William Neilson Hall | The Canadian Encyclopedia


William Neilson Hall

William Neilson Hall, seaman (born 25 April 1829 in Horton Bluff [now Lockhartville], NS; died 25 August 1904 near Hantsport, NS). William Hall was the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian and the first Canadian naval recipient of the Victoria Cross. He was the son of parents who had been enslaved in the United States but fled to Halifax at the end of the War of 1812. Hall spent much of his life at sea, joining the merchant navy at the age of 16. As a member of the Royal Navy (1852–76), Hall served in the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny of 1857, among other engagements. One of the Canadian navy’s new Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships was named in his honour.

Early Life and Naval Career

William Hall was the son of Jacob and Lucy Hall who had been enslaved in the United States but fled to Halifax at the end of the War of 1812 in British warships, along with hundreds of other escaped slaves. They eventually moved to Horton Bluff, where Jacob was employed by Windsor merchant Peter Hall. For many years, it was believed that Jacob took the surname of his employer, but recently discovered documentary evidence indicates that his last name was Hall before he came to Nova Scotia.

William and several other children were born in Horton Bluff. He worked in shipyards for a few years before leaving Nova Scotia on board a merchant vessel when he was 16. (See also Merchant Navy of Canada.) After serving several years in the merchant navy, Hall joined the United States Navy in the spring of 1848 and served until May 1850. He then returned to the life of a merchant sailor until he joined the British Royal Navy in February 1852.

Hall’s first posting was to HMS Rodney. During the Crimean War (1853–56), he was part of a naval brigade that operated heavy gun batteries on land. Hall was involved in the siege of Sevastopol, where he commanded a 68-pounder Lancaster gun, and the battle of Inkerman. He received the Turkish Crimea medal and the British Crimea medal with clasps for Sevastopol and Inkerman for his service.

Bravery at Lucknow, 1857

In 1856, Hall was assigned to the frigate HMS Shannon. The following year, the Indian Mutiny broke out. Also known as the First War of Independence in India, the war began as a revolt by Indian soldiers (sepoys) serving in the army of the British East India Company. The rebels soon seized Delhi and Cawnpore [now Kanpur] and surrounded a British garrison at Lucknow.

HMS Shannon, which had been sailing to China, completed its voyage to Hong Kong and was then redirected to Calcutta [now Kolkata] to help quell the revolt. Some 475 marines and sailors, including Hall, formed a naval brigade that fought in India. After landing in Calcutta, they travelled by barge to Allahabad, where they were joined by another 280 sailors. From there, they travelled on foot, dragging guns, howitzers and rocket tubes as they fought their way to Cawnpore. From there, they marched to Lucknow. In November, the Shannon naval brigade was part of the British attempt to relieve the siege and rescue the garrison trapped there.

The rebel forces at Lucknow (approximately 60,000 in total) were difficult to dislodge because they were protected by the Shah Nujjiff, a large mosque with thick walls. The naval brigade’s gun crews tried to blast a breech through the mosque wall. The rebel defenders aimed an intense fire at the gun crews and eventually only Hall and an officer, Lieutenant Thomas Young, remained standing with one of the guns. Together, the two men sponged, loaded and fired their 24-pounder, carrying out drills that normally required half a dozen. Before a breach could be made, a few infantry soldiers gained entry to the mosque through a narrow crack in the wall, only to find that the rebels had fled. For their steadfastness and courage while the enemy killed or wounded all those around them, Hall and Young were awarded the Victoria Cross, as were another two members of the Shannon’s naval brigade. Hall received the VC on 28 October 1859 aboard HMS Donegal in Queenstown Harbour, Ireland.

Retirement and Commemoration

William Hall served on several other ships in the Royal Navy and retired as a petty officer first class in 1876. He then returned to Nova Scotia, where he lived with two sisters in a small farmhouse near Hantsport, until his death in 1904.

Hall was buried without military honours in a nearby churchyard, where his grave became neglected. In 1945, his body was disinterred and reburied in a special plot of land adjacent to the Baptist church in Hantsport; two years, later a special cairn was erected there as a permanent memorial. The monument includes an enlarged replica of his VC and a plaque describing his actions. His medals are now held by the Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax.

In 2010, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in Hall’s honour. In 2024, he was the honouree for Nova Scotia Heritage Day. The statutory holiday occurs on the third Monday in February and has been celebrated in Nova Scotia every year since 2015.

Did you know?
Few people in Nova Scotia knew about William Hall’s bravery until 1901. That year, HRH the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) visited the province. Hall attended a parade in the duke’s honour and wore his medals. The future king noticed Hall and struck up a conversation with him, drawing attention to his service.

HMCS William Hall

On 26 June 2015, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) announced its fourth Arctic patrol vessel will be named HMCS William Hall. For the first time in its history, the RCN has named a class of ships after prominent Canadian naval figures. The Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS), designated the Harry DeWolf-class, are each named after an individual who served Canada with the highest distinction. The AOPS will enhance the RCN’s ability to assert Canadian sovereignty in Arctic and coastal Canadian waters and support international operations when required. The keel for HMCS William Hall was laid on 17 February 2021 and on 31 August 2023, the ship was delivered to the RCN.

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