b. 28/06/1897 Scunthorpe. d. 21/02/1941 Kingston upon Hull.
John Cunningham (1897-1941) was born at Swaby’s Yard, off Manley Street, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire on 28th June 1897. He was known as Jack. His father, Charles, was a licensed pot hawker who moved around the north east of England a lot. His mother was Mary Ann nee Cunningham. They married on 10th September 1881 at Westgate, Rotherham, and had five children in total.
John was educated at St James’ Day, Wheeler Street and Chiltern Street Schools in Hull. He was keen on boxing and football, and after school took up hawking and was so employed for the rest of his life. John enlisted at the Central Recruiting Office, Hill on 14th September 1914, and embarked with his Battalion on 15th December 1915 for Egypt arriving on 28th December. The Battalion moved to France on 8th March 1916.
On 13th November 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Ancre (the final offensive of the Battle of the Somme), attacking from opposite Hebuterne the 31st Division was to seize the German trenches and form a defensive flank north of Serre. After the enemy's front line had been captured, Private Cunningham went with a bombing section up a communication trench where much opposition was met and all the rest of the section were either killed or wounded. Collecting all the bombs from the casualties Private Cunningham went on alone and when he had used up all the bombs he had he returned for a fresh supply and again went up the communication trench where he met a party of 10 Germans. He killed all 10 and cleared the trench up to the new line.
He was presented with his VC by King George V in Hyde Park, London on 2nd June 1917. He then married Eva nee Harrison on 10th June 1917 at Hull Registry Office. Their courtship lasted only a few days, but they had known each other from school and John had been a frequent visitor to the Harrison household. They had two children – Anne who died in infancy, and John.
John returned to the front and was posted to 10th Battalion on 11th February 1918. He was shot in both feet and the chest on 13th April. He was evacuated to Britain and his injuries left him with a permanent limp and as a result he was discharged on 26th June 1918. He was awarded the Silver War Badge on 2nd July and a disability pension.
John returned to hawking brushes and household hardware in Hull, but had difficulty settling into married life and became physically abusive towards his wife. He would appear in court in Hull on numerous occasions. In July 1919, he was charged with persistent cruelty to his wife having left her with a black eye and dragging her by the hair. Eva was granted a separation order with £1/5/- per week maintenance. He would be fined twice during the 1920s for failing to pay his maintenance. He was also involved in several incidents of violence usually involving alcohol. On 23rd November 1920 he was remanded for hitting a soldier over the head with a bottle in a street brawl.
In 1922, John’s disability pension was reduced to £1/4/- and he tried to get an advance in order to buy a horse and cart, but was refused. John was presented to the King and the Queen on their Royal visit to Hull in October 1937. John died penniless after a long illness at 5 Beaufort Terrace, Hull, but his next of kin was recorded as living at a different address. The informant was Pauline Cook, but it is not known who this was, and her relationship to John. He was buried in the family plot at Western Cemetery, Hull with his father, mother and brother Matthew. Eva re-married to James Tyre in 1942.
In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 and George VI Coronation Medal 1937. His VC alone is held by the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire Museum in York. The whereabouts of his other medals is not known.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: EAST YORKSHIRE REGIMENT MUSEUM, YORK.
BURIAL PLACE: WESTERN CEMETERY, KINGSTON UPON HULL, EAST YORKS. SECTION 181
John Cunningham's VC on display at the West and East Yorkshire Regimental Museum, York (February 2012).
War Illustrated, 3rd February 1917