John Travers Cornwell VC (8 January 1900 – 2 June 1916), commonly known as Jack Cornwell or as Boy Cornwell, is remembered for his gallantry at the Battle of Jutland during World War I. Having died at the age of only 16, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. Cornwell is the third-youngest recipient of the VC after Andrew Fitzgibbon and Thomas Flinn.
John “Jack” Travers Cornwell was born as the third child of a working-class family at Clyde Place, Leyton, Essex. His parents were Eli and Lily Cornwell; he had a sister and three brothers, as well as two half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage. The family later moved to Alverstone Road, East Ham. He left Walton Road School at the standard age of 14, but was in the Boy Scouts. At the outbreak of the First World War, ex-soldier Eli Cornwell volunteered for service and was fighting in France under Lord Kitchener. His older brother Arthur also served in an infantry regiment on the Western Front.
In October 1915, Jack Cornwell gave up his job as a delivery boy and enlisted in the Royal Navy without his father’s permission. He had references from his headmaster and employer. He carried out his basic training at HMS Vivid Keyham Naval Barracks in Plymouth, and received further training as a Sight Setter or Gun Layer and became Boy Seaman First Class. On Easter Monday 1916, Cornwell left for Rosyth, Scotland, to join his assignment in the navy. He was assigned to HMS Chester.
Battle of Jutland
On 31 May 1916, Chester was scouting ahead of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron at the Battle of Jutland when the ship turned to investigate gunfire in the distance. At 17:30 hours, Chester soon came under intense fire from four Kaiserliche Marine cruisers each her own size which had suddenly emerged from the haze and increasing funnel smoke of the battlefield. The shielded 5.5-inch gun mounting where Cornwell was serving as a sight-setter was affected by at least four nearby hits. Chester’s gun mountings were open-backed shields and did not reach down to the deck. Splinters were thus able to pass under them or enter the open back when shells exploded nearby or behind. All the gun’s crew were killed or mortally injured except Cornwell, who, although severely wounded, managed to stand up again and remain at his post for more than 15 minutes, until Chester retired from the action with only one main battery gun still working. Chester had received a total of 18 hits, but partial hull armour meant that the interior of the ship suffered little serious damage and the ship itself was never in peril of sinking. Nevertheless, the situation on deck was dire. Many of the gun crews had lost lower limbs due to splinters passing under the gun shields. British ships reported passing the Chester to cheers from limbless wounded gun crew laid out on her deck and smoking cigarettes, only to hear that the same crewmen had died a few hours later from blood loss and shock.
After the action, medics arrived on deck to find Cornwell the sole survivor standing at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, looking at the gun sights and still waiting for orders. Being incapable of further action, Chester was ordered to the port of Immingham. There Cornwell was transferred to Grimsby General Hospital, although he was clearly dying. He died shortly before 8:00am on the morning of 2 June 1916, before his mother could arrive at the hospital.
Three months later, Captain Robert Lawson of Chester described the events to the British Admiralty. The recommendation for citation, from Admiral David Beatty, reads:
The instance of devotion to duty by Boy (1st Class) John Travers Cornwell who was mortally wounded early in the action, but 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 around him. He was under 16½ years old. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition in justice to his memory and as an acknowledgement of the high example set by him.
Jack Cornwell was initially buried in a common grave in Manor Park Cemetery, London, although his body was exhumed on 29 July 1916 at which he was reburied with full military honours in the same cemetery. Cornwell’s father Eli, who died on 25 October 1916 from bronchitis during home service with the Royal Defence Corps, was buried in the same grave on 31 October 1916. The epitaph to Jack Cornwell on his grave monument reads,
“It is not wealth or ancestry
but honourable conduct and a noble disposition
that maketh men great.”
In May 2016, the family grave and war memorial, erected in 1920, was given Grade II listed status, legally protecting it from unauthorised modification or removal.
The award of the Victoria Cross appeared in The London Gazette on Friday 15 September 1916. The citation read:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. 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 round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.