Victoria Cross daredevil who helped crush Indian Mutiny

John Pearson VC and his medals
John Pearson VC and his medals

One of the bravest of the brave is remembered as the anniversary of his birth approaches. Virginia Mason reports

IT may not be cast from gold, nor even silver. But instead from a mere alloy - bronze.

david glover

david glover

Yet the coveted Victoria Cross - Britain’s supreme decoration for gallantry - has a value above even the most precious of metals or gems.

And the deed for which this prestigious accolade is awarded is quite simply priceless.

The recipients were - and still are - the bravest of the brave and their number is few. The Victoria Cross is awarded in only the most exceptional of cases.

Yet Calderdale, over the centuries and decades, has won its fair share - including two awarded for bravery during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 to 1859.

One of those presented during the conflict, was to Private John Pearson, who Halifax historian David Glover believes may have been all but forgotten.

His research into the gallant soldier was sparked after studying information on the Halifax Census records of 1881.

“Much can be learned from those past censuses that are now available for scrutiny by the public and in this case my curiosity was aroused because data on this particular census proved another public record wrong,” he says.

“In this case it was a large sign in Ontario, Canada.”

David explains that the sign commemorates John Pearson - the soldier emigrated to Canada from his Halifax home. But the date is incorrect.

“The sign claims that he emigrated in 1880 but this cannot be the case because both the 1871 the 1881 census record him and his family living in Halifax, registered as a Chelsea Pensioner and employed as a watchman.

The conflicting information intrigued David who decided to find out more about the man and his Victoria Cross.

John Pearson was born on January 19, 1825 at Seacroft Leeds, the son of a gardener - probably on the Temple Newsam estate.

“He was baptised at Whitkirk and this is where his first connection with Halifax comes in because he was baptised by the Rev Charles Musgrave, who from 1827, was vicar of Halifax,” says David.

In January 1844, Pearson joined the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, and seven years later, in 1851, he married Selina Smart, in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, where he was then stationed in barracks.

Pearson served in the Crimean War and was also present at the Battle of Balaklava.

“It is believed he took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade,” says David, who adds that he was awarded the Crimea Medal with clasps for Alma, Balaklava and Sevastapol, as well as the Turkish Medal.

At the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny in 1857, his regiment embarked from Cork for India aboard the SS Great Britain - the famous ship now preserved at Bristol. He was to serve in India for more than nine years.

On June 1858, a force under Major-General Sir Hugh Rose, including the 8th Hussars, attacked their Indian opponents on a plain outside Gwalior. A squadron, including Private Pearson, charged and helped rout the enemy. During this action he was wounded with a sword cut to the right shoulder and for their actions he and three colleagues were recommended for the Victoria Cross.

The joint citation from the London Gazette of January 29, 1859 reads: “Selected for the Victoria Cross by their companions. In the gallant charge made by a Squadron of the Regiment at Gwalior, on the 17th June, 1858, when, supported by a division of the Bombay Horse Artillery, and Her Majesty’s 95th Regiment, they routed the enemy, who were advancing against Brigadier Smith’s position, charged through the rebel camp into two batteries, capturing and bringing into their camp two of the enemy’s guns, under a heavy and converging fire from the fort and town.”

Pearson was decorated with his VC in India by Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Somerset and was promoted from Private to Corporal on July 22, 1859.

He transferred to the 19th Hussars in 1863, becoming a sergeant in 1865. On September 3, 1867, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal with an annuity of £15.

David explains that was invalided to England from Meerut in India in November that year, spending a time recuperating at the Royal Hospital, Netley, Hants. In June 1868 he was discharged from the Army due to his physical condition.

His conduct was described as exemplary, and when promoted to Sergeant, he held four Good Conduct badges.

Several of Pearson’s children were born out East; India Office records mention a son, Stephen Edward, dying of cholera at Meerut on August 1, 1861 aged 4, and another son, Edward, born there on October 7 1862, but others were born and baptised in Halifax. Pearson arrived in Halifax shortly after his army discharge, settling first in the Haley Hill area, then at Wood Street before moving to Melville Place.

“Did the fact that he would have known our Vicar Musgrave (who died in 1875) in his youth, have any influence on this, I wonder?” asks David.

The Halifax Parish Register records the baptism of three of his children: Selina, on February 20, 1870, Ida, on May 19, 1872, and Mary, March 15, 1874.

Soon after the 1881 Census, the Pearson family emigrated to Ontario and Pearson was eventually to own a small farm on the Bruce Peninsula. He died in April 1892, and was buried nearby at Lion’s Head.

“During the Royal Tour of Canada in 1939, as the daughter of a VC, Pearson’s Halifax-born daughter Selina (then Mrs. Richardson) was presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Edmonton, Alberta. Selina died at Vancouver in 1957, aged 86. Her sister Mary, later Mrs. Baker, had died in 1956,” reveals David.

In the late 20th Century, a plaque was erected to his memory by the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario, in the National Park at Lion’s Head.

“The 1881 Halifax Census records prove the sign in Ontario wrong, though I have not yet located the date when the Pearsons actually emigrated. The earliest they could have left England would be would have been in mid-April 1881, after the Census was taken,” says David.

In November 2004, Sgt. Pearson’s decorations - including the VC - came up for auction in London by Morton & Eden. They fetched £78,000, and are today in Lord Ashcroft’s medal collection.

“I think we should all be proud that such a brave man once lived in Halifax and I do think it is important his name is not forgotten.”

Fact file

* The Victoria cross was founded by Royal Warrant on January 29, 1956

* The cross is cast from the bronze of cannons captured at Sevastapol in the Crimean War

* It hangs from a plain crimson ribbon (blue for naval personnel)

* It was designed by Queen Victoria and deemed that “neither rank, nor long service nor wounds” should be a requirement - but simply “conspicuous bravery”

* In 1902, King Edward VII approved it should be awarded posthumously

* A total of 1,356 have been awarded, including to local men and those with local connections: Joel Holmes (1857, Indian Mutiny), John Pearson (1858, Indian Mutiny), James Bergin (1868, Abyssinia Expedition), Henry Kelly (1916, Le Sars, France), Arthur Poulter (1918, Erquinghem Lys, France), Hanson Victor Turner (1944, World War II), James Magennis (1945, World War II),