Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Remembering a Veteran: Boy First Class Jack Cornwell, VC

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). The family moved to No.10 Alverstone Road, Little Ilford, Manor Park, in 1910. 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.

Jack Cornwell Before Jutland

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 light cruiser 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.

Damage Aboard HMS Chester After Jutland (IWM)

A report from the Commanding Officer of HMS 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.

HMS Chester sustained severe punishment, being hit 17 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 2 June 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 publicized, it was decided, due to strong public opinion, that Jack should have a burial fit for a hero. On 29 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 honors. 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 HMS Chester. The Admiralty was represented by Dr. Macnamara, MP

On 15 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.

Mrs. Cornwell and her daughter Lily, with boys and cadets from Walton Road School
on "Jack Cornwell Day," Thursday 21 September 1916

On 25 October 1916 Jack’s father Eli died while on active service. The following month, on the 16th of November 1916, Jack’s mother received her son’s VC 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 31 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.

Source: London Borough of Newham Heritage Service

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