b. 02/11/1824 Mayfair, London. d. 27/04/1858 Cawnpore, India.
Sir William Peel (1824-1858) was born on the 2nd November 1824 in Mayfair, London, the 3rd son of the great statesman and the then Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel and Julia (nee Floyd). Like his father, young William was sent to Harrow school but, unlike his father, he didn't go on to university. Instead, his sense of adventure led him to enrol in the Royal Navy and on April 7, 1838, he joined the crew of the Princess Charlotte as a Midshipman.
Although only aged 13, William enjoyed life at sea and his letters to his parents reflected his happiness. After serving on a number of ships in the Mediterranean, William's life changed completely when from 1840-42 he served in the China War, the first of what was to become known as the 'Opium Wars'.
He returned to London and enrolled on a 14-month course at the Gunnery School, but astounded everyone by completing the course in just five months. Ironically, William's brilliance embarrassed his father who was by then Prime Minister.
He was forced to make a statement denying any undue influence, or pulling of any strings, insisting that his son had completed the course on his own merits. Not surprisingly, William was promoted to Lieutenant in 1844 and, four years later, took command of HMS Daring, a small, 12-gun sloop.
He was made a Captain in 1849, but with no prospect of a command to compliment his rank, William let it be known that he wished to take time out for a little adventure. He decided on a tour of the Middle East and took lessons in Arabic from Joseph Chuni, who was a Maronite, of Middle Eastern origin. Then, on July 2, 1850, his father died following a fall from his horse. There was a great outpouring of public grief, but just two months after the funeral William set out on his journey, accompanied by his tutor.
The pair visited Egypt, Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Syria, before returning to England in February, 1851, with more adventurous plans. Six months later the two of them set out for Central Africa, travelling up the Nile, then across the desert to Khartoum. It was Peel's intention to help improve the lot of poor African people, but they both succumbed to a fever which put an early end to their mission of mercy.
They returned to England, where William wrote a book about his travels entitled A Ride Through The Nubian Desert. It was published in 1852. William had been left £25,000 in his father's will and he used it to buy a large, neglected house in Sandy, a rural village in Bedfordshire, with the intention of improving the property. Then he was given command of a frigate, HMS Diamond, and in October, 1852, he sailed into the Mediterranean Sea where the British fleet was gathering.
When the fleet was mustered they sailed to the Black Sea as war with Russia threatened. On March 28, 1854, Britain and France declared war on Russia – and the Crimean War began. It was on October 18 that same year, at the 'Siege of Sebastopol', when William found himself in the thick of the action. He and his crew were charged with the task of supplying ammunition to the artillery when a large, heavy Russian shell, with the fuse fizzing away, landed among them and their explosives. Almost everyone dived for cover, but Peel quickly picked it up and lobbed it over the parapet. It exploded immediately, causing no damage, thanks to William's cool, swift and selfless action.
Less than a month later, at the 'Battle of Inkerman', William noticed that a platoon guarding their regiment's colours was in grave danger of being cut off and surrounded by Russian forces. William braved a heavy barrage to lead them to safety. On June 18, 1855, he led his troops over a ridge, putting himself in the line of fire. He was shot and seriously injured. On repatriation he was awarded the Victoria Cross for all his brave deeds. His ADC, Edward St. John Daniel, was also awarded his country's highest honour 'for valour'.
Considered the first 'modern' war, the Crimean campaign might well be the first time railways had been used tactically in warfare and the first war where the electric telegraph was used. Back in sleepy Bedfordshire, while recovering from his wounds, William set about modernising and extending his house and building a small steam railway, connecting his village to the outside world. He bought two locomotives, some carriages, a goods wagon and a brake van.
William was then given command of the frigate HMS Shannon, one of the first steam driven propeller ships in service. Fully recovered from his wounds, he set sail for China, but on the way the Admiralty diverted him to help put down the Indian Mutiny. In his absence, his mother, Lady Julia Peel, officially opened the railway in July 1857.
William played an important role in the capture of Lucknow, but was badly wounded by a musket ball which embedded itself in his left thigh. Plans to send him home to receive appropriate treatment involved taking a rail journey. But regarding himself as 'one of the lads', instead of taking a first class carriage William travelled in a dhoolie cart with the rest of the troops who were either sick or infirm. Unfortunately, the cart had previously been used for transporting smallpox victims.
He arrived at Cawnpore on April 17. In his book Forty-one Years in India, Lord Roberts records that Peel and he dined together on the 19th when, to all appearances, he was perfectly well. But on going to his room the following morning Lord Roberts found William in a high fever, with some suspicious looking spots about his face. He called a doctor who, the moment he entered the room, exclaimed with brutal frankness: "You have got smallpox!"
William was taken to the house of the Reverend Thomas Moore and left in the kind hands of Mrs Moore who had, as a special case, been allowed to accompany her husband to Cawnpore. William died just after midnight on April 27, 1858, at the age of 33. He was buried the same day in the Old British Cemetery in Cawnpore.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, GREENWICH.
BURIAL PLACE: OLD BRITISH CEMETERY, CAWNPORE, INDIA.
Sir William Peel's VC on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (Jan 2015)
Statue to Peel at National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Jan 2015)
St Swithuns Church, Sandy, Bedfordshire
HMS Shannon Memorial, Deansgrange, Dublin