John Travers Cornwell (19001916), by unknown photographer
Cornwell, John Travers (19001916), naval hero, was born on 8 January 1900, at Clyde Cottage, Clyde Place, Leyton, Essex, the son of Eli Cornwell (18521916), tram driver and soldier, originally from Newmarket, and his wife, Lily King (d. 1918). His siblings included at least two brothers (one of whom was killed in action in August 1918) and a sister. He was educated at Walton Road School, Manor Park, Essex. As a boy he was a keen member of the St Mary's Mission Boy Scout troop at Manor Park until it was disbanded in 1914; posthumously he became a hero of the scout movement, which instituted a Cornwell badge for high character and devotion to duty, and a Cornwell memorial fund to provide scholarships for badge-winners.
Cornwell wished to join the Royal Navy after school but his parents preferred a civilian life for him, and he became a delivery van boy for Brooke Bond & Co., tea merchants. After the outbreak of the First World War his parents relented, and he joined the navy at Devonport on 27 July 1915. During nine months at a training school at Dartmouth he took to seamanship, although gunnery training on HMS Vivid proved more challenging. A photograph taken at this time shows keen features, and an attentive, resolute expression. He joined a new light cruiser, HMS Chester, on its commissioning day at Cammell Laird's Birkenhead yard, 1 May 1916, and was at sea for only a month before his death.
At the battle of Jutland, on 2 June 1916, Boy First Class Cornwell was stationed at an exposed gun on Chester, where he was mortally wounded early in the fight when a shell burst overhead. He remained standing alone at his post, quietly awaiting orders, with the gun's crew lying dead and wounded about him, until the end of the action. Dying shortly afterwards, he was buried in a common grave at Grimsby, Lincolnshire. In his dispatch reporting the battle Sir David Beatty mentioned the courage and patient sense of duty of the boy, who was immediately extolled by publicists, journalists, and public figures as a model of obedience, selflessness, and fidelity for the young. The imperishable boy Cornwell, in Leo Maxse's words, became a national hero (National Review, 68, Oct 1916, 193). It was suggested that his photograph should be hung in every elementary school so that the lustre of his deed may shine where boys and girls are quick to catch the reflection of lofty and honourable conduct (The Spectator, 15 July 1916, 68). Lord Beresford urged in parliament on 26 July 1916 that Cornwell should receive the Victoria Cross posthumously: An honour paid to Cornwell's memory would be an example to the boys of the Empire at their most susceptible age (Hansard 5L, col. 921). Partly as an exercise in patriotic propaganda the boy's remains were reinterred with much pomp in Manor Park cemetery, East Ham, on 29 July 1916. He was gazetted VC on 15 September 1916. His father died five weeks later, and his widowed mother received the cross from George V at Buckingham Palace on 16 November 1916. Cornwell was the youngest ever naval VC, although Arthur FitzGibbon in 1860 had been three months younger at the time of his heroism during a military campaign in China.
30 September 1916 was declared Jack Cornwell day in British elementary schools; penny stamps were printed bearing his portrait; rousing verses were circulated about him; £18,000 was raised in his memory for the Jack Cornwell ward of the Star and Garter Home for Disabled Servicemen at Richmond. Posthumous portraits were made by Sir Robert Baden-Powell, Frank Salisbury, and Fortunino Matania; Matania's picture of the boy standing at his gun, published in The Sphere (18 November 1916), became iconic, and the gun itself was installed at the Imperial War Museum. A new-born boy was given the forenames Travers Cornwell as late as 1955.
The Times (7 July 1916), 5b · The Times (8 July 1916), 11d · The Times (11 July 1916), 9b · The Times (26 July 1916), 3a · The Times (31 July 1916), 3e · The Times (16 Sept 1916) · The register of the Victoria Cross (1981) · J. Winton [Pratt], The Victoria cross at sea (1978) · The Spectator (15 July 1916) · Hansard 5L, cols. 92021 · The Family Record
Newham Archive and Local Studies Library, papers and photographs
Stratford Library, London
photograph, 1915?, repro. in Register of the Victoria cross, 61 · R. Baden-Powell, portrait, 1916, probably Scout Association, London · F. Matania, 1916, repro. in Winton, Victoria cross at sea, facing p. 129 · Rembrandt, photogravure, 1916, repro. in Teachers' World (July 1916) · F. Salisbury, portrait, 1916 (commissioned by Admiralty) · photograph, 1916, Hult. Arch. · photograph, IWM [see illus.]