Hero of the Battle of Jutland
John Travers Cornwell was born on 8th January 1900 at Clyde Place, Leyton. His father Eli originated from Cambridge and had served 14 years in the RAMC including active service in Egypt and South Africa. On leaving the Army he had several jobs, as a male nurse, a milkman, train and cab driver. In 1910 the family moved to 10, Alverstone Road, Manor Park. Jack was at one time a Boy Scout with the St. Mary's Mission troop at East Ham. He attended Walton Road School, which became the Cornwell School after his death. He left school at Christmas 1913 and worked for a time as a dray boy at the Whitbread's brewery depot in Manor Park.
He volunteered for the Navy on 30th July 1915, joining HMS Vivid training ship Devonport on 9th August, where he served until 1st May 1916. His certificate of General Efficiency shows: Gunnery 84%, Seamanship 70%, Physical training - Good, Swimming - Very good, Character - Very good. His height and weight on leaving were respectively 5ft 3ins and 7st 12lbs. On 2nd May he joined the Chester.
In 1916 Boy 1st Class John Cornwell was appointed gun sighter on board HMS Chester, and on 31st May 1916, the day of the Battle of Jutland, he was ordered to his post as usual, his duty being to stand by the gun with earphones on and relay the officers' orders to the gunner in charge of the gun. Early on in the action all the gun crew except two were either killed or injured and Jack Cornwell himself was mortally wounded. However, remembering his orders he resisted all temptation to leave his post, staying by the now useless gun in case he should be needed.
When the battle was over and the wounded were carried below, the doctors could see that there was little hope for him. He was taken ashore to a hospital in Grimsby. He died on 2nd June and a quiet funeral took place in the City of London Cemetery on 8th June.
The following is part of the letter written by the captain of the Chester to Jack's mother:
"I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your son during the action of 31st May. His devotion to duty was an example to all of us. The wounds which resulted in his death were received in the first few minutes of the action. He remained steady at the most exposed part of the gun waiting for orders. His gun would not bear on the enemy; all but two of the ten crew were killed or wounded and he was the only one who was in such an exposed position.
But he felt he might be needed, and indeed he might have been; so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God's help to support him.
I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world. No other comfort would I attempt to give to the mother of so brave a lad, but to assure her of what he was and what he did, and what an example he gave.
I hope to place in the boys' mess a plate with his name on and the words "Faithful unto death." I hope some day you will come and see it there. I have not failed to bring his name prominently before the Admiral"
And when afterwards Admiral Jellicoe wrote his official report on the battle, he added these words:
"A report from the commanding officer of the Chester gives a splendid instance of devotion to duty. Boy (First Class) John Travers Cornwell of Chester was mortally wounded early in the action ... His age was under 16 and a half years. I regret that he has since died. I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory, and as acknowledgement of the high example set by him."
The prompt award of the Victoria Cross only partly satisfied the general desire to pay homage to the dead hero. In addition to his VC he was also awarded the Bronze Star of the Boy Scouts, and the Order of St. George.
His body was exhumed and reinterred with full naval honours, a vast crowd attending the funeral, which was at the public charge on 29th July 1916 at Manor Park Cemetery.
Later the same year his father died and was buried in the same grave as his son. He had joined the 2/6 Essex Regiment in March 1915 and contracted a bronchial infection whilst on active service. His brother Arthur Cornwell was killed in action in France on 29th August 1918 and was also buried in the grave.
As a result of subscription a portrait of the boy was hung in every elementary school in the United Kingdom, while his memory was further perpetuated by the endowment of beds bearing his name in many hospitals and hostels.
The Jack Cornwell Memorial Committee was set up on 20th July 1916. It was registered as a Charity Trust in 1921. Hornchurch was chosen by the Trustees after inspecting several sites for the Cornwell Cottages. They were opened on 31st May 1929 by Earl Jellicoe. Beds were also dedicated to his memory at the Queen Mary Star and Garter Homes Richmond.
In order to keep him memory alive the Cornwell Scout Decoration was instituted by the Scout movement. It is a plain letter C in bronze and is awarded to scouts who show exceptional courage in facing danger, illness, etc. It is the highest award that can be won by a scout.
A plaque was unveiled at Walton Road School by Lady Jellicoe in his memory on 17th July 1917.
Shortly after his death the East Ham Education Committee announced that they would be asking all scholars in East Ham schools to make contributions to a fund to raise a memorial stone over the hero's grave. The necessary money was collected but it was not until 28th December 1920 that the memorial was unveiled by Dr. Macnamara in Manor Park Cemetery. The memorial was in the form of a cross and anchor with its chain entwined about it. It fell into disrepair and was altered during repairs in 1957. His parents and brother are also commemorated on the memorial. His memorial inscription reads:
First Class Boy JOHN TRAVERS CORNWELL V.C.
Born 8th January 1900
Died of wounds received at
The Battle of Jutland
2nd June 1916
This stone was erected
by Scholars and Ex-Scholars
of Schools in East Ham
It is not wealth and ancestry
but honourable conduct and a noble
disposition that makes men
The original painting of Jack Cornwell at his post by Frank O. Salisbury was hung in HMS Impregnable Devonport until it was closed in 1928. It was then transferred to HMS St. Vincent Boys' Training Establishment at Portsmouth. The artist worked on the painting on the Chester itself, using a boy named Kneller, who had known and trained with Jack Cornwell, as a model, and also in the studio with Ernest, Jack's brother, as the model.
Other paintings were also executed by:
F. Matania for the "Sphere" of 18th November 1915.
Charles Dixon for "Deeds that thrill the Empire."
P. M. Padday in "Answers" 28th October 1916.
Sir Robert Baden-Powell, reproduced and distributed in connection with the Scouts Memorial.
Postscript. At the end of the war it was accepted that Jack Cornwell's mother, now a widow, was living in penury with only a very small pension to live on, and was in fact working in a sailors' hostel to earn money. At this point none of the Memorial Fund money had been allocated, and there was an outcry at the treatment she received at the hands of the Navy League. After her death in 1919 her remaining children had to apply to a charity in order to emigrate to Canada. The Memorial Fund was approached but refused to help, and the money was eventually provided by concerned friends.
(Originally compiled from records held by Newham Library Service and published as Local Studies Notes No. 59 by Newham Library Service)