anniversary of the death of the only Canadian-born Negro to be awarded the Victoria Cross for valour in battle. This was William Hall, who thirty-five years ago was living at Horton Bluff, in this county. He was born in Nova Scotia in 1827, son of a negro who had been rescued from slavery while en route from Africa to the United States and had been taken to Halifax, with his companions, by a British frigate. The freed black man secured work with a farmer in Hants County and took the name Hall in gratitude to his benefactor. He married a negro girl whose family had escaped when the British destroyed Washington in 1814. Their son was William Hall – R.N., V.C. (awards) Born at Horton Bluff was a sailor from his boyhood and on February 10, 1852, decided to join the Royal Navy, signing on as able seaman on H.M.S. Rodney, on which he served through the Crimean War, winning Turkish and English medals, the latter with clasps for Sebastopol and Inkerman.
When the Indian mutiny broke out in May, 1857, he was on H.M.S. Shannon en route to China. She was intercepted and ordered to Calcutta. A “Shannon Brigade” was formed of 450 gunners, sailors and marines, under Captain William Peel, also a Crimean veteran. It was towed 800 miles up the Ganges to Allahabad. Then the force fought across-country to Campbell’s headquarters, at Cawnpore. They got there just in time to take part in the relief of Lucknow, November 16, 1857.
It was on that day that the British negro hero won the V.C. When his particular scrap was over only he and a Lieut. Young remained. All the others had been killed or wounded. Hall afterward served on various men-of-war, won Quartermaster’s rank and was let out on pension as petty officer, first class, July 4, 1876. He then resided with two sisters, Mrs. Robinson and Miss Rachel Hall, at Brooklyn, Hants County. Three years before his death he travelled to Halifax, his breast ablaze with his medals, to pay his respect to the future King George V, when the then Duke of York laid the cornerstone of the South African memorial at Halifax.
William Hall’s grave is unmarked. Surely this should be rectified. It would not take many dollars to erect a monument telling the passers by of Canada’s first negro to win the most coveted decoration in the world.
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