Home Search Index of men A-Z

The E.J. Boys Archive

Added 14.9.2011. Some editoriaL changes 23.9.11, 1.1.2014, 31.3.2014. Photograph added 16.6.15.

939, Private William PEARSON — 17th Lancers

Birth & early life

Born at Doncaster, Yorkshire, on the 2nd of February 1825.


Enlisted at Dublin on the 8th of February 1848.

Age: 18.

Height: 5' 8".

Trade: Servant.


Severely wounded in action at Balaclava and sent to Scutari on the 26th of October 1854.

Invalided to England on the 7th of December 1854, but was left at Malta "en route." He is shown on the Depot roll at Brighton from the 25th of May 1855, so he must have spent some time at Malta.

Embarked for India from Cork aboard the S.S. "Great Britain" on the 8th of October 1857.

The musters for July-September 1858 show him as being "On Field Service" from September of the period.

In action against the rebels at Zeerapore on the 29th of December 1858 and at Baroda on the 1st of January 1859.

Batman in India to Lieutenant Nolan.

On passage to England from the 1st of February 1861 and on roll at the Maidstone Depot from the 29th of April 1861.

Discharge & pension

Discharged, "time expired", from the Maidstone Depot on the 4th of May 1861.

Served 13 years 87 days.

Conduct: "very good". In possession of two Good Conduct badges.

Intended to live in Nottingham after discharge.


Entitled to the Crimean medal with clasps for Alma, Balaclava. Sebastopol, and the Turkish medal.

Mutiny medal without clasp.


Member of the Balaclava Commemoration Society in 1879.

Awarded a Special Campaign Pension, no date shown. but most probably in the early 1890s.

Attended the Jubilee celebrations given by T.H. Roberts in his Fleet Street offices in June 1897. (See note below)


He appears, with three others of his regiment, in a photograph taken, it is believed, especially for Queen Victoria, as the original is in the Royal Library at Windsor. Pearson, the only Private, is third from the left. (There is a copy in the 17th Lancer file.)

(Click on image to enlarge)

There is a photograph of William Pearson in old age in the 17th Lancer file.

Life after service

1871 Census

1, Tower Street, York.

William Pearson, 45, Warder at York Castle, born Doncaster.

Hannah, 38, wife.

Three children shown: Annie 17, Kate 9, and Jane 8 days.

Present at the funerals of James Bolton, 4th Light Dragoons in 1879, William Bentley, 11th Hussars in March of 1891 and John Hogan, 8th Hussars in 1900.

He was living in Pump Yard, The Shambles, York, on the 3rd of April 1897, when he wrote to Mr. Roberts regarding his invitation to London for the Jubilee Celebrations. He also lived at some time at No. 3 King's Square, York, and also at No. 111.

On the 6th of August 1897 his niece, Alice Toye, wrote to Mr. T.H. Roberts sending him the donations which she had collected in her public house and thanking him for having invited her uncle to London.

"I never expected that he would be able to get to the Jubilee, but he was determined to come if possible and I was very glad he got back alright and had thoroughly enjoyed himself. He will never, I am sure, forget it.

Aunt worked as long as she could, Uncle being under the doctor for the wounds in his side and body, but she is unable to do anything and is quite helpless. She is suffering from chronic asthma. I have to wash and do everything for them both."

He received a total of £225/16/6d in financial help from the Roberts Fund during his lifetime.

Death registered

Hannah Pearson, 64, December Quarter 1897, York.

1901 Census

48, Goodramgate, York.

William Pearson, aged 76, widower, Army Pensioner, born Doncaster.

Living with George Toye, 64, wife Annie, 49, and family: son Frederick 18, Annie's daughter Jessie and husband, and a step daughter.

1911 Census

54, Monkgate, York [where William Pearson died].

Annie Toye, aged 59, widow, Head, Dressmaker.

Also 6 members of the White family.

Death registered

Annie Toye, aged 77, March Quarter 1929, York.

Death & burial

William Pearson died at York, on the 14th of June 1909 (see below), and is buried in York Cemetery, Grave No. 154. Aged 84 years at the time of his death, he was said to have been buried in a private plot and has a headstone and kerb. The Roberts Fund is said to have paid his funeral expenses.

His death certificate shows that he died at 54, Monkgate, York, on the 14th of June 1909, aged 84 years, an Army Pensioner, late 17th Lancers, from "Senile Atrophy, Cardiac Failure." An A. Toye, niece, of the same address, was present at, and the informant of, his death. (There is a copy of the death certificate in the 17th Lancers "Certificates" file.)

From information received from Mr Peter Seaman of Selby, Yorkshire, a stone still exists which commemorates him, the inscription on it reading:

"In loving memory of Jessie S. B. White. Died April 13th 1931. Also John W. White, husband of the above, killed in France Aug 16th 1916. Also of William Pearson, "A Hero of the Light Brigade," Died June 14th 1909, aged 84."

The John W. White recorded served as a Private in the 12th Bn. of the West Yorkshire Regiment as No. 21149. He was both born and enlisted at York, his medal entitlement being the 1914-15 Star, and the British War and Victory medals. Possibly a grand-son.)

(See copy of a photograph of this gravestone in the 17th Lancer file.)

The grave space is also now said not to be partly under, but at the side of the pathway.

From a 1909 newspaper report (source unknown):

"Another Light Brigade hero, Private William Pearson, late of the 17th Lancers, died at York on Monday in his 84th year. The deceased had been in failing health during the past two or three years, although his death was hastened by frequent attacks of bronchitis.

Private Pearson was born in Doncaster and joined the 17th Lancers at Dublin in 1848. With his regiment he was at the Alma, Balaclava and Sebastopol, and at the conclusion of the campaign was certified as fit for Depot duty only as the result of a wound received in the Charge.

In 1857 however, he volunteered to accompany his regiment to India, and went through the Mutiny. After 13 years' service he settled in York, where for many years he was employed as the turn-key at the Castle."

Yorkshire Evening Press, Monday 14th of June 1909:

"Death of a Yorkshire Veteran who rode with the Light Brigade.

The late Private W. Pearson. — How he was wounded in the Balaclava Charge.

York citizens will learn with regret of the death of Private William Pearson of 54 Monkgate, late of the 17th Lancers, the "Death or Glory Boys", who took part in the Balaclava Charge. The deceased was 84 years of age; he had been in failing health for some time, although it was only lately that he took to his bed. Death was due to senile decay, although his end was probably hastened by frequently recurring attacks of bronchitis.

The late Mr. Pearson was born at Doncaster on the 2nd of February 1825 and joined the 17th Lancers at the Royal Barracks, Dublin, on February 8th 1848. Having served several years at different stations in Ireland, his regiment went to Hounslow, but only for a short while, for at the outbreak of the Crimean War the 17th had received orders for the front and embarked at Liverpool in January of 1854 [sic].

He was at the Alma, Sebastopol and Balaclava and after having been certified as fit for Depot duty only as the result of a wound received in the Balaclava Charge he returned to Ireland in December of 1855.

The fighting spirit however, was still strong in him and so in 1857 he volunteered, and to his joy, was accepted, to accompany his old regiment to India. He went right through that campaign and at its end, having completed 13 years 87 days with the colours, returned to his native country and settled in York, where for many years he was employed as a turn-key at the Castle.

Of the Balaclava Charge, Mr. Pearson often related a thrilling story. Colonel Marley [sic] commanded the regiment, but he was absent at the time and Colonel White, who afterwards commanded them in India, led them into action. A Sir George Wombwell was his own Troop officer. Everyone knew the awful chances against returning from the mad ride, but no-one wavered.

It was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.

Three Cossacks tried to cut young Pearson off, and he gave rein to his charger, which required no urging and would have cleared them, having beaten off all three with his lance, but a fourth appeared, wheeling right across his path.

It was a moment in which the scales of life and death are balanced. There was no time for thought. More by inspiration than anything else, Pearson pressed his knees. He was a trumpeter [sic] and had taught his horse to do certain circus tricks. In response, the faithful animal reared itself and seemed as though it were to come down on the Cossack with its forefeet.

The Cossack swerved, upset at this new mode of attack, and in a flash Pearson got through, not before, however, one of the other three had jabbed him in the side with his lance. At the time he hardly felt the wound, although it had penetrated the left lung, and he reached the British lines in safety.

Colonel White was with another officer when he pulled up and he heard him say, "Here's another back." Then Col. White called out, "Are you hurt, my man?" Pearson replied, "No, Sir, " but fell off his horse from weakness. The air had got into the wound and he writhed in awful pain. Till that moment he was unconscious of his injury.

Pearson was taken to Scutari, where he had the good fortune to come under the personal care of Miss Florence Nightingale. She went to his bed one day when he was nicely recovering and said to him, "Well, Pearson, you'll be going away tomorrow. What clothes have you got?" He hadn't any, and said so. "I thought as much," she continued, and fitted him out.

On the transport, Pearson nearly succumbed. He most probably would have done so except for one thing. He noticed a couple of soldiers trying on his togs. One man had already appropriated his top-coat and boots. The couple looked foolish when he suddenly opened his eyes and yelled out that "he was not dead yet". It was hard work living in that old packet, but he had set his heart on wearing his boots again.

He was, however, so bad that he was set ashore at Malta. Here he came under the care of a Doctor Frank, "who patched me up and made me fit for service again."

For a number of years Pearson regularly attended the Balaclava Dinner in London, but he has not been to the Metropolis since the Diamond Jubilee, when the survivors were given a prominent place on the line of route. Here the gallant little band, alas, now so depleted, saluted her Majesty, and he used to recall with pride the remembrance of how the Queen, for whom he had fought, had halted her carriage and bowed to them in return."

Resume of the report of his funeral, taken from the Yorkshire Evening Press, 17th of June 1909:

The funeral of Private Pearson took place at York Cemetery today with military honours. The band of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers led the way, the drums being draped in black. Following, came the gun-carriage on which rested the coffin, covered with the Union Jack, and surmounted by the deceased's busby and sword.

The gun-carriage was drawn by four horses of the Army Service Corps, and following it was a beautiful black horse which was formerly with the 17th Lancers. The deceased soldier's boot were fixed uppermost in the stirrups as a symbol that he would ride no more.

Beautiful wreaths were sent by the 5th Lancers, the Yorkshire Regiment and "With sincere regrets and sympathy" from Mr T.H. Roberts (London), founder of the Balaclava Charge Survivors Fund.

Further information

In a series of booklets published in 1998 detailing the civilian and military service of local men the name of William Pearson was amongst them. Much of what is already known from local newspaper reports was repeated and although said to have been written with the co-operation of a Pearson family descendant, it contains several inaccuracies, e.g. it is claimed that he was awarded the clasp for "Central India" on his Mutiny medal and also awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct medal, but he did not have enough service to be eligible for the latter and the former clasp was not awarded to the regiment.

A number of photographs were included with the article. One purports to show him as a young man in the uniform of the 17th Lancersm but this could not possibly be him, not being a Lancer uniform of any period, although it may be that of some local militia unit in which he could have served. But in one of the other two (wearing civilian clothes) his medal entitlement is easily distinguishable and shows the Crimean medal with three clasps, the Indian Mutiny medal and the Turkish Crimea (with a modified form of suspension).

In his later life he went to live at 54, Monkgate, York, with his nephew, Sergeant George Toye, an ex-Royal Marine (this could have been the husband of the lady who wrote to Mr. T. H. Roberts in 1897), that he enjoyed painting and one of his surviving pictures remain in the greater family possession, as do his medals in a glazed frame and some service papers. (There are copies of the photographs mentioned, in the 17th Lancer file.)

The sale of his medals at auction was reported in the "Yorkshire Post", 28th October 2011:

Soldier's historic medals bought by collector

By Liam Kay

Published on the 28 October 2011

"HALF a league, half a league, half a league onward, all in the valley of Death rode the six hundred."

These words were from the famous 1870 poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, immortalised the exploits of the band of 600 soldiers who charged into the "Valley of Death" during the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854.

Now, three medals of one Yorkshire soldier, who trumpeted the ill-fated charge, have been sold at auction for about £11,000 to a private collector.

One of the medals awarded to Private William Pearson, from Doncaster, was for bravery in the Crimea where he rode with the 17th Lancers, nicknamed the "Death or Glory Boys", and was one of the trumpeters who sounded the charge towards the Russian cannon.

It was one of many brave acts he would perform in his life.

After fighting off four Russian Cossacks, and being badly wounded in the process, he returned to base where he was taken to Scutari hospital, where he was treated by "The Lady With the Lamp", Florence Nightingale.

He returned home to a hero's welcome and later became a jailer at York Castle. He died in 1909, aged 84.

It was the extraordinary achievements of this participant in the doomed charge, led by Lord Cardigan, that saw the medals he won sold for such a high price. The Charge of the Light Brigade has long been romanticised as the ultimate act of bravery by a select and noble band of soldiers.

The medals, which were put up for auction by Pte Pearson's descendants, were sold with the original parchment of Pte Pearson's discharge, an ambrotype (an early kind of photograph on a sheet of glass) in uniform from the Crimea and two photographs of him after leaving the army posing with his medals.

Nimrod Dix, from Dix Noonan Webb, the auctioneers who handled the sale of the medals, said: "Crimean War medals come up quite often but these medals are more special as he (Pte Pearson) has a story behind him with his participation in the charge and his treatment by Florence Nightingale which makes these items more valuable.

"You can expect more for these medals and it makes them much more desirable." These medals can reach from anywhere between £5,000 to the more typical £12-15,000 and around seven or eight similar collections from participants in the Charge of the Light Brigade have been sold in recent years.

During the charge, Pte Pearson found himself surrounded by three Cossacks after the Light Brigade had over-run the Russian artillery, cutting themselves off from the British lines. He managed to fight them away but a fourth Cossack appeared.

Here his horse, which he had taught to do tricks, reared up on command from Pte Pearson and forced the cossack to swerve away in fear of being hit by the animal. Pte Pearson then rode clear but was lanced in his side by a Russian soldier as he retreated.

The lance pierced his left lung but luckily Pte Pearson was able to cling to his horse and reach the British lines. His superior officer, Colonel White, saw him and asked "Are you hurt my man?" to which the private replied "No, sir", not realising he had been wounded. He then fell from the horse.

Pte Pearson was discharged from the Army in 1861 and was even honoured during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee parade through London in 1887 where she stopped her carriage and bowed to the veterans.

The Crimean War took place from 1853 until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1856 and sprang from a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Russia over territory around the Black Sea and Danube, bringing Britain, Austria and France into the war to prevent Russia controlling the Dardanelles.

It was famous, among other things, for the introduction of the Victoria Cross and the improvements in nursing it proved to be a catalyst for, with both Nurse Nightingale and Mary Seacole transforming military care in hospitals during the war.

Newspaper inspired poem

The poem The Charge of the Light Brigade has remained an endearing testament to the sacrifices of the soldiers who charged the Russian cannon in the "Valley of Death" on the October 25, 1854.

Charge of the Light Brigade was one of the most popular poems of its day, even reaching troops in the Crimea. It was reported written by Tennyson minutes after he had read a newspaper report of the tragedy.

The poem helped establish Tennyson's reputation as a great writer of the Victorian age, even though he had already been appointed poet laureate in 1850. It remains one of the best-known poem in English literature, although Tennyson later wrote another poem about a more successful charge — called The Charge of the Heavy Brigade.

[Source: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/general-news/soldier-s-historic-medals-bought-by-collector-1-3913704 (accessed 1.1.2014).]

References & acknowledgements

Registration of deaths, and Census information for 1871, 1901 & 1911, kindly provided by Chris Poole.

Further information

William Pearson died in June 1909, the last of four survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade buried in the cemetery.

At the Charge he received a lance wound in his side and was taken to Scutari Hospital where he was nursed by Florence Nightingale. He subsequently volunteered for service in India where he served throughout the Mutiny. After his discharge from the army he became a turnkey at York Castle where he was employed until his retirement. A firing party at his funeral was provided by the 5th Royal Irish Lancers.

"In loving memory of Jessie B. White. Died April 18th 1931. Also John W. White husband of the above, killed in France August 16th 1916. Also William Pearson, Hero of Balaklava, died June 14th 1909, aged 84."

[PB, 13.12.2017: Th text says "four survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade buried in this cemetery"? Who are the others? It looks like there are more — are they all chargers? It is possible this cemetery has more Chargers than any other in Britain.Why so many in York? Are there more? A Friend of York Cemetery guides walks. Who is she? Contact her?]


  • York Cemetery: William Bentley (photo of headstone and portrait seated.
  • Lives of the Light Brigade: 863, William Bentley, 11th Hussars
  • Lives of the Light Brigade: 868, James Bolton, 4th Light Dragoons [not named in York Cemetery website? Contact the Friends?]
  • Lives of the Light Brigade: 1006, John Hogan, 8th Hussars [not named in York Cemetery website? Contact the Friends?]
  • Lives of the Light Brigade: Quartermaster Henry Kauntze, 11th Hussars [not named in York Cemetery website? Contact the Friends?]
  • Lives of the Light Brigade: 1285, William Sims, 13th Light Dragoons [not named in York Cemetery website? Contact the Friends?]
  • Lives of the Light Brigade: 815, Joseph Reilly, 17th Lancers [considerable info in EJBA on the restoration of his headstone and grave area, and references to a "Friends" pamphlet. Check.]

  • New on the site Search Index of men P
    For further information, or to express an interest in the project, please email the editors, Philip Boys & Roy Mills, via info@chargeofthelightbrigade.com