William Edward Hall

William Edward Hall

February 11, 2021 | Black History Month, G-BLOG

William Neilson Edward Hall
William Neilson Edward Hall
Photo Credit: Veterans Affairs Canada

William Edward Hall was the first Nova Scotian, and the First Black person, to receive the Victoria Cross. 

The Victoria Cross is the highest honour for bravery and valour that can be awarded to members of the British Armed Forces. 

According to The London Gazette of Feb. 1, 1859, Hall was awarded the illustrious medal, along with Lieutenant James Young, “for their gallant conduct at a 24-Pounder Gun, brought up to the angle of the Shah Nujjiff, at Lucknow, on the 16th of November, 1857.”

As “Captain of the Foretop” onboard HMS Shannon, Hall and a brigade of soldiers were ordered to Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, to relieve the British garrison which was under siege in Lucknow. 

Hall was a member of one of four gun crews attempting to breach the walls of the Shah Najaf mosque as rebels shot at them. Eventually only Hall, and Lieutenant Young were left. They continued to load and fire the last gun until the wall was breached, giving the soldiers of the British garrison enough room to scramble through.

“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.”

Hall was born in Horton’s Bluff, Nova Scotia, on April 28, 1827, the son of free Black slaves. His parents were recued from slavery by a British frigate during the War of 1812. 

Hall attended school and then built ships for the merchant marine in the Hantsport shipyards. Before he was 18, he joined the crew of a trading vessel. 

In 1852, Hall left a promising career with the American merchant navy and enlisted in the British Royal Navy in Liverpool, England. 

Hall’s first service was as Able Seaman onboard HMS Rodney during the Crimean war. 

He was awarded the Turkish Crimea medal, and the British Crimea medal with the “Sevastopol” and “Inkerman” clasps. 

As a member of the Naval Brigade, Hall assisted the ground forces by manning heavy guns. This led to his appointment aboard HMS Shannon. 

Hall retired from the British Royal Navy in 1876 with the rank of Petty Officer, First Class and lived with his sisters on a farm in Avonport, N.S.

Hall lived a quiet life until a visit by His Royal Highness, the Duke of Cornwall and York, the future King George V, visited Nova Scotia until 1901 to unveil a monument. 

A parade was held in the Duke’s honour, and Hall attended the parade with his Victoria Cross and other medals pinned to his chest. The Duke noticed Hall and asked about the medals. 

But Hall did not receive military honours when he died of paralysis in Hantsport on Aug. 25, 1904. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Lockhart, N.S. 

In 1937 a campaign was launched to have Hall recognized by the Royal Canadian Legion and in 1954 his remains were reinterred in the grounds of the Hantsport Baptist Church. 

In 1956, a monument was erected in his honour at the church by the Hantsport Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. It bears an enlarged replica of his Victoria Cross and a plaque describing Hall’s courage, his actions and devotion to duty. 

Hall’s medals are on display at the Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax.

SOURCES: HISTORIC-UK.COM, NOVA SCOTIA MUSEUM PUBLICATIONS AT OJS.LIBRARY.DAL.CA, VETERANS.GC.CA

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