The Rason family go back in Eastbourne for generations. They are closely connected with St Mary’s Church as over the centuries many of them have been churchwardens.
There is an interesting monument in the north aisle of the church to William Rason. It reads:
Sacred to the memory of
William Hector Rason
Lieut. R.N., aged 26
who fell under the
batteries of the Peiho
25th June 1859
when in command of the “Plover” gun boat
sunk in action
carrying the Admiral’s flag.
Is s erected by his brother officers
in token of their admiration
of his conspicuous gallantry
and moral worth,
William Hector was born in 1832, the son of William Rason (1804-1865) and Anna Jane (1807-1860) His middle name was his mother’s maiden name and he was the first of six children.
His father was a farmer and a local representative of the Lewes Old Bank. He was appointed as one of the parochial officers (the surveyor) for St Mary’s Church. He was also a patron of the Eastbourne Mechanics Institute. He was a farmer at Birling Manor and afterwards at Meads
At the age of 23 years William (junior) got a commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy on 20th April 1855. Soon afterwards he was posted to the Far East where he saw service around the coast of Burma (now Thailand).
In 1857 William joined the Freemasons (the Lodge of Sincerity), based at Devonport, Plymouth. His occupation is shown as “Lieutenant in the Royal Navy” and his address is just given as ‘China’.
Details of William’s military service are difficult to find but in 1857 he was serving on HMS Kestrel in the China Seas during which time he was awarded the ‘China Medal’. He later was transferred to command HMS Plover.
HMS Plover was an Albacore-class gunboat designed for action in rivers and coastal areas rather than the high seas. It was launched on 8th September 1855 and was armed with a huge 68 pounder gun, one 32 pounder guns and two 24 ponder howitzers. The ship was sent to China to participate in the Second Opium War.
The Opium Wars were one of many dubious episodes of British history. The British Empire wished to expand into China and particularly wanted to legalise the Opium trade. This was obviously opposed by the Chinese who clearly held the higher moral ground. In 1859 the Chinese Government refused to allow Britain, France and the USA to have representatives in the capital Peking (Beijing). Back in London, Lord Palmerston decided to attack Peking via the River Peiho (now called the Hai River) which connects the capital to the Yellow Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The river was fortified by a series of heavily armed forts and barriers made from sharpened stakes across the river near the town of Taku.
The British contingent to take and occupy Peking was led by Admiral James Hope (1909-1881) He was the Commander-in-Chief of the ‘China Station’ and was on board HMS Coromande. Early on the morning of 24th July 1859 he transferred his flag (and himself) to HMS Plover commanded by our Eastbourne hero.
That morning British and Americans vessels approached the barriers and sent men ashore to demand that they be given free passage to Peking. Not surprisingly the Chinese refused. At 10am a ship used by the Americans, the Toey-Wan, got stuck in mud and Lieutenant Rason directed the HMS Plover to assist.
At 8am the next morning British ships, led by the Plover approached the forts with Admiral Hope sitting on a coil of rope at the front of Rason’s gunboat. They could not pass the barriers and at 2.30pm HMS Plover, Kestrel and Cormorant started to remove the wooden stakes that made up one of the barriers across the river. One of the forts opened fire on HMS Plover which was distinguished because it was flying the Admirals blue square flag. The very first shot struck Lt Rason’s head and he was instantly killed.
The British gun boats returned fire and all eight of the Chinese forts opened fire on the ships below them. They directed their fire on HMS Plover and only nine of its 40 crew escaped injury. It was abandoned and later sank. The action was a humiliating defeat for the Royal Navy who had clearly underestimated the fighting spirit of the defending Chinese forces.
An American, George Washington Heard, witnessed the battle and wrote in his journal. “The first shot fired from the forts took the head of the Captain of the Plover. His name was Rayson and a fine young sailor as I ever saw. He came aboard the Toey-Wan the previous day when we were aground to offer his assistance.” This short skirmish is noted as the first occasion that the British fought alongside American forces.
The news of the death did not arrive at Eastbourne until 17th September when a report by Admiral Hope was published in the national newspapers. One wonders if this was when William Rason found out about the death of his son.
A suitable memorial was commissioned by William’s fellow officers. They the London sculptor James Sherwood Westmacott. (1823-1900) he was a member of the institute of British Sculptors and his work was exhibited at the Great Exhibition. 34 of his works were selected for display the Royal Academy.
The monument was affixed to the south aisle at St Mary’s in February 1862 and later moved to the north aisle. It is worth a close look. The decorated gothic-style memorial is supported by an angel holding a red shield . The red shield has diagonal red and gold stripes with the sun with a face in the centre. This is possibly the family coat-of-arms.
The text of the memorial is cut into white marble and each capital letter is picked out in red. The text is framed by two small black marble columns. The last two words of the epitaph are Proelio Occisus which is Latin for ‘Killed in Battle’.
A metal anchor is also set into the marble. It has probably not been noticed for years but there is an inscription. The left side of the anchor bears a small inscription which I was able to make out with the zoom lends of my camera:
THE STERN BOLT
OF THE PLOVER GUNBOAT
SUNK IN ACTION
AT THE PEIHO
25TH JUNE 1859
The flowers carved into the memorial are al symbolic. There are ivy leaves which signify everlasting remembrance and bindweed which is a symbol of perseverance. At the base a gold trimmed blue ribbon has the words BURMAH and CHINA and is decorated with oak leaves a sign of strength.
At the time of Williams death his father was living in a large house at 13, Cornfield Road in Eastbourne which was being run as a school by William’s sister Anna.
William’s parents were clearly proud of their son. They are both buried at Ocklynge Cemetery. Although now difficult to read the inscription on their headstone reads
THE FATHER AND MOTHER OF WM HECTOR RASON
LEUT. R.N. WHO FELL UNDER THE BATTERY OF THE PEIHO
IN HUMBLE HOPE THAT THEY MAY, BY HIS RENOWN
TO DISTANT AGES BE HANDED DOWN
It is now a distant age (160 years) since William Hector Rason was killed in China and I hope that this small item will go a little way to maintain his renown!