William Connolly was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England c1816. It has not yet been established when exactly he was born and who were his parents from the baptism records available from that time. In civilian life he was a stableman. On 2 May 1837 he enlisted as a soldier in the Bengal Army of the Honourable East India Company. Later that same year he sailed on the ship "Exmouth" from England to India to serve as a gunner with the Bengal Horse Artillery.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery on 7 July 1857 at the Battle of Jhelum, in British India, during the Indian Mutiny:-
Lieutenant Cookes, Bengal horse artillery, reports that “about daybreak on that day I advanced my half troop at a gallop, and engaged the enemy within easy musket range. The spongeman of one of my guns having been shot during the advance, gunner Connolly assumed the duties of second spongeman, and he had barely assisted in two discharges of his gun when a musket ball through the left thigh felled him to the ground; nothing daunted by pain and loss of blood, he was endeavouring to resume his post, when I ordered a movement in retirement, and, though severely wounded, he was mounted on his horse in the gun-team, and rode to the next position which the guns took up, and manfully declined going to the rear when the necessity of so doing was represented to him.
About eleven o’clock A.M., when the guns were still in action, the same gunner, while sponging, was again knocked down by a musket-ball striking him on the hip, thereby causing great faintness and partial unconsciousness, for the pain appeared excessive, and the blood flowed fast. On seeing this I gave directions for his removal out of action; but this brave man, hearing me, staggered to his feet and said, ‘No, sir, I’ll not go there whilst I can work here; and shortly afterwards he again resumed his post as spongeman.
Late in the afternoon of the same day, my three guns were engaged at 100 yards from the walls of a village with the defenders, namely, the 14th native infantry - mutineers - amidst a storm of bullets which did great execution. Gunner Connolly, though suffering severely from his two previous wounds, was wielding his sponge with an energy and courage which attracted the admiration of his comrades, and while cheerfully encouraging a wounded man to hasten in bringing up the ammunition a musket-ball tore through the muscles of his right leg; but with the most undaunted bravery he struggled on, and not till he had loaded six times did this man give way, when, from loss of blood, he fell in my arms, and I placed him on a waggon, which shortly afterwards bore him in a state of unconsciousness from the fight.”
William Connolly was given a medical discharge in 1859, at the age of 43 years old, after 21 years and 3 months service. He was described as having an indifferent character. In physical appearance he was 5 feet 7 inches tall, he had brown hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion. He sailed back to England from India on the ship "Alfred" unfit for service but secure in the knowledge that his pensions would give him a decent standard of living back in Liverpool.
After returning home to Liverpool, it is known that he lodged with Thomas and Catherine Burrows at 124 Upper Mann Street Toxteth, Liverpool in 1861 and with the Dodd family at 40 Seacombe Street Everton, Liverpool in 1881. Catherine Burrows was formerly Catherine Connolly, so she was probably a relative. Thomas and Catherine were married on 17 December 1848 at St John The Baptist church in Toxteth. Catherine's father, Michael Connolly, was a warehouseman. She was living in Mill Street Toxteth at the time of the marriage.
In 1883 he lent his celebrity status to an advertising campaign for a universal remedy called "Eclectica":
ECLECTICA IN DEBILITY, LOSS OF APPETITE, INDIGESTION &c.
52, Conway Street, Everton, Liverpool,
August, 23rd, 1883.
DEAR SIR, I have for a long time suffered from debility, loss of appetite, and indigestion, together with derangement of the functions of the liver. The latter I ascribe to a long residence in India, where I served with my corps, the Horse Artillery, and was present in many battles from the Sikh war to the mutiny of the native troops. During these campaigns I was severely wounded, and as a matter of course subjected to all the hardships and vicissitudes of camp life. I may mention that I had cholera twice during that time. Since my return to England I have consulted medical men with little relief, and finding that I was losing flesh and becoming weaker every day, I have had recourse to "Eclectica", and in it, I am thankful to say, I have found the long-desired remedy for my numerous ailments. I felt relief from the first dose, my appetite has returned, I enjoy my food with the appetite of a campaigner, the pain and flatulence have left me, I take exercise in the open air, and am gaining strength daily. I remain, yours faithfully,
WILLIAM CONNOLLY, V.C.
He lived comfortably as an army pensioner and improved his financial standing by selling his Victoria Cross at auction in 1886 for £10. This was bought by Charles Winter, the newly appointed head of the Medal Department at Spink. The first sale at auction of a Victoria Cross was in 1884. Towards the end of his life he lived in Great Homer Street Everton and had a deposit at Great Homer Street Post Office Savings Bank.
He died aged 75 years on 31 December 1891 of bronchitis while lodging with the Johnson family at 14 Westminster Road Kirkdale, Liverpool. Mrs Johnson's daughter, Emma Cattrall, was present at his passing and informed the Kirkdale Registrar, Robert Henry Webster, the next day. He was buried on 4 January 1892 in Section CE 17 Grave 220 at Kirkdale Cemetery. This was an unmarked 'Public' grave as was the burial custom at that time. He made provision for his own funeral in his will and left £37 12s to his friend and doctor, Thomas Hill, of 6 Westminster Road. Hill died on 13 March 1893, within a year of proving William's will at Liverpool Probate Registry, leaving £169 15s to his widow.
Possible clues to his background include a possible relationship to Catherine Burrows formerly Connolly who he lodged with in 1861. She could have been his sister or related in some other way. In 1851 the Burrows had a 2 year old boy living with them called John Cheetham. The child's mother's birth name was Ellen Connolly. Ellen married husband John Cheetham on 9 April 1837 at St Nicholas church in Liverpool. There are no baptism records for Ellen, Catherine or William Connolly so why would that be if the three were related, perhaps as siblings? With a surname like Connolly you would expect an Irish Catholic background but none of the three had any Catholic associations in terms of baptism, marriage or burial. The absence of baptisms might be explained away by the parents deciding to avoid such a commitment altogether perhaps because they were from different backgrounds?
A 'pauper myth' has developed around William Connolly's final years. Some historians, for example James Murphy in "Liverpool VCs", spin a tale about how Connolly died in poverty. Murphy didn't know about the will left by Connolly so he wrongly assumed, based on bits and pieces of information, that Connolly declined into poverty in his later years. Murphy also gets Connolly's family background wrong. He identifies Catherine Burrows as his sister and says she was the daughter of James and Rebecca Connolly. According to Catherine's marriage record her father was called Michael Connolly. There's no evidence to suggest that William Connolly's parents were James and Rebecca Connolly.
Some extracts from Murphy's book:- "by 1886 he was in dire straits: in debt and living on hand-outs and charity, he declined into beggary." - I have no idea where this information comes from. "Emma Catterall provided a valuable service to the families of the area, as many women of her ilk did in the poorer districts of the city: she would wash, dress and lay out the dead in preparation for confinement in the coffin." - There is no evidence that Emma Catterall provided such a service and Kirkdale was not a poor district. "At one o'clock on 4 January, a cold, dreary afternoon swept by rain, William Connolly was laid to rest in a pauper's grave at Kirkdale Cemetery. Only the Johnson family mourned his passing." - How does Murphy know what the weather was like and who attended the funeral?
Similar information to the content of Murphy's book was given to the "Liverpool Echo" by local politicians when a plaque was unveiled on the grave at Kirkdale Cemetery in 2015. Prior to this event there was an appeal for help in tracing any relatives of William Connolly. A number of researchers, who responded to this request for help, found out that Connolly had left a will. Realising the importance of this record the information was forwarded to the relevant person but unfortunately it was not followed up on. Maybe the new information was inconvenient because it contradicted James Murphy? Correspondence later appeared in the "Liverpool Echo" attempting to correct these biographical mistakes and appealing for more properly sourced information about William Connolly VC.
WILLIAM CONNOLLY VC
Tell me William is it true what they say
Three wounds before they carried you away?
The Victoria Cross you won that day
In a colonial war far, far away
Your origins a mystery, your lifestyle unknown
Historians all guilty of lowering the tone
They said you were poor that wasn’t the case
Your will left a few with egg on their face
Where are they now and their apologies?
Get me the author of Liverpool VCs
Let’s have the two Joes putting things right
Instead of ignoring their oversight
I told them you were no pauper
But their response was akin to torpor
Perhaps the myth served them better
Until they read the truth in my letter