The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration ‘for valour in the face of the enemy’ awarded to British and commonwealth servicemen. It was founded by Queen Victoria in 1856 and to this day only 1,357 have been awarded worldwide. The simple words ‘For Valour’ are inscribed on it. One man so honoured lived and worked in Heaton for many years and is buried in Byker and Heaton Cemetery.
Edward Lawson was born at 87 Blandford Street, near the centre of Newcastle on 11 April 1873. His father, Thomas, is described in the 1881 census as a ‘cattle drover’.
As a young man of 17, Edward joined the Gordon Highlanders. In the 1890s the regiment was called into active service on the North-West Frontier province of what was then known as British India. On 20 October 1897, a famous battle was fought at Dargai Heights, at which 199 of the British force were killed or wounded.
24 year old Edward Lawson carried a badly injured officer, a Lieutenant Dingwall, to safety. He then returned to rescue a Private McMillan, despite being wounded twice himself. He, along with a colleague, Piper George Findlater, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. The award was presented to him personally by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 25 June 1898.
Piper Findlater, the other recipient, was shot in the feet but continued to play his pipes to encourage his battalion’s advance. This act of bravery was widely covered in the press back home and Piper Findlater became a very well-known public figure. On his return to Scotland, much to the consternation of the military and political establishment, he capitalised on his fame and for a while supplemented his army pension by performing in music halls. He went on to be celebrated in literature, art and music.
Private Lawson seems to have been a more self-effacing man. A few months later, a comrade described him to the Yorkshire Evening Post:
I heard Sergeant Ewart questioning Lawson about the affair: ’Did you know the danger you were in?’ Lawson said: ‘No, I didn’t know what I was doing.‘ …Lawson was always a decent fellow but very rash and reckless: he would stick at nothing… He was made quite a god of in the regiment.
The Aberdeen Weekly Journal (22 June 1898) reported that the Newcastle Evening Chronicle had interviewed him on his return to Newcastle and found ‘a modest, unassuming man, little disposed to talk of his own exploits’. By this time, the paper says, he had completed his period of service and was back home in Newcastle working in the East End Hotel, Heaton. (Does anyone know where this was?*). Official records describe him as a ‘Reservist’ at this time.
The article goes onto describe his military career. After enlisting, Private Lawson had been posted to Aberdeen and after 5-6 weeks training, he was transferred to Curragh Camp in Ireland. He remained in Dublin for about 5 months. He was sent to India in March 1893, where he remained until his discharge. Lawson said that he received ‘a couple of scratches’ during the episode for which he was honoured.
And seemingly the action for which Lawson received the Victoria Cross wasn’t his only act of bravery. According to the newspaper, when, on another occasion, one of his comrades was hit by a bullet and fell into a dried up river bed, Lawson carried him safely to camp.
According to military records, Lawson soon returned to his regiment and served until 31 October 1902 including in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War. He received further military medals and clasps for this period of service.
On 14 March 1908, Edward married Robina Ursula Scott, who was known as Ursula. At this time, he was living at 128 Malcolm Street and working as an electrical wiremen. The Lawsons soon moved to 14 Matthew Street, South Heaton just north of Shields Road, where they brought up their six children. Matthew Street was their home until c1924 (when Edward was 51 years old) at which time they relocated to Walker where they were to live for the remainder of their lives.
Prior to and during the First World War, Edward served as a Company Sergeant with the Northern Cyclist Battalion, which was employed to protect the coastline. The battalion was based at Alnwick Castle during World War One. The next photograph shows men of the Northern Cyclists in 1910. Edward Lawson VC is seated at the front. The next photograph was taken at Bamborough Castle in 1914. Edward is fourth from the right on the back row. Left of him is his wife Ursula, right of him is sister-in-law Agnes (known as Lily). Both were employed as cooks to the officers mess. Front left is Thomas and right front is Arthur, both sons of Edward and Ursula.
Edward Lawson VC died on 2 July 1955. He is buried in Heaton and Byker Cemetery, where in 1999 a new headstone was erected on his grave. His Victoria Cross is held by the Gordon Highlanders Musuem in Aberdeen.
Thank you to Barry Lawson, Edward’s grandson, who supplied us with much of the above information and photographs. If you know any more about Edward’s career in the army or his life, we’d love to hear from you. Post a reply here or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
*See comments attached to this article for information about East End Hotel
Read here about a memorial to Edward and the other two Newcastle men to have been awarded the Victoria Cross.
Jesper Ericsson, Curator of The Gordon Highlanders Museum has kindly sent us the photograph now added to the top of this post, along with this additional information:
‘ What a brilliant page you’ve constructed to honour Private Lawson VC and I don’t think we could add much more to it. In fact, I think we’ve benefitted from it more than you can believe! He is sometimes looked on as the almost forgotten VC of Dargai because of the David Beckham-like fame that Piper George Findlater was propelled into after being awarded his VC. But the Museum owes Lawson an enormous debt of gratitude, because the officer he rescued, Lieutenant Kenneth Dingwall, played a key part in establishing the original museum. I’ll let his biography speak for itself:
Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Dingwall DSO
Dingwall was born at Caterham, Surrey in 1869 and was educated on the Continent. He joined the 3rd Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry in 1888, transferring to the Gordons as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1891, and was promoted Lieutenant in 1894. He served on the Chitral and Tirah expeditions, being severely wounded at Dargai, where he was rescued by Pte Lawson VC. During the Second Boer War, he was present at Magersfontein and all the major engagements with the 1st Gordons. For his services during this War, he was made a member of the DSO and mentioned in Lord Roberts’ despatch of September 1901. He retired in 1904. During the Great War he joined the 10th Seaforths as a Major and served from 1914 to 1917. He was promoted Lieut Colonel on the unattached list and served as Deputy Judge-Advocate on various occasions. Col Dingwall was an avid collector of orders, decorations and medals awarded to members of the Regiment and on his death he left them to the Regiment. From this collection the present Museum grew into what it is today.
So you see, if Private Lawson hadn’t rescued Dingwall on that day at Dargai, the Museum would not be what it is today.’
Should have checked Alan Morgan’s book: Heaton – from farms to foundries. He says that the East End Hotel opened in 1893 before changing its name in 1907 to the Chillingham Hotel. The present building, however, apparently dates from about 30 years later. Anyway, Edward Lawson VC came home to work in the Chilli!
Well thats something we never new and really interesting as our other grandfather spent some time working in Duffy’s bar in Walker. Might explain the need for the odd drink.
Barry Lawson, Grandson
Barry Lawson has emailed with this additional information:
” The Gordon Highlanders will take it”
Colonel Mathias, commanding the Gordon Highlanders received orders to clear the ridge, at about 2.30 in the afternoon. The Highlanders were confidently expected to succeed where others had failed, for it was well known with what fear the tribesman regarded these kilted troops.
Before the charge Colonel Mathias addressed his men with the following simple words. The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it.
The Colonel’s plain speaking words barely concealed the sinister reality of the situation. Many British troops now lay wounded in exposed ground before a massive enemy force whose reputation for cruelty was
know to every man present. If the position was not forced before dusk further operations would be impossible and the fate of those who had already fallen wounded would be sealed.
Rudyard Kipling new the North West Frontier well, and did not exaggerate when he wrote.
When you’re wounded and left on the Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains’
And go to your Gawd like a soldier.
For those men pinned down before the heights there could be no thought of failure.