William Hall awarded the Victoria Cross

Commemorative stamp of William Hall © Canada Post 2010

For the Week of Monday, January 28, 2019.

On February 2, 1852, African-Nova Scotian William Hall enlisted in the British Royal Navy. He would become the first person of African descent and the first Nova Scotian to receive the Victoria Cross.

Hall’s parents, Jacob and Lucy Hall, escaped slavery in the American State of Maryland through Jacob’s fighting for Britain during the War of 1812. They were among more than 2,000 refugees from slavery, who were emancipated and resettled in Nova Scotia in 1815. There, in Hants County, William Hall was born in the late 1820s. As a teenager, he worked on merchant vessels, sailing between Nova Scotia, England, and the United States. In 1852, Hall entered the British Royal Navy as a citizen of the British Empire in the port city of Liverpool.

He sailed around the world with the Royal Navy, at a time when Britain used its ships to patrol the Empire. In 1857, he journeyed to India aboard HMS Shannon, which was part of a naval brigade sent as reinforcements for the British Army during an uprising in opposition to British rule at Lucknow, capital of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

On November 16, 1857, during the Siege of Lucknow, the British attempted to penetrate the walls of the Shah Najaf Imambara, a mosque that was a rebel stronghold. Able Seaman William Hall participated in the offensive, as part of a small heavy-artillery brigade that bombarded the mosque and attempted to breach the wall. The British came under heavy fire.

“I remember,” Hall later said, “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.” Eyewitnesses testified to Hall continuing to fire after the rest of the gun crew had been felled by enemy fire.

The British were ultimately victorious and Hall was awarded the Victoria Cross in a ceremony on board his vessel in Queenston Harbour, Ireland, in October 1859. This was only a year after the creation of the Victoria Cross, as the highest award in the British military honours system.

William Hall, a designated national historic person, went on to have a long career in the Royal Navy, serving until 1876. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn


February is Black History Month. Learn more about African-Canadian histories by exploring our online archives about R. Nathaniel Dett, Carrie Best, Ernest Melville DuPorte, William Hall, George Dixon, and the Experiences of Black Loyalists, among others, and check out entries about No 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F., Kathleen ‘Kay’ Livingstone, and the Black Pioneers in British Columbia in the Directory of Federal Heritage Designations