Born on 8 January 1900 in Leyton, London, he attended Walton Road School in Manor Park and was a keen boy scout. After war broke out, at age 15 he enlisted in the Royal Navy.
At Easter 1916, Jack was sent to Rosyth in Scotland. On 2 May he joined the crew of HMS Chester, a new 'light cruiser' - a bit smaller than a battleship - with about 400 men and was part of the British Grand Fleet.
Jack had done well in training. He had the rank of 'Boy Seaman First Class'. Like all soldiers and sailors, he had his own number - J/42563.
On 30 May 1916, after intercepting signals that the German navy was on the move, the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet put to sea. They left port from bases in Scotland and the Orkney Islands with thousands of sailors, including Jack, on board.
The next day, the German navy steamed out into the North Sea. This was before radar or satellite navigation, so neither fleet knew where the other was until British sailors spotted distant ships at 2 in the afternoon. It was the German fleet, off Jutland in Denmark. Guns opened fire; the Battle of Jutland had begun. The ships kept firing their guns for hours.
At 5.30pm Jack's ship came under fire from four German ships. Shells crashed from the German guns into HMS Chester. Jack's ship was hit and all his gun-crew were killed or badly wounded. Bodies lay all around. Only Jack was left standing, bleeding from wounds. Although in pain and with shells still hitting the ship, he stayed by his gun waiting for orders. After the action, ship medics arrived on board to find him the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, still manning his post.
Jack was taken to hospital in Grimsby. They sent for his mother, but Jack died on 2 June before she arrived. He was just 16 years old. His body was brought back to East Ham in a naval coffin and his family buried him in a private ceremony at Manor Park Cemetery, in a communal grave.
recognition of his bravery
The story of Jack’s heroism led to strong public opinion that Jack should have a burial fit for a hero. In late July, Jack’s body was exhumed and carried by gun carriage from East Ham Town Hall to Manor Park Cemetery where he was reburied with full naval honours.
On 15 September 1916, the official citation appeared in The London Gazette stating that John Travers Cornwell had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V.
“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 around him. His age was under sixteen and half years.”
Fundraising card and Jack Cornwell's VC medal
“It is not wealth or ancestry, but honourable conduct and a noble disposition, that maketh men great”Epitaph on monument of John Travers Cornwell
The Jack Cornwell Memorial Fund was established to provide a ward in his name for disabled sailors at the Star and Garter Home at Richmond. Every schoolchild in The British Empire was invited to give one penny towards the fund with commemorative stamps given in return for donations. Schools all over Britain celebrated Jack Cornwell Day on Thursday 21 September 1916. A picture of the boy, standing by his gun, with Admiral Sir David Beatty’s report of the incident, occupied a position of honour in more than 12,000 schools.
Also in September 1916, The Cornwell Award, often referred to as the Scout VC was introduced. It was issued to scouts as a badge of courage.
At Jack's school in Walton Road, scholars and staff erected a plaque in his memory which was unveiled by Lady Jellicoe, wife of First Sea Lord Admiral John Jellicoe. The school was renamed the Jack Cornwell School in 1929 but demolished in 1969.
The London Borough of Newham introduced The Jack Cornwell Bravery Award in 2001, which has been presented annually in recognition for outstanding acts of bravery by Newham people. And a parade and memorial service by the Sea Cadet Corps and The Royal British Legion takes place every year. In 2016, to commemorate the centenary of his death, the parade is on Sunday 5 June.
The gun that Jack manned from HMS Chester and Jack's medals are on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.