Trooper Pearson and the Charge of the Light Brigade

Last updated on March 20th, 2024 at 12:48 pm

Trooper Pearson, Charge of the Light Brigade, Parkside Cemetary, Kendal.

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- that was 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 in on the British and French side.  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, among other things, resulted in a much-needed overhaul of its grossly inadequate medical care.

Cavalry Charge at Balaklava

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.

Trooper William Pearson

“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 is said to have been nursed by nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale (allegedly a hypochondriac, but still the type of person we need in our 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.

Trooper Pearson's birthplace, 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.

Trooper Pearson's birthplace, King Street, Penrith

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 in August 2017 and available on Amazon.

William Pearson, a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade, buried in Kendal, Cumbria

OCT 25TH 1854.

BORN OCT 2ND 1826, DIED JULY 31ST 1909


Kendal, famous people, Trooper Pearson

As a footnote, the last survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade was Troop Sergeant-Major Edwin Hughes, late of the 13th Light Dragoons, who died in Blackpool in 1927.

20 thoughts on “Trooper Pearson and the Charge of the Light Brigade”

  1. Nicholas Machin

    My 7yo daughter was today learning about Mary Seacole and her role in Crimea. I explained that she had an ancestor who was part of the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was nice to find that his story is available to read on here.
    I don’t have currently have access to my family tree but if memory serves correctly William would be my Great, great, great grandfather.

  2. “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” …
    And here I thought this was exactly what war was all about?

    Great post! A marvellous way of bringing the past back to life!

  3. Mike, thanks for mentioning the book Secret Kendal – now available in all local bookshops and online at the usual places. Thanks for use of the photo. Regards AGS

  4. Now that was fascinating! I finally know what the Charge of the Light Brigade was all about. Thanks. (I have a lot of your posts to catch up on.)

  5. Hi Mike – well that was an interesting journey around England and the Med (presumably) to get to the Crimea … and what a set of personae, trades, disciplines and skills … perhaps the best is today’s (21st C) – finding pub skill and subsequent drinking ability to loosen the tongue!

    Fascinating range of ideas here … I honestly believe this equals or betters my wandering mind!! I’m glad you corrected the date … but what an extraordinary man to be able to trace his history … end ending up a Chelsea Pensioner …

    These sorts of thoughts remind of that poem learnt at school ‘the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out’ … having now just checked I didn’t realise it was “The Hearse Song” – but apparently goes back to the Crimean War … strange but true!

    Well that’s my educational post for the day … now I’m off to your next post! Cheers Hilary

  6. An interesting read Mike, thank you … and thank your friend Dave too!

    Good to know that “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”

    All the best Jan.

  7. That Dave really knows his way around, doesn’t he – I mean even besides pubs. That poem just always makes my heart sink. On a smaller scale, it reminds me of Lee’s soldiers at Gettysburg, marching right into artillery fire. Sickening. Glad you explained about leather dressing, lest any of us get the wrong idea about Trooper Pearson. Amazing he lived through those very close calls. Very interesting post, Mike.

  8. I remember Tennyson’s poem from my school days, but I don’t think we had to learn it word for word, however I can remember the portion that you quoted. Hooray for good old Bill Pearson, he lived through that unspeakable horror, and survived to 82. And I hope his descendants read your history of him.

  9. Husband’s family history has always reported a Great great,..grandfather who went AWOL TWICE from the Crimean War. He was a butcher and hauled meat to the troops so it is said.
    There is no plaque for him!

  10. Absolutely riveting, Mike, I was really hoping the poor fellow didn’t get killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade. I suppose losing 4 toes was a reasonable exchange for risking his life every day and managing to survive to 82.
    Thanks for a wonderful post. And thanks to your gravedigging friend also!

  11. Amazing that he survived, under those circumstances. Thanks for the background on him. The Crimean War is something we get the broad strokes of in history classes here, though the Charge is something I was already familiar with.

  12. I too was first introduced to this battle at school through Lord Tennyson’s poem. It was good to learn the story of someone who survived that awful time. Sarah x

  13. This brings back my school history lessons – we had to learn that Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem by heart.
    I don’t know your painting and wonder who did it. The Charge of the Light Brigade painting that I am most familiar with is the one done by Lady Butler.

    1. It is from ‘Cavalry Charge at Balaklava Oct 25th 1854’, a print, Edward Morin, Rosemary. There is a caption on most images on A Bit about Britain, if you hover your cursor over them – but this doesn’t always show on mobile devices.

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