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Remembering the youngest Victoria Cross recipient in WWI

A permanent tribute to the youngest naval officer to be awarded a Victoria Cross in WWI has today been unveiled in East London.

Relatives of Leyton resident John ‘Jack’ Cornwell, who died 100 years ago aged just 16 during the Battle of Jutland, joined members of the Royal Navy, representatives from Waltham Forest Council, and East London residents, to see a special paving stone unveiled this morning.

Taking place close to where Jack - as he was commonly known - grew up in Leyton, the commemoration event saw the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Collingwood perform as it marched into Coronation Gardens, in Waltham Forest, shortly before 11am.

The Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone, part of a programme run by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), was then unveiled at the foot of a war memorial in the park, for all to see.

Hundreds of super-sized poppies were temporarily installed in Coronation Gardens to mark the occasion. The result of a two-year project commissioned by the Council and led by local social enterprise Significant Seams, the poppies were stitched, knitted, crocheted and weaved by residents of all ages.

As well as standing out for their size and number, the poppies are especially eye-catching because they are purple, white and green, as well as the traditional red. The additional colours aim to encourage conversations about how WWI affected important issues in our society: purple stands for changes in women’s roles; green for the acceptance of mental health and illness; and white for the increased ability for individuals to participate in political process – and the peace movement.

Roger Cornwell, whose grandfather was Jack’s cousin, said: “It's difficult to imagine these days that we would put a young man of 16 into such a dangerous situation or give him the key role of sight-setter, but that's what happened. He had his duty to perform and he did it even at the cost of his own life. That makes me very proud.

“I think it's fitting that as well as the military side of the event, with the Royal Marines Band, the parallel installation by Significant Seams showed the relevance of the changes wrought by the First World War to life today.”

Council Leader Chris Robbins said: “This was a truly unique commemoration event for an inspirational boy from Leyton whose immense courage has gone down in history.

“It’s hard to comprehend the sacrifice he made for his country aged just 16, but those of us here today owe a huge debt to people like Jack for the heroism they displayed during the war. As well as laying a special paving stone in Jack’s honour, we will also be renaming Skeltons Lane Park, one of our many popular parks, the Jack Cornwell Park.”

Admiral Sir Philip Jones, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, said: “The Battle of Jutland was the most significant naval action of the First World War. Without command of the seas, Britain’s maritime trade, the lifeblood of the war effort, would have been in danger, and Britain herself open to the risk of starvation or even invasion. The stakes couldn’t have been higher and the subsequent loss of life was truly horrific.

“Jack Cornwell is the epitome of the courage and commitment of all those who fought at Jutland. Today, his portrait hangs in the chapel of our new entry training establishment and every sailor who joins the Royal Navy learns his story. We will never forget the sacrifice of Jack Cornwell and so many others like him.”

Baroness Williams of Trafford, parliamentary under-secretary of state in the DCLG, said: “The stone laid in honour of Jack Cornwell provides a fitting tribute to his bravery and will encourage residents of Waltham Forest to learn how a local hero played a key role in the history of the First World War.

“Jack carried out astonishing acts of valour in service of his country aged only 16 and we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to brave heroes like Jack who served and lived through the First World War.

“They are just as inspirational now as they were a century ago.”

Notes to editors

The story of Jack Cornwell

John ‘Jack’ Cornwell was born on 8 January 1900 just off Capworth Street in Clyde Cottage, Clyde Place, Leyton.

At the outbreak of WWI in June 1914, Jack tried to enlist by lying about his age. However, he was unsuccessful and had to wait another year before he successfully enlisted in the Royal Navy as a Boy Sailor in 1915. He didn’t have his father’s permission but used letters of reference from his headmaster and employer. After basic training he was posted to HMS Chester in 1916 as a Boy 1st Class Sailor.

On 31 May, 1916, HMS Chester came under intense fire from four German marine cruisers during the Battle of Jutland. A hail of heavy shells fell around HMS Chester and the 5.5-inch gun mounting where Cornwell was serving as a sight-setter was affected by at least four nearby hits.

The gun’s entire crew was killed or mortally injured except Cornwell, who although wounded, remained at his post until HMS Chester retired from the action with only one main gun still working.

After the action, ship medics arrived on deck to find Cornwell the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, looking at the gun sights and still waiting for orders. 

Being incapable of further action, HMS Chester was ordered to the port of Immingham, near Grimsby. There Cornwell was transferred to Grimsby General Hospital, where he died on the morning of 2 June, 1916, before his mother could arrive at the hospital.

The navy provided a coffin and Jack’s body was taken home. He was initially buried in a common grave in Manor Park Cemetery, in Newham, with only a few members of his family present. His resting place was marked by a wooden sign that read Grave 323.

Jack’s story could have ended there but just over a month later, the Daily Sketch, a popular daily newspaper of the time, published a full front page spread telling of the “scandal” of how an unrecognised boy war hero from the Battle of Jutland had been buried in a common grave. 

The story captured the hearts of the British people and the Royal Navy decided that Jack should be given a full military funeral. His body was exhumed on 29 July, 1916, and he was reburied with full military honours in Manor Park Cemetery. 

To this day, The Scout Association – Cornwell was a Scout in the St. Mary’s Mission Group in Manor Park – still awards the Cornwell Scout Badge in respect of pre-eminently high character and devotion to duty, together with great courage and endurance.

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