b. 17/12/1829 Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. d. 31/07/1894 Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
William Fraser McDonell (1829-1894) was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 17th December 1829, the son of Aeneas Ranald McDonell of the Madras Civil Service and Juliana Charlotte Wade, who lived at Pittville House in the town. He entered Cheltenham College on its foundation in 1841, and completed his education at the Honourable East India Company’s College at Haileybury from 1847-1849.
He then chose to join the Bengal Civil Service and became the Assistant Magistrate and Collector in Sarun from 1852-1855, and became Magistrate of Sarun from 1855-1859. He remained in the Sarun district until the outbreak of the Mutiny when he found himself Joint Magistrate with his lifelong friend R.J. Richardson. When the Civil Officers of the outlying areas were called to Patna, McDonell was left without employment so he volunteered to accompany the expedition to relieve Arrah which began on the 29th July 1857.
On the following day, McDonell would be involved in the incident which would lead to him becoming only the second civilian to be awarded the VC (London Gazette, 20th January 1860). During the retreat from Arrah on 30th July 1857, McDonell climbed out under incessant fire from a boat in which he and several soldiers were, up to the rudder, and with considerable difficulty he cut through the lashing which secured it to the side of the boat. On the rope being cut, the boat was able to be steered to safety, saving 35 Europeans from certain death.
On the collapse of the Mutiny in Bihar, McDonell was given the task of settling the confiscated estates of the rebel leader, Koer Singh, until June 1860. He then decided to return to England, and whilst there, on 9th November 1860, he attended his investiture at Windsor Castle. After three years back in England, he returned to India in 1863, and was posted to Nadia, and remained there in the positions of Magistrate, Collector and then Judge, until July 1870. He later became a judge in Patna, and eventually was promoted to the High Court. He resigned from the service in 1886.
He returned to England, and lived in London for a time, before returning to his native Cheltenham. He became a member of the Council (1890-1894) and became a Governor of Cheltenham College. His health began to fail during 1893, and he spent the winter in Malta to recover. In 1894 he caught a chill whilst watching cricket in Cheltenham, which developed into pneumonia. He died aged 64 on 31st July 1894, and was buried in St Peter’s Churchyard, Leckhampton. He was survived by his wife Annie Louisa (nee Duff) whom he had been married to for many years. McDonell’s VC is part of the Ashcroft Collection at the Imperial War Museum, London.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: ST PETER’S CHURCHYARD, LECKHAMPTON, GLOUCESTERSHIRE.
Paul Deeprose – Haileybury College Memorial.
Victoria Cross Trust – Image of the cleaned McDonell Grave in Leckhampton, Gloucestershire – February 2023.