John "Jack" Travers Cornwell was born on the 8th of January 1900 in Clyde Cottage, Clyde Place, Leyton. He was the son of working-class parents, Eli and Lily Cornwell (formerly King) and had two brothers: Ernest, born in1898, George (1901) and a sister Lily (1905). He also had a half-brother named Arthur (1888) and a half-sister named Alice (1890). Their mother was Alice Cornwell (formerly Carpenter). In 1911 Jack was in the care of the West Ham Poor Law Union and living in one of its children's homes in Romford Road, Forest Gate. He later moved with his family to 10 Alverstone Road, Little Ilford, Manor Park. Jack attended Walton Road School in Manor Park and was a keen Boy Scout in the Little Ilford Troop at St Mary's Mission.
When Jack left school he became a delivery boy for Brooke Bond & Co. and then worked as a dray boy with the Whitbread's Brewery Depot in Manor Park.
At the outbreak of war, Jack's father Eli, an ex-soldier, re-enlisted as a Private in the 57th Coy. Royal Defence Corps. It was The Royal Navy that appealed to Jack and at the age of 15 he took references from his Headmaster and his employer along to a local recruitment office and enlisted.
He was sent to Keyham Naval Barracks in Plymouth for his basic training where he earned sixpence a week as a "Boy Second Class". He passed out as Boy First Class J. T. Cornwell J/42563 and when he left Keyham, (referred to in naval terms as H.M.S. Vivid) he was posted to H.M.S. Lancaster which was moored at Chatham. Jack was later ordered to join the fleet at Rosyth in Scotland and on the 2nd of May 1916 he joined the newly commissioned H.M.S. Chester.
The Battle of Jutland began on the 31st of May 1916, the first shots being fired at 14.28. H.M.S. Chester was stationed ahead of the fleet in The North Sea. Lookouts reported distant gunfire and her Captain ordered "Action Stations" before setting off at full speed to investigate. Close ahead they encountered four German cruisers. Jack took orders via headphones from his Officer on the bridge. He was fully responsible for setting the gun's sights and his speed and precision would determine whether they were to hit or miss their target. The German cruisers opened fire and Jack's gun was one of the first to be hit before it could be brought into action and he suffered a serious wound to his chest. H.M.S. Chester simply could not match the firepower of the four enemy cruisers.
A report from the Commanding Officer of H.M.S. Chester: "Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell of the "Chester", was mortally wounded early in the action. He nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun's crew dead and wounded all round him".
H.M.S. Chester sustained severe punishment, being hit seventeen times. She was ordered back to the port of Immingham on the Humber.
Jack was taken to hospital in Grimsby and attended by Dr. C. S. Stephenson, but he could not be saved and died of his wounds on June 2nd, 1916. His body was brought back to East Ham in a naval coffin and his family buried him in a private ceremony at Manor Park Cemetery, in a communal grave numbered 323.
When the story of Jack's heroism and somewhat humble burial was publicised, it was decided, due to strong public opinion that Jack should have a burial fit for a hero.
On the 29th of July 1916, Jack Cornwell's body was exhumed and carried by gun carriage from East Ham Town Hall to Manor Park Cemetery where he was reburied with full naval honours.
In the procession, along with members of the family were: Mr. R. Banks Martin the Mayor of East Ham, Sir John Bethell M.P.,The Bishop of Barking, boys from Walton Road School, local cadets and scouts and boy sailors from H.M.S. Chester. The Admiralty was represented by Dr. Macnamara M.P.
On the 15th of September 1916, the official citation appeared in The London Gazette stating that John Travers Cornwell had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V.
In the same month, The Jack Cornwell Memorial Fund was established to provide a ward in his name for disabled sailors at the Star and Garter Home at Richmond. Every schoolchild in The British Empire was invited to give one penny towards the fund. In return for donations, commemorative stamps were given. Schools all over Britain celebrated Jack Cornwell Day on Thursday September 21st 1916.
Also in September, The Cornwell Award, often referred to as the scout V.C. was introduced. It was issued to scouts as a badge of courage.
A local memorial fund was established, and pupils and ex-pupils from East Ham were invited to contribute towards the cost of a memorial stone and other charitable causes. At Jack's school in Walton Road, scholars and staff erected a plaque in his memory which was unveiled by Lady Jellicoe, wife of First Sea Lord Admiral J. Jellicoe. The school was renamed the Jack Cornwell School in 1929 but demolished in 1969.
On the 25th of October 1916 Jack's father Eli died whilst on active service. The following month, on the 16th of November 1916, Jack's mother received her son's V.C. from The King at Buckingham Palace.
By 1919, Jack's mother Lily, was living in reduced circumstances and working in a sailors' hostel to supplement a very small pension awarded for her son. She was found dead at her home in Commercial Road, Stepney, on the 31st of October 1919 aged 48 and never saw the memorial erected on her son's grave. She shares a grave with Jack and Eli at Manor Park Cemetery, although her name is recorded as Alice.
The memorial stone was unveiled on the 31st of December 1920, by Dr. Macnamara M.P. with members of the family present and A.H. Wiseman, the Mayor of East Ham. The Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts provided a guard of honour.
The gun that Jack manned from H.M.S. . Chester, was taken to the Imperial War Museum in March 1936 and is still on display today, along with Jack's medals which were deposited in the museum by Jack's stepsister Alice Payne on the 28th of November 1968.
The legacy of Jack Cornwell is still very much alive in Newham today. In Manor Park, there is The Jack Cornwell Centre in Jack Cornwell Street, The Victoria Cross public house and Jack Cornwell V.C. House in Grantham Road. In Manor Park Cemetery there is Cornwell Crescent and in Vicarage Lane, East Ham, there is The Cornwell V.C. Cadet Centre, where the Newham Sea Cadets are based. This unit is the only one in Britain not to have T.S. (Training Ship) written upon the ribbon of their cap. Instead, they have the honour of having J.T. Cornwell V.C. printed upon it. A parade and memorial service by the Sea Cadet Corps. and The British Legion takes place every year.
The London Borough of Newham introduced The Jack Cornwell Bravery Award in 2001, which has been presented annually in recognition for outstanding acts of bravery by Newham people.
On 31 May 2016 a commemorative paving stone honouring Jack Cornwell will be laid in the Cenotaph area of Central Park, East Ham. This will be the third in in a series of five events honouring Newham's First World War VC recipients with ceremonies occurring near the time of the 100th anniversary of their acts of bravery.