Brave Jack’s legacy

Boy Cornwell by Frank Salisbury. Image from maritimeprints.com

Boy Cornwell by Frank Salisbury. Image from maritimeprints.com

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Following the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland last week, Bedfordshire Scouts County Archivist Peter Sutherst shares the story of the youngest person ever awarded the Victoria Cross.

The son of a Leighton Buzzard woman, Lily King, John Cornwell, known as Jack, was born in 1900 and grew up with his parents in east London, where he was a Scout with the 11th East Ham Troop.

The Great War started when Jack was 14 and he signed up for the Royal Navy at the age of 15, qualifying as a Boy First Class.

His job was to aim the gun based on instructions radioed to him from the bridge.

Jack was posted to HMS Chester in Rosyth, which was about to take part in the notorious Battle of Jutland in the summer of 1916.

He was one of a 10-­man crew for a forward five­-inch gun as they engaged the enemy in the treacherous waters around the Skagerrak.

During the battle, they took several direct hits and all but two of the gun crew perished, leaving the badly injured Jack in sole charge of the gun.

True to his training, he stood by his post calmly awaiting orders and, according to some reports, even managed to fire a last round that sank a nearby German ship.

After the battle, Jack was taken to Grimsby where he died three days later, aged just 16 years and five months.

Within weeks, the Admiralty awarded him a posthumous Victoria Cross amid national tributes for his heroic efforts in the face of overwhelming odds.

He was given a state funeral in his home town of Newham.

The founder of Scouting, Robert Baden-Powell, decided to commemorate the event with a Cornwell Badge, which only goes to Scouts who have faced up to danger or acted with courage in the face of difficulty. Fewer than 200 have been awarded this Scout VC in its 100-year history.

Jack’s mother remained immensely proud of what her son had achieved.