John Travers Cornwell VC

In an era largely before celebrities and film stars – and a decade before the word ‘teenager’ entered the dictionary, 16-year-old Londoner John ‘Jack’ Travers Cornwell was the most famous teenager in Britain.

Jack Cornwell was a very ordinary boy from a very humble background. His dad was a former soldier who had various jobs in civilian life – nurse, milkman, tram driver, while his mother raised the family.

Pretty unremarkable at school, the youngster thrived in one area: the fledgling Boy Scout movement where he would tackle any task with cheerfulness.

It prepared him mentally and physically for a life in the Royal Navy which he joined in October 1915. After basic training in Devonport, the boy seaman headed to Rosyth to join cruiser HMS Chester at Easter 1916.

HMS Chester 1915

Six weeks later, the ship found herself in the middle of the greatest clash of warships the world had ever seen at Jutland.

Jack Cornwell was a sight setter on a 5.5in gun – protected from the enemy and the elements only by a shield.

The cruiser was hit 18 times by German shells. Four landed near Cornwell’s gun, killing all but two of its crew and gravely wounding the 16-year-old.

Cornwell did not seek help. He remained by his gun, awaiting orders, until Chester withdrew from the fight. Finally he was carried below for treatment.

John Cornwell at his gun on HMS Chester

There was little Chester’s surgeons could do for him and doctors at Grimsby Hospital, where Cornwell was taken the following day after the cruiser headed up the Humber.

His mother Lily was sent for, but the boy seaman died on June 2 1916 before she reached his bedside. She later received a letter of condolence from Chester’s Commanding Officer Captain Robert Lawson:

“His devotion to duty was an example for all of us. The wounds which resulted in his death within a short time were received in the first few minutes of the action. He remained steady at his most exposed post at the gun, waiting for orders.

“His gun would not bear on the enemy; all but two of the 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, as 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. I hope to place in the boys’ mess a plate with his name on, and the date, and the words ‘Faithful unto death’. I hope some day you may be able to come and see it there.”

The young sailor was laid to rest in a common grave in Manor Park Cemetery, near Stratford in East London.

When news of his bravery was revealed to the world – he was the only rating singled out in Admiral Beatty’s public dispatch on the battle – a clamour grew to honour him.

Jutland 100

Cornwell’s body was exhumed then reinterred with full military honours in the same cemetery on July 29 in what was the largest public event of the entire war. 

The grave was eventually crowned with an imposing memorial, postcards were produced, September 30 was hailed ‘Jack Cornwell Day’, stained glass windows were commissioned, memorial funds set up, the Victoria Cross was posthumously awarded and the Cornwell Badge introduced by the Scouts – which awards it to this day for devotion to duty, courage and endurance.

Frank Owen Salisbury was commissioned to produce a portrait which today hangs in the church of HMS Raleigh to inspire a fresh generation of young sailors – not least those of Cornwell Division.

While their son was venerated and his example used to rally boys to the Allied cause, tragedy continued to dog the family. Jack’s father died barely a month after being told his son would receive the VC. An elder brother was killed in France, while Lily Cornwell died aged 48 in 1919 in dire financial straits.

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