b. 08/01/1900 Leyton, Essex. d. 02/06/1916 Grimsby, Lincolnshire.
John Travers “Jack” Cornwell (1900-1916) was born on 8th January 1900 at Clyde Place, Leyton, Essex, the son of Eli Cornwell and his wife Lily nee King. His father had spent fourteen years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in Egypt, Sudan and South Africa, and had worked variously as a milkman, male nurse in a mental hospital and a tram driver. He had married twice, first to Alice Carpenter, by whom he had a son and a daughter, and then to Lily King, who bore him three sons (including John) and a daughter.
Jack was the second eldest of his father’s second family and grew up in Leyton and then Manor Park. From May 1905 to July 1910 he was educated at Farmer Road School and then, following his family’s move to 10 Alverstone Road, Manor Park, he attended Walton Road School, which would take his name in 1929. Leaving school at 14, he worked as a delivery boy on a Brooke-Bond tea van, but his ambition from an early age was to join the Royal Navy. His parents were opposed to the idea so he concentrated on his other passion: scouting. A member of 11th East Hall Scout Troop, attached to St Mary’s Mission. By the time, it disbanded following its leaders having enlisted, he had gained his Second Class Badge and was well-prepared for the fulfilment of his dream.
Shortly after the outbreak of war Jack, armed with character references from his headmaster and employer, tried to join the Navy, but was rejected as being too young. Eventually, on 27th July 1915, he was accepted and sent to Keynsham Naval Barracks, Devonport, where his training began fourt days later. By then, his father, aged 63, had also wangled his way back into uniform, serving initially in the 2/6th Essex Regiment and then the 57th Company, Royal Defence Corps, the WWI Home Guard. As Boy Seaman 2nd Class, Jack embarked on a service career of less than ten months duration, of which only the final 29 days would be spent in his first and last ship, the light cruiser HMS Chester.
On 31st May 1916, Chester was scouting ahead of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron at the Battle of Jutland when the ship turned to investigate gunfire in the distance. At 17:30 hours, the Chester soon came under intense fire from four Kaiserliche Marine cruisers each her own size which had suddenly emerged out of the haze and increasing funnel smoke of the battlefield. The shielded 5.5-inch gun mounting where Cornwell was serving as a sight-setter was affected by at least four nearby hits. The Chester's gun mountings were open backed shields and did not reach the deck. Splinters were thus able to pass under them or enter the open back when shells exploded nearby or behind. All of the gun's crew were killed except Cornwell who, although severely wounded, managed to stand back up, and despite the entire gun crew around him dead or wounded, he remained standing at his post for more than 15 minutes until Chester retired from the action with only one main gun still working. Chester had received a total of 18 hits, but partial hull armour meant the interior of the ship suffered little serious damage and the ship was never in peril. The situation on deck, however, was dire. Many of the gun crews had lost lower limbs due to splinters passing under the gun shields. British ships report passing the Chester to cheers from limbless wounded gun crew laid out on her deck and smoking cigarettes, only to hear that the same crewmen had died a few hours later from blood loss and shock.
After the action, ship medics arrived on deck to find Cornwell the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, looking at the gun sights and still waiting for orders. Being incapable of further action, Chester was ordered to the port of Immingham. There Cornwell was transferred to Grimsby General Hospital, although he was clearly dying. He died on the morning of 2nd June 1916 before his mother could arrive at the hospital. His body was returned to London, at the request of his mother, and interred without fuss in Manor Park Cemetery. With his family unable to afford a headstone, his grave was marked simply by a wooden peg bearing the number 323.
This would not last long. Following Admiral Beatty’s despatch on 7th July 1916, which recommended Jack for a high honour, the newspapers seized on the story of the 16 year old hero. The story highlighted Jack’s largely unmarked grave and stated “England will be shocked to learn….that the boy-hero of the naval victory has been buried in a common grave.” Questions were asked in the House of Commons, and Lord Beresford asked if a posthumous VC was to be recommended. No recommendations had been made, came the reply.
On 29th July 1916, a funeral was arranged and saw shops closed, huge crowds, a coffin draped in the Union Jack and resting on a gun carriage, and a large amount of naval personnel to pay their respects. Six weeks later after his second funeral, the London Gazette of 15th September confirmed Jack’s posthumous Victoria Cross. Tragically, Jack’s father only lived a month after his son’s award, dying of bronchial pneumonia and was buried in the same grave as his son. Two years later, his elder stepbrother, Arthur was killed in action in France. By the end of the war, his mother was in poor health and financially struggling. Tragically, she was found dead aged 48 on 31st October 1919.
After her death, the Navy League stepped in with a grant of about £60 per year to support the upbringing of the two younger children. It was not enough and in 1923 Lily, the youngest at 18, decided to migrate to Canada with half sister Alice and her family. Later, they were joined by George, and Jack’s elder brother Ernest, who had doubled for Jack in a famous painting by Salisbury.
His medals were presented to the Imperial War Museum on a long term loan by his elder brother’s widow, and are in the Ashcroft Gallery. They are displayed alongside the 5.5 inch gun from Jutland.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM.
BURIAL PLACE: MANOR PARK CEMETERY, EAST LONDON.
Jack Cornwell's medals on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
SECTION 55 WEST, GRAVE 13
Frank Salisbury Painting of Cornwell
The HMS Chester Memorial and Jack Cornwell VC display case at Chester Cathedral (October 2015)
War Illustrated, 22nd July 1916
War Illustrated, 28th April 1917
War Illustrated, 5th August 1916