John Travers Cornwell was born on the 8th January 1900 at Leyton in Essex, the son of Eli and Lily Cornwell. He attended Walton Road School, Manor Park and was a keen member of the St Mary's Mission (Manor Park) Troop of Boy Scouts until the outbreak of war when the Scoutmasters enlisted and the troop was forced to close.
Cornwell had always had a sense of adventure and been keen to join the Royal Navy. At first his parents refused to let him go, the war changed their minds, and he joined at Devonport on the 27th July 1915. His reports were that he was an ordinary, reliable boy. A mess-mate who joined on the same day as Cornwell said he was "a most likeable lad, a credit to the Royal Navy". On finishing training Cornwell was posted to HMS Chester, a new light cruiser built in Liverpool. He subsequently sailed with his ship to join the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow.
On 31 May 1916 the British 'Grand' Fleet clashed with the German 'High' Fleet at Jutland in the North Sea. John Cornwell now a Boy, First Class, and not yet sixteen and a half years old, was the sight-setter on HMS Chester's front 5.5-inch gun turret, with the job of taking orders from fire control and applying the necessary range corrections to the gun. At 5.40 p.m. HMS Chester came under heavy fire from four German Light Cruisers and was hit seventeen times in a few minutes. 30 men were killed and 46 wounded, amongst the casualties, the entire crew of the forward 5.5-inch turret.
After the shock of the battle only one figure, mortally wounded, remained standing by the turret. Captain Lawson the commander of HMS Chester, in a letter to Cornwell's mother, and referring to her son's conduct wrote :
"His devotion to duty was an example to 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 steadily at his most exposed post on 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".
John Cornwell lived just long enough to be taken ashore at Grimsby where he died of his wounds on 2 June 1916. At first Cornwell was buried in a common grave, but when news spread of his bravery, and his recommendation for the Victoria Cross, he was reinterred at Manor Park Cemetery, East Ham, London. His funeral was remarkable with his coffin drawn on a gun carriage pulled by Navy boys along a route lined with Boy Scouts.
Cornwell's father a Private in the 57th Royal Defence Corps died in October 1916 and at his mother's request was buried in the same grave as his son.
The 5.5-inch gun from HMS Chester is now an exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London
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