John Travers (Jack) Cornwell

At the age of fifteen, most of us were probably grumbling about GCSE exams and still shamefully incapable of boiling an egg, let alone knowing what job we would like to pursue later in life. Not John - or 'Jack' as he was commonly known - Travers Cornwell.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Cornwell – at the tender age of fifteen – armed himself with references from his headmaster and enlisted himself into the Royal Navy. He had left school at fourteen to become a delivery boy for one of Brooke Bond’s tea-vans, although deep down, he knew that he wanted to become a sailor. With the outbreak of war, his chance had arisen. He waved goodbye to his home in Little Ilford, East Ham, and embarked on his training to learn seamanship at Keyham Naval Barracks.

He finished his course at Keyham in April 1916. The following month, Jack Cornwell embarked on his first real adventure on His Majesty’s cruiser “Chester”. On May 31st, the Battle of Jutland was to be the first combat action that Jack had ever fought, and yet as a sight-setter to the forward gun, he had one of the most crucial roles. Using a calibrated brass wheel, he was responsible for the setting of the guns sights, according to his instructions, so the gun could be brought to bear.

The accuracy and effectiveness of the shot relied upon his quickness and coolness in carrying out his telephone orders. For twenty minutes or so, it appeared as though the Chester could fend off the attack. However, when four enemy cruisers appeared out of nowhere, Chester was hit seventeen times by shells, leaving only one gun in operation. Around him, Jack was surrounded by his fallen comrades. Mortally wounded himself, he stayed by his weapon until the ship was relieved by First Aid.

Jack died of his wounds on June 2 1916. However, his brave efforts were rewarded with a Victoria Cross, and his name would be held up to all other boys of his generation as a role model for loyalty, determination, and stoicism until the end. He even featured in The Children’s Treasury of Pictures and Stories in order to inspire the next generation with his heroic tale. Despite his youth, Jack possessed a courage that went far beyond the normal capacity of one so young, and in effect, ‘Boy Cornwell’ became a national hero.

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