by Lorna Inness
The Chronicle-Herald, Halifax
Opinion, Wednesday, 21 March 2007, page A11
On October 28, 1859, ships of the Royal Navy lay at anchor in Queenstown Harbour, Ireland. Rear Admiral Charles Talbot and his party had crossed from his flagship to HMS Donegal, where the ship’s company was drawn up on the quarterdeck. Flags and pennants flew and, as a band played God Save the Queen, the admiral pinned a Victoria Cross to the uniform of Able Seaman William Hall.
The award, of the highest distinction among British medals, was given to Hall for an extraordinary feat of bravery at the relief of Lucknow in 1857 in the Indian Mutiny. Hall also was awarded the Mutiny Medal and bars. Admiral Taylor handed Hall a copy of the London Gazette notice of the award, as well as a copy of the regulations stating that he was also granted a £10 annual pension. What made the ceremony of particular significance was that Hall was black, the first Nova Scotian of his race to win such an honour.
The story of Hall and how he earned the VC and other medals should be well-known. One of the fascinating things about history, however, is that little-known details of incidents from the past continue to surface from time to time. This story is no exception. New light is shone on it in a collection of letters, photocopies and clippings at present in the possession of bookseller John W. Doull of Halifax [moved to Dartmouth in 2012]. Offered for sale, this piece of Nova Scotian history has been priced at $2,500.
Filed in transparent archival sleeves, in a large loose-leaf notebook, the material represents research done by the late Admiral Hugh Francis Pullen, OBE, RCN, who, in his retirement years, pursued an interest in naval history and wrote several books on various aspects of it.
As near as can be established, Hall was born at or near Horton, Nova Scotia [about 5km east of Wolfville, Kings County]. Several years are given for his birth: 1821, 1827 or 1828. British records show that he joined the Royal Navy at Liverpool, England, in 1852, as an able seaman aboard HMS Rodney, which was sent to the Black Sea during the Crimean War (1854-56).
For Hall’s service in that war, he was awarded the Crimea Medal with bars for Sebastopol and Inkerman, two honours which “were not earned easily”, Admiral Pullen commented in one of his letters. Hall also received the Turkish Crimea Medal.
The fall of 1857 found Hall as a captain of the foretopNOTE 1 aboard HMS Shannon on his way to service in India where, by a deed which required unbelievable tenacity and courage under heavy fire, Hall earned his Victoria Cross.
After some years of naval service, Hall returned to Nova Scotia and spent the rest of his life in the Horton area until his death in 1904. He received some recognition in his province and country. The Royal Canadian Legion Branch at Hantsport bears the name Lucknow, and there is a William Hall VC Branch of the Legion in Halifax.
A cairn was set up at Hantsport in his memory.
In 1966, Admiral Pullen, then retired, was appointed to the Atlantic provinces pavilion at Expo ’67. He thought the Montreal Expo would provide an excellent showcase for Hall’s story and, specifically, a display of his medals. He set about obtaining them, only to find that they had disappeared. They had been seen in public at Hall’s funeral. Shortly before his burial, they were removed from his body and given to members of his family. Admiral Pullen discovered that some time after the funeral, the medals had been given to Dr. Harry Chipman of Halifax by family members for disposal. There the story came to an abrupt end.
The admiral found that the medals had been included in a catalogue of displays at the Centenary of the Victoria Cross Exhibition in London in 1956, and listed as on loan from the Dominion of Canada. Inquiries at Ottawa, however, failed to shed any light on the matter.
Undaunted, the admiral wrote to Spink & Son Ltd., dealers in medals in London, England, asking for any information. The reply stated that the firm’s records had been destroyed in the blitz during the Second World War and no information was available. They did provide a 1966 valuation of £3750 to £3800 on the group of medals.
After more correspondence with possible sources, the admiral learned that the medals were part of a collection at the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, England. He wrote to the commander of the barracks, asking if it would be possible to display the medals at Expo, and received permission.
Having once located the medals, the admiral asked the then premier, the late Robert L. Stanfield, about acquiring the medals for Nova Scotia.
When the admiral approached the members of the Wardroom Mess Committee on the subject, they pointed out that not only was Hall’s VC one of the earliest, “it was the only naval one held by any RN establishment.” While noting that the admiral had “a strong case” in seeking the medals, the committee declined to part with them, other than on loan for Expo ’67.
There the story might have ended, but the admiral was not one to accept defeat lightly. He inquired whether, if a suitable replacement VC won by an RN member could be found, the committee would accept it in exchange for Hall’s medals. On being advised that they would, the search began.
Once more, Admiral Pullen consulted Spink & Son Ltd. and, in due course, was advised that they had been able to find a particularly rare group of Crimean medals, including a Victoria Cross won by a boatswain’s mate, John Sullivan, in 1855. Of added interest to the mess committee at Portsmouth was the fact that the Sullivan later served 10 years as Chief Boatswain at the dockyard in Portsmouth. Spink was prepared to part with the group for $3,400.
The medals subsequently were purchased by the province of Nova Scotia and exchanged for William Hall’s medals, to be kept on permanent display. The Pullen papers which provide the background to this story of Hall’s achievements and the admiral’s detective work give a unique insight into a remarkable and important part of Nova Scotian history.
NOTE 1: “The fall of 1857 found Hall as a captain of the foretop
aboard HMS Shannon on his way to service in India...”
What is a “captain of the foretop”?The "tops" were the platforms placed over the head of the lower
section of a mast to extend the topmast shrouds (the ropes that
support the masts). The tops were named according to the mast
– foretop on the foremast (or first from the bow of the ship),
maintop on the mainmast. In close actions the tops were used
as "fighting tops" from which marine marksmen would fire down
on enemy decks and at the men in the enemy tops. In ordinary
times they were where seamen were stationed to supervise the
men taking in and setting the sails. A sailor signed on in a certain
"rating" (ie: AB, Captain of the Maintop, Captain of the Forcastle,
Quartermaster, etc) depending upon his experience. If a ship was
in need of say top men and a man was a qualified Foretopman
then he would sign on as a Second Captain, or Captain of the
Foretop, for that commission. Generally, the foretopmen were
younger, stronger seamen. The mizzentopmen were usually older,
more experienced sailors a bit past their prime and less fit
for service in the fore or main top.
There were many captains on a ship. The term signifying a seaman
who was in charge of a group of other seamen, so you can get
Captains of the Foretop, Maintop, Forecastle, Afterguard, hold, etc.
The Sailor's Word Book by Admiral W.H. Smyth, published 1867,
describes a top as:
"A sort of platform placed over the head of the lower mast, from
which it projects like a scaffold. The principle intention of the top
is to extend the topmast shrouds, so as to form a greater angle
with the mast, and thereby give it additional support..."
"In ships of war it is used as a kind of redoubt, and is fortified
accordingly. It is very convenient for conatining the materials for
setting the small sails, fixing and repairing the rigging &c.
The tops are named after their respective masts..."
Captains of Foretop and Maintop would be agile and trusted sailors.
The Queens Regulations and the Admiralty Instructions, 1861
First uploaded to the WWW: 2013 January 12