“The Boy Hero of Jutland”  

By Alex Churchill

The third youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, when his mother was asked about her son’s naval career, Lily Cornwell claimed that “ever since he was a tiny mite,” John Travers Cornwell VC’s one ambition was to be a sailor. In the latter half of 1916 the sixteen year old became the poster-boy for the British war effort. His simple deeds during the Battle of Jutland were retold across the Empire. A household name, a war propagandist’s dream, his picture was instantly recognisable. But the famous photograph of the young hero is not of him at all.

Also, Kipling’s poem My Boy Jack, isn’t about his own son at all, but Cornwell.


Lily Cornwell, Jack’s mother.


On the evening of the 31st May 1916, as the Battle of Jutland raged, HMS Chester came under fire from four German cruisers that sailed out a smoky haze whilst she was investigating gunfire as part of her supporting role with the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron. A fellow Ship’s Boy who had lately been having tea with Jack Cornwell before the battle began, said that they were grossly outnumbered by enemy craft, but “she gave it ‘em back jolly well.” Although the ship would hold up well, at least four shells struck the ship in close proximity to the gun with which “Jack” Cornwell was working. The gun’s shield did not reach all the way down to the deck and hurtling shrapnel either mortally wounded or killed outright almost all of the members of the crew manning it apart from the teenager. He too had been struck several times by flying metal. Alone, confused and bleeding from his chest, Cornwell remained at his post, apparently calmly, awaiting further orders until the ship limped away from the scene of the action with wounded men lying on deck losing blood rapidly after shrapnel passed  under their gun shields and scythed away lower limbs.

As a boy one of Jack’s favourite pastimes had been cutting down his mother’s clothes line in their little garden and rigging it up in his own fashion to play at ships. He was the Captain and a school chum, who would also join the navy and even serve alongside him on HMS Chester, formed the crew. “It was strange for the son of a soldier, wasn’t it?” His mother reflected after his death. “But somehow or other the army never appealed to Jack… from the time he was a tiny boy he talked about the navy – always the navy.”

Jack’s father Eli was an established army man. After the untimely death of his father left his mother a parish pauper with six small children to care for, he and at least three two of his siblings joined the army to escape the poverty of their lives in rural Cambridgeshire in the mid-nineteenth century. Eli joined the 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot just as the regiment returned from India, where it had been since the Mutiny of 1857/58 and was later stationed at the Royal Victoria Hospital on the south coast with the Royal Hospital Corps.

Eli married in 1884 and his wife Alice bore two children. However, the relationship soon broke down and a decade later, although never officially divorced, he was living with another woman, nearly twenty years his junior in East London. Lily, who assumed the name Cornwell, had grown up at the Falcon Inn in Leighton Buzzard was overseen by her mother and had arrived in the capital after a stint as a parlour maid in an upmarket part of Folkestone. Eli and Lily had several children of their own, including Jack, born in January 1900, Ernest, George and a little girl named Lily after her mother.

Jack Cornwell was sent to Farmer Road School and later Walton Road after his parents moved. His teacher remembered him “as just an ordinary boy,” although “more reserved than most lads of his age.” St. Mary’s Mission on Grantham Road, adjacent to Alverstone Road was familiar to the Cornwell children too, both as the venue for Sunday School and the home of Jack’s Scout Troop. He was particularly fond of the latter, and loved camping out with the Scouts. Aside from sabotaging his mother’s clothes line for his naval games, his mother said he was a “good laddie” and never gave her any trouble. 

Working class life in the area was hard at the turn of the century. After coming out of the army Eli Cornwell worked variously as a milkman, a tram driver, with his brother Asher for Messrs. Elliott & Co, Dairymen and Bakers in Stratford and finally the army again on the outbreak of war, when, having been a territorial in the Essex Regiment, in his sixties by this point he volunteered for service with one of Kitchener’s battalions. It wasn’t always enough to support a large family and for at least one period, Jack and Ernest, the elder three children still at home were under the care of West Ham Union whilst Lily remained with her parents; not an extraordinary, temporary solution at the time. Rather than a workhouse, the boys were homed in a scattering of buildings on Romford Road, three and a half miles away from the family home Jack and Ernest in one, George in another nearby. The houses, organised like barracks were occupied by children with a female carer placed in charge. 

Jack Cornwell had just left school when the war broke out, and was desperate to join the navy, but his mother would not let him and he took a job locally instead. Eventually, it was his father Eli who signed the papers and in the summer of 1915 Jack reported for training at Devonport. He had been at sea just a few weeks when HMS Chester sailed into the fray at Jutland. Suffering a limited amount of damage during the battle, the Chester put in along the Lincolnshire coast and Jack was taken the six miles or so to Grimsby and admitted to the District Hospital in a serious condition. His shrapnel wounds resulted in an intestinal perforation and proved fatal. The sixteen year old died on 2nd June, before his mother could get to him. 

On the day of the Battle of Jutland and the week following, the Royal Navy lost almost 7,000 men and boys, of which Jack Cornwell was just one. “It seems terribly hard to lose him,” his mother later said, “but I have the consolation of knowing that he died a hero, died a death which he himself would have wished for England.” Her son’s body was taken home to London in a coffin provided by the navy, and the teenager was laid to rest in Manor Park Cemetery in a pauper’s grave. 

And that could have been that as far as the story of young Jack Cornwell was concerned, but for the fact that the press were clamouring to cover “The Great Naval Battle” in their columns. Muddled details began to emerge; it couldn’t even be ascertained who had won the engagement between the two fleets. 

The Royal Navy had suffered harrowing losses, including the loss of ships that took with them as many as a thousand crew. But in the aftermath of the Battle of Jutland, it was rhetoric by the likes of HMS Chester’s captain that caught the imagination of the press, about one young sailor and his calmness under fire. “I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your boy during the action on May 31st,” he wrote to Jack’s mother. “His devotion to duty was an example for all of us…he was the only man who was in such an exposed position. But he felt he might be needed, as, 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.”

And such high sentiment had begun to work its way up the chain of command, all the way to Admiral Beatty. Jack Cornwell’s story had caught the imagination of the entire country. Journalists flocked to Alverstone Road to interview his mother; picking up anecdotal material about “The Boy Hero of Jutland.” Before long, this moniker would be enough to identify the young VC winner nationwide without any necessity of using his name. One pressing issue, however, was the lack of a photograph to adorn the newspapers. No likeness of John Travers Cornwell VC existed and so one of Jack’s brothers was sent upstairs to don one of his uniforms, a hat and pose as his heroic sibling. 

By July, calls were being made to organise some kind of lasting memorial to the actions of this young boy, to immortalise his “inflexible devotion to duty… that his example may act as an inspiration to the youth of the Empire.” Conferences took place between the British Red Cross Society and the Navy League and amongst local dignitaries close to his home in East Ham. And various ways of commemorating the young sailor were agreed upon: a “Jack Cornwell” Ward subscribed to by schoolchildren, a book with a picture and the story of his life and death, a set of “Jack Cornwell” Cottage Homes for invalided sailors and soldiers and their families and a fitting monument for the young man’s grave. “It is felt that in this way suitable opportunities will be given to all classes of the community both at home and overseas to show their appreciation of Jack Cornwell’s devotion to duty.”

It was not only the Navy or sea-faring institutions capitalising on John Travers Cornwell in the interests of propaganda. Nobody cashed in more on an association with the boy hero than Robert Baden-Powell’s fledgling Boy Scout movement. Justified by way of a “once a Scout always a scout” philosophy, it was still a new organisation, only properly founded in 1908. In a publication about the ideals of his scouting movement, Baden-Powell wrote that their group activities were designed to develop the qualities of character, citizenship, and personal fitness qualities amongst the nation’s youth. Naturally he was thus keen to promote the good deeds of boys who had been involved in brave acts during the war. At a rally in Nottingham in early September, Baden-Powell announced a new badge in memory of Jack Cornwell which would be awarded “for outstanding pluck, referring to Cornwell as a brother Scout “who had shown the world how to live and how to die.”

In the meantime, Jack’s family continued to be subjected to constant media attention. Photographs appeared of his mother accepting flowers over her garden fence, and of her children reading articles and testimonials about their fallen brother. There was clamouring for a more public funeral, despite the fact that he had already been buried. One newspaper reported that with Eli away with his battalion in rural Essex, Lily had “been prevailed on to ask the Admiralty for another funeral with naval honours.” The Directors of Manor Park Cemetery had donated a proper plot for the family and Jack Cornwell was duly exhumed and taken to East Ham mortuary. 

In July, members of the 10th Essex, Eli Cornwell’s initial war battalion, formed a guard of honour as dignitaries began to gather at the Town Hall to take part in an elaborate funeral procession. Others invited to take part where 80 of Jack’s schoolmates from Walton Road, local dignitaries, boy scouts and naval cadets, 120 of the from the Royal Naval Division Depot at Crystal Palace and an RND band. 

Alongside them on the steps of the Town Hall the Bishop of Barking assembled with other clergymen, the Mayor and members of the Corporation. Top to bottom the steps were covered with crosses, wreaths, “and other devices fashioned out of pure white flowers, relieved here and there with a touch of violet.” Admiral Beatty sent a wreath of lilies and immortelles, with an anchor in the corner, and a card inscribed “with deepest respect.” There were three wreaths from HMS Chester – one from the Captain, another from the officers and a third from the boys. The Mayor of Chester sent one in the name of his own citizens, as “a tribute of admiration for the heroic boy who nobly fell on HMS Chester.” 

Mounted police led the way, followed by Jack Cornwell’s coffin mounted on a gun carriage and draped with the white Ensign and topped with wreaths from his family. and led by a boy bearing a wreath from Admiral Beatty. In front marched the RND firing party, behind the navy boys carrying flowers, including four of the boy’s comrades from HMS Chester who had fared better than he. His old schoolmaster led the representatives from Walton Road School. The Naval band played the “Dead March” as the cortege moved on. “All East London, and thousands more from distant parts, watched the procession as it slowly moved through densely crowded streets from… to the cemetery. Men reverently bared their heads and silently sorrowed; women and children sobbed and wept.”  

The trail of naval representatives, children and important local personalities wound slowly northeast to Alverstone Road where another delegation of the 10th Essex stood guard and where the deceased’s family climbed into mourning coaches: Lily, Eli, in his uniform and his three surviving sons, Ernest, George and Jack’s half brother, Arthur. After a short pause at his old school, the procession finally arrived at the gates of Manor Park Cemetery at the end of its three mile journey. Precautions had been taken to prevent overcrowding by restricting hordes of people from entering, but nonetheless, thousands had assembled outside to witness the boy hero pass through the gates again. The Bishop of Barking performed the funeral rites, and after the hymn “Eternal father, strong to save” had been sung, the coffin was placed into its second grave.” A volley was fired over the grave and the “Last Post” was sounded by naval buglers.

Still the clamour surrounding Jack Cornwell did not subside. In terms of longevity, his death in 1916 eclipsed in the press that of Lord Kitchener, who had died three days after the teenager when HMS Hampshire was believed to have struck a mine deposited by a German Submarine on the way on the way to Russia.  Once again, the Boy Hero of Jutland dominated the newspapers again as of mid-September. After some reticence about the award on the part of the Admiralty, Citation of Jack Cornwell’s VC appeared on 15th September 1916 in the London Gazette: “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 all around him. His age is under sixteen and a half years.”

Six days later, 21st September was dubbed “Jack Cornwell Day.”  A communication from the Navy League had been issued to elementary schools were to listen to the tale of Boy Cornwell, his life and his death and then all seven million children were to be urged to donate a penny towards a ward in the Victoria Cross recipient’s name at the Star and Garter Home; a converted hotel for wounded servicemen at Richmond. Seven million stamps containing a portrait of the boy hero were distributed so that every child subscribing a penny will be given a stamp bearing the image being touted as Jack’s as a memento. The scheme was expected to go on for quite some time to factor in schools that had missed the boat or had still not returned after the summer on account of the harvest or hop-picking. Enthusiasm was nationwide. By the end of the first week in October, Lord Beresford, the Treasurer of the fund, reported that over two million pennies had been donated. But whilst Jack Cornwell continued to be pressed front and centre in fundraising and recruitment efforts. The constant attention was getting too much for his mother. 

Then Jack’s father Eli died of Heart failure in late October 1916 whilst serving with the Royal Defence Corps – part of a home service unit that guarded vulnerable sports like railways and bridges. At the time of his death he was stationed at Fambridge in rural Essex on the River Crouch, on protection duties, and Lily received the news via telegram. She was now a widow and her working class household was now less two breadwinners. (Jack’s half brother Arthur Cornwell was also killed on 28th September 1918 with the Kensington battalion at Canal du Nord. Having enlisted at Woolwich, he had been married less than a year. It is unlikely that he ever met his son, Frederick John Travers Cornwell, who was born shortly beforehand.)

Eli was buried in the same grave as his son. The interest in Jack had still not subsided. By the end of the year, Lily had been to Buckingham Palace to receive her boy’s VC personally from George V. She was received in a batch of ten next-of-kin to men whom the VC had been awarded for special gallantry in action, but who had not survived to receive the decorations. Accolades continued to flow. In July, 1917, Lady Jellicoe unveiled the tablet to the memory of Jack at Walton Road School. At about the same time, the Palace Picture Playhouse on Cheltenham High Street was playing a reel of HMS Chester and Cornwell’s gun three times a day. Once again, his brother took on the role of Jack for posterity when it came to a portrait by the well-known artist, F.O. Salisbury. Jack’s sibling was now one of the most recognisable boys in the world. Colonel Sir William Henry Dunn offered the Committee of the Cornwell Fund 5,000 photogravure reproductions of the picture when completed, to be sold in aid of the fund. “Contributions to the Cornwell National Memorial” it was noted, “should be addressed to the Hon. Treasurer Sir John Bethell… at the Town Hall, East Ham.” 

Nobody appeared to consider particularly seriously how desperately a portion of this money being raised in Jack’s name might be needed by his family. In February 1917, one local newspaper recorded that the Cornwell Fund had received remittances from 28,400 schools and 485 individual subscribers, amounting… which, with the sale of booklets and pictures and the interest on money on deposit total £22,209 (£1.8m today). The total expenses to date, which include the printing of 11,000,000 portrait stamps of Jack Cornwell, 250,000 booklets, 175,000 posters, half a million collecting cards and the postage of more than 100,000 parcels and letters, amount to £4821 8s 61/2d. People were beginning to notice the disparity. As one newspaper put it: “Large sums have been raised in honour of Jack Cornwell, but the simple duty of caring for this family has been shamefully neglected.”

Much of the money went to the endowment of rooms in the Star & Garter Home. At the end of 1917 it was finally noted that £500 was to provide a substantial increase in the income of the boy’s mother. Lily was reportedly to receive 10s a week, and the capital sum would go to the Star and Garter Fund on her death, not her children, who in that instance would become orphans. Despite this apparent provision, it began to emerge that Lily and here family were living in poverty. On account of not being legally married to Jack’s father, she was not even receiving Eli’s pension.

The family’s case was taken up by a man by the name of MacCormack, who was determined to see Jack’s family provided for. By August 1919, the Northampton Mercury (MacCormack was a local) reported that “Thanks to the untiring exertions of Mr McCormack there has been been considerable improvement in Mrs Cornwell’s circumstances since he first drew public attention to her case. At the present time she is receiving 10s per week from the navy league and 15s per week from the admiralty, the latter being the increased temporary pension for Jack, but it is hoped that in the near future she will be awarded her husband’s pension. This will involve the reduction of the allowance she is receiving in respect of Jack, but the aggregate amount will be much larger than at present. In addition to this, the East Ham Committee have promised to provide her with a house rent free, to have Lily (junior) apprenticed to dressmaking and Jack’s brother taught the making of fancy leather goods. Altogether the result is one upon which Mr MacCormack is to be heartily congratulated.” Mac Cormack even found the means to fund the purchase of a piano for Jack’s sister Lily.  Her mother was touched. “Asked if anyone in the house could play, the hero’s mother said no, but she added, Lily was going to learn. She was apparently passionate about music. In addition to the piano, her benefactor had promised a leather music case and suitable books for a learner. “She’s a quick kiddie, and I’m looking forward to the time when our little place will be livened up by her playing.”  

Jack’s mother would not live long enough to enjoy the music made by her daughter and namesake. She died weeks later. Lily Cornwell was found dead in bed on 31st October 1919 by her son. She was had been suffering from heart trouble, and yet trying to supplement her income by working at a sailor’s home. Lily is apparently buried as Alice Cornwell, Eli’s first wife, and bureaucratically, at least, the two women seemingly merge into one person. And so Jack Cornwell’s mother lies in the same grave as her hero son under the wrong name. A sad footnote to the story of the boy who inspired an Empire during the second half of the First World War.