It all started with my chum, Dave. You remember Dave, don’t you? He’s the one that told me about Swinbrook. Not only is Dave an excellent drinking buddy, but he also used to be a gravedigger, often known in these euphemistic days as a ‘burial ground custodian’. You should see the risk assessment. But he was in good company – both Joe Strummer and Abraham Lincoln used to be gravediggers: as you probably know, one was a unique world-famous musician with The Clash – and the other went on to become a US president, or something. People who dig graves must have transferrable skills. Anyway, Dave gave it all up to become a dentist – though he packed that in because it was a bit like pulling teeth. That was before he met Marion at the cookery class, of course; but not before he had discovered Trooper Pearson lying in Parkside Cemetery, Kendal.
William Pearson was born on 2nd October 1826 in Penrith, in what was then the county of Cumberland. Presumably tired of being a leather dresser- a trade, not a recreational pursuit – at the age of 22 he ran away to London and enlisted in the 4th Light Dragoons. He was five foot eight inches tall, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. Six years later, he found himself in the middle of the Crimean War.
The Crimean War began as a territorial dispute between Russia and Turkey. Britain and France saw a threat to the balance of power and their own interests, came to Turkey’s assistance and declared war on Russia in 1854. Later, Piedmont-Sardinia (an independent state prior to the unification of Italy in 1861) joined the British and French. The Crimean War was, in fact, a much wider conflict than the name suggests, with action taking place as far apart as the Baltic and Pacific. The casualties were appalling – according to one BBC report, 25,000 British, 100,000 French and up to 1 million Russians died, mostly from disease and neglect. The number of Turkish and Italian fatalities was not mentioned; clearly, they were considered less important. One of the many consequences of the war, so far as Britain was concerned, was to highlight monumental military mismanagement which, amongst other things, resulted in a much-needed overhaul of its grossly inadequate medical care.
Trooper Pearson was at the battles of Alma, Sevastopol, Balaklava and Inkerman on the Crimean peninsula. And it was during the Battle of Balaklava on 25th October 1854 that the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade took place. The ‘light brigade’ consisted of unarmoured cavalrymen equipped with lances and sabres, whose duties primarily involved reconnaissance and a little gentle skirmishing. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson suggested in his famous poem, somebody blundered that day: arguments still rage, but an ambiguous, unclear or misinterpreted order resulted in the Earl of Cardigan leading a charge 673 soldiers up a valley directly into the muzzles Russian guns about a mile away, with further enemy artillery on the high ground either side of them.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
From ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
The result was fairly predictable. Some of the British cavalry actually reached the Russian guns but, unable to press the attack any further, galloped back the way they had come. A charge by French cavalry saved the Light Brigade from being completely wiped out, but it was a fiasco of the sort that the British really relish (what might be referred to as FUBAR in the US). Casualties were almost 50%; 118 men were killed outright. The French General, Pierre Bosquet, famously remarked: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” The Russians, rather less romantically, thought the British must be drunk.
“Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred”. The noise and confusion must have been indescribable, even for trained men. Trooper Pearson’s horse stumbled over another that was shot dead in front of him, and he was thrown. Grasping the reins of a riderless horse of the 8th Hussars, he mounted and continued his charge. An epaulette was shot away. He talks of “shells, bullets, cannon-balls and swords flying around us” and said that it “makes my blood run cold, to think how we had to gallop over the poor wounded fellows lying on the field of battle, with anxious looks for assistance”. Remarkably, Pearson was unscathed apart from a small wound to his nose from a shell burst and “a slight touch on the shoulder from a cannon-ball, after it had killed one of our horses.” A ‘slight touch’ from a cannon-ball? – good grief!
Like so many of his comrades, though, it was the conditions they lived in that got Trooper Pearson his ticket home. Christmas Eve 1854 was spent having four toes amputated from his right foot due to frostbite. He was nursed by nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale (allegedly a hypochondriac, but still the type of person we need in the NHS) at hospital in Scutari, then invalided back to the UK. He was presented to Queen Victoria; then he was discharged as unfit for further military service and given a pension. He had met his wife, Elizabeth, at a ball in Dover; they married in London on 22nd October 1855 and, after his discharge, travelled north to Penrith.
William Pearson spent the next 25 years as orderly to the inspecting officer of a local troop of the Cumberland and Westmorland Imperial Yeomanry. In the 1861 census he is shown as “Chelsea pensioner and skinner.” He had two sons. In 1880, he moved to the village of Underbarrow, near Kendal and set up in business as a fellmonger and tanner. A fellmonger dealt in animal skins and hides. He kept active, attended a number of veterans’ events and retired in 1906. He died aged 82 at his home, Church View, Aynam Road, Kendal on 31st July 1909 and was buried with military honours.
Which brings us back to Dave. He wanted to introduce me to Trooper Pearson, because he thought his story might go well on A Bit About Britain. So we motored over to Parkside Cemetery in Kendal one drizzly November day and Dave took me straight to the very handsome memorial. It was a little faded, so we gently wiped off some of the moss and it came up a treat. We hope Trooper Pearson, and his wife – who was later buried with him – would be pleased. An ordinary man who did and saw extraordinary things, like so many others; it’s right to remember one of them.
You can learn more about Trooper Pearson from visiting the Penrith and Eden Museum, which also has his medals. A plaque on the wall (see above) of what was the Mitre Hotel in King Street, Penrith (as at January 2014 The Lounge hotel and bar) commemorates where he was born. My eagle-eyed reader may spot that the wrong dates are shown on the plaque.
Trooper Pearson and a photograph from A Bit About Britain also features in a Book, Secret Kendal, by Andrew Graham Stables, published by Amberley Books in August 2017.
William Pearson, a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade, buried in Kendal, Cumbria
LOVING REMEMBRANCE OF
LATE OF THE 4TH QUEEN’S OWN LIGHT DRAGOONS
AND ONE OF THE SIX HUNDRED IN THE
CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE AT BALACLAVA
OCT 25TH 1854.
BORN OCT 2ND 1826, DIED JULY 31ST 1909
ALSO OF ELIZABETH, WIDOW OF THE ABOVE
BORN MARCH 3RD 1836, DIED JAN 27TH 1925