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Thursday 16 September 2010

First Class Boy

John Travers Cornwell V.C ( known as Jack ) was born on 8 Jan. 1900 in Leyton, London, son of Eli and Alice Cornwell. He was educated at Walton Road School, Manor Park and wished to be a sailor when he left school. But his parents could not bear the thought of losing him so soon, so he became a boy on a Brook Bond's tea van. He was also a keen Boy Scout, and held two certificates.
After his death the Scouting Association were to name their own Badge of Courage to his memory:
click this link for more info The Cornwell Award - The Badge of Courage

When the European War broke out his father promptly joined the Army, and Jack Cornwell decided to join the Navy. After his training at Devonport, in July 1915, he became a First Class Boy on HMS Chester for active service in Admiral Beatty's North Sea Squadron.
A few months after Jack Cornwell joined his ship, and came to grips with the German High Seas Fleet near Jutland 31st May 1916;

Jack was mortally wounded in action, and died two days later in Grimsby hospital. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross [London Gazette, 15 Sept. 1916] : " John Travers Cornwell, Boy (First Class), O.N. J.42563: Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John 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 around him. His age was under sixteen and half years."

The story of his brave deed was told in the following letter,
written to his mother by the Captain of his ship :

" I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your son during the action of 31 May. 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 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 date and the words, ' Faithful unto Death.' I hope some day you may able to come and see it there. I have not failed to bring his name prominently before my Admiral."

The " Times History of the War " says, in Vol. II., page 189, of Jack Cornwell:

" He was only a boy, under sixteen and a half years of age; yet no record of the Cross was more impressive than that of his behaviour in the Jutland battle : Mortally wounded early in the action, he 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 round him.

Some time elapsed before the steadfast courage of the boy was made known. Meanwhile he had been brought ashore, he had died at Grimsby of his wounds, and through one of the stupid blunders which are inseparable from officialdom he had been buried in what was no better than a pauper's grave. No sooner was the truth known of the lad's last hours of life and the manner of his death than public opinion demanded a befitting reinterment. Accordingly the body was exhumed, and there was an impressive funeral in Manor Park Cemetery.

A few months afterwards the boy's father, Eli Cornwell, who had joined the Army, was buried in the same grave." . . . A committee was formed to organize a national memorial to Jack Cornwell. and £21,849 13s. 111/2d. was raised.

In Memoriam
First Class Boy John Travers
Cornwell VC
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 or ancestry
but honourable conduct and a noble
disposition that make men great.'

 " A picture of the boy, standing by his gun, with Admiral Sir David Beatty's report of the incident, occupies a position of honour in more than 12,000 schools.
At Buckingham Palace, on 9 February, 1917, the Queen received the members of the Jack Cornwell Memorial Fund Committee, who presented to her the first instalment of the proceeds of the appeal. Admiral Lord Beresford presented an address explaining the objects of the fund and the means adopted to carry them out. One form of the memorial was a contribution of £18,000 collected in the schools and by scholars of the United Kingdom to the ' Star and Garter' Fund, and it was proposed as another part of the scheme to place a portrait of Cornwell in each of the contributing schools.

In accepting a cheque for £18,000, the Queen said : ' I am glad to know that in every school where the scholars have contributed to this memorial a picture of Jack Cornwell will be placed, which will serve to remind future generations of scholars in those schools of the lasting glory that attaches to the performance of duty.'
On 23 March, 1917, a large company witnessed at the Mansion House the presentation to the Board of Admiralty of Mr. Frank O. Salisbury's picture, ' John Cornwell, V.C., on H.M.S. Chester.' Sir Edward Carson, the First Lord, received the picture on behalf of the Admiralty. The picture showed the lad standing by the side of a gun, which had just been fired. The inscription gave the official details of Cornwall's act. The artist unveiled the picture, and in formally presenting it to the Admiralty, said that the studies were taken on board the Chester. Cornwell's brother sat for the portrait. The captain, on being asked for a title for the picture, replied that he knew of none which was more appropriate than this : ' Thou hast set my feet in a large place.'

In accepting the gift on behalf of the Admiralty, Sir Edward Carson paid a high tribute to the dead lad's courage and example. ' I ask people who grumble' he said, ' if they ever heard the story of John Travers Cornwell. ... I feel that this boy, who died at the post of duty, sends this message through me as First Lord of the Admiralty for the moment to the people of the Empire: "Obey your orders, cling to your post, don't grumble, stick it out."


  1. Just a boy, as were so many of us that joined Her Majesties service so many years later in the 1960's. John, (Jack), personifies so much that was ingrained in us as boy entrants, (in the Royal Air Force), as to our duty. Without doubt, Jack was a real hero, but in being so was something that no doubt we all aspired to be, given the time, the place and the circumstances and, our committment to serve our Queen and country. God bless you Jack, for all that you gave and have given to others with your bravery.

  2. As a close living relative of Jack I feel proud to read this account. It is sad to think that the reality was that the driving force for his bravery was probably fear as well as a sense of duty. I'm not sure that I can fully concur with the First Lord of the Admiralty's message to "Obey your orders, cling to your post, don't grumble, stick it out." Easy words, but then he survived. The Captain of the Chester had written to the Admiralty regarding the lack of armour around the gun turrets giving little protection from flying shrapnel. More questioning and grumbling may have led to better protection. Despite his brave actions I hope that we never feel the need to send young boys to war again.
    Dave Cornwell

    1. Hi Dave,
      Thank you for leaving your comment, putting people in touch with their Ancestors and being able to tell their stories is always the best part of writing this blog. I hope that the information that I have given is seen as a fitting tribute to the memory of Jack and as that of being a true hero.


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