The news that the grave of John Travers Cornwell V.C. in Manor Park Cemetery, East London has been given Grade II listed status by Historic England today has once more drawn attention to a figure whose courage during the Battle of Jutland won him the Victoria Cross posthumously, and, in the public consciousness, transformed him from an ordinary East London delivery boy into a legendary figure embodying the much-lauded qualities of heroism and self-sacrifice. Paving stones in Cornwell's memory will also be laid in the area while his name will already be familiar to local residents in Manor Park as a street, block of flats and community centre are all named after him. A nearby pub is called 'The Victoria Cross' in his honour and in 2001 the London Borough of Newham introduced The Jack Cornwell Bravery Award, which has been presented annually in recognition for outstanding acts of bravery by Newham people. I live less than a mile away from Manor Park Cemetery, so it feels as if his story has a particular significance but in fact, Cornwell's name is well-known way beyond his local area, and his story continues to strike an emotive chord, despite the passage of one hundred years.
John Travers Cornwell, known as Jack, was born 8 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 in 1898, 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. Attracted to the Royal Navy, at the age of 15 Jack 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, 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.
On 31 May 1916, HMS Chester was scouting ahead of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet of 150 British ships. They had set sail from base the previous day in response to intelligence that the German fleet was putting to sea. Around 5.30pm, Chester was sent to investigate distant gun flashes amid a bank of mist. Suddenly, four German light cruisers appeared and opened fire. A hail of heavy shells fell all around Chester, hitting the ship seventeen times. Extensive damage to the ship's guns meant that she could take no further part in the battle and at dawn on 1 June was ordered back to port. The ship suffered casualties of 35 killed or died of wounds and 42 wounded.
Among them was Jack Cornwell, who had remained at his post as a sight-setter awaiting orders, the sole survivor of his gun turret team who had all fallen, dead or wounded. Jack suffered numerous shrapnel wounds and when he was relieved of his post, he was found with metal shards penetrating his chest. He was taken to Grimsby Hospital where he died on 2 June, aged just 16.
His body was returned to his family in London and buried in a communal grave in June but when the inspirational story of Cornwell's bravery and devotion to duty was taken up by the national newspapers, the strength of public opinion led to a campaign to provide this national hero with a more fitting burial. The following month, in July 1916, Cornwell was reburied in the same cemetery with full naval honours. The funeral procession included the Mayor of East Ham, the Bishop of Barking as well as 80 boys from Jack's former school, six boy sailors from HMS Chester and local boy scouts.
On 15 September 1916, Jack Cornwell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for valour in the face of the enemy. The citation for his award recorded how 'mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun's crew dead and wounded all around him. His age was under sixteen and a half years'. A Jack Cornwell Day in the same month sought to honour his memory, while the donations that poured in to the Jack Cornwell Memorial Fund amounted to enough to pay for a new ward at the Star and Garter Hospital for wounded servicemen in Richmond.
Cornwell's name and image would ever after be synonymous with the qualities of heroism and duty, and his story was an essential inclusion in any 'Boy's Own' style book or magazine celebrating brave deeds and derring do. Among the images we hold here at the library is an example by Charles Dixon in, 'Deeds that Thrill the Empire' and another by Fortunino Matania in The Sphere. The iconic photograph of him which appeared in all newspapers at the time is now thought to more likely be one of his brothers, and does look distinctly different to a commemorative VC Cornwell postcard we hold featuring a portrait of Jack.
Cornwell is the third-youngest recipient of the VC. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: "It is not wealth or ancestry but honourable conduct and a noble disposition that maketh men great."
Follow this link to see our selection of Jack Cornwell images http://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=35781