‘Boy’ Cornwell VC

I am sure this is a name you are all familiar with. In October 1915 John “Jack” Travers Cornwell joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15. After training he became a Sight Setter or Gun Layer. In April 1916, Cornwell was drafted to HMS Chester, a light cruiser, Town class. At only 5ft 3 in tall and weighing just 7st 12lb, he looked every bit the “boy” rating that he was. In to days terms he would have been known as Skin.

HMS Chester was involved in the Battle of Jutland. On 31st May 1916 she had been scouting ahead of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron when she came under fire from four German cruisers. In the fighting that followed Chester was hit 17 x 150mm shells and suffered twenty nine men killed and forty nine wounded, many of the latter lost legs because the open backed gun shields did not reach the deck and give adequate protection. One of those seriously injured was Cornwell.

Chester’s CO, Captain Lawson wrote the following to Cornwell’s mother after the battle: “ I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your son during the action of 31st May. His devotion to duty was an example to us all. The wounds which resulted in his death with in a short time were received in the first few minutes of 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, 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 Gods help to support him.

After the action, medics found Cornwell to be the sole survivor at his gun, shards of steel penetrating his chest, still looking at the gun sights and awaiting orders.

HMS Chester was incapable of further action and was order to sail to Immingham. There Cornwell was transferred to Grimsby General Hospital where he died on the morning of 2nd June 1916. He was posthumous awarded the Victoria Cross which was gazetted on 5th September 1916

A framed letter sent by the Admiralty stating award date and also another letter from Buckingham Palace approving the VC by the King both having been sent to his mother, Alice, were recently sold for £2500.00.

His mother went to Buckingham Palace, she was one of ten next of kin Victoria Crosses posthumously awarded that day. This was on the 16th November 1916. He is the third youngest every to have been awarded the VC. His medals were given to the Imperial War Museum by his sister in 1968. They remain there today as does the actual BL 55 Mk 1 Forecastle gun, minus shield, he was manning during the battle of Jutland

John “Jack” Cornwell was initially buried in a common grave (Square 126 Grave 323) in Manor Park Cemetery, London, but his body was exhumed on 29 July 1916 and he was reburied with full military honours also in Manor Park Cemetery Square 55 Grave 13. Jack Cornwell’s father Eli, who died on 25 October 1916 from bronchitis during home service with the Royal Defence Corps, was buried in the same grave on 31 October 1916. The epitaph to Jack Cornwell on his grave monument reads,

“It is not wealth or ancestry
but honourable conduct and a noble disposition
that maketh men great.”

With view to John Cornwell, I implied there were what is believed to have been two persons younger than “ Jack” to be awarded the VC. They are:-

Andrew Fitzgibbon VC

Andrew was born 13 may 1845 and is thought to be the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross.

He was born in Gujerat, India. He was 15 years of age and a hospital apprentice in the Indian Medical Establishment, Indian Army. He was attached to the 67th Regiment, later the Royal Hampshire Regiment during the third China War.

On the 21st August 1860 at the capture of the Northern of the Taku Forts, China Hospital Apprentice Fitzgibbon accompanied a wing of the 67th Regiment when it took up a position within 500 yards of the fort. He then proceeded, under heavy fire, to attend a dhoolie-bearer, whose wound he had been directed to bind up, and while the regiment was advancing under the enemy’s fire, he ran across the open ground to attend to another wounded man. In doing so he was himself severely wounded. Acknowledged to be youngest winner of the VC (aged 15 years, 3 months

Fitzgibbon later achieved the rank of Apothecary. He died in Delhi, India on 7 March 1883. He is believed to have been buried with his Victoria Cross.

Thomas Finn VC

His exact date of birth is unknown, but he was 15 years old, and a drummer in the 64th Regiment of Foot (later The North Staffordshire Regiment – The Prince of Wales’s), British Army during the Indian Mutiny when the following deed took place on 28 November 1857 at Cawnpore, India, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross:

Date of Act of Bravery, 28th November, 1857 for conspicuous gallantry, in the charge on the Enemy’s guns on the 28th November, 1857, when, being himself wounded, he engaged in a hand to hand encounter two of the Rebel Artillerymen. Flynn is acknowledged to be one of the two youngest winners of the Victoria Cross; both he and Andrew Fitzgibbon were 15 years and three months old.

After he left the army, he fell on hard times and was sent to Athlone Workhouse. His local Member of Parliament, Donald Sullivan, raised the matter in the House of Commons in April 1892. After reference to Flinn’s previous gallantry, Sullivan asked the Financial Secretary to the War Office St John Brodrick: whether he is aware that Flinn was awarded a pension of £10 a year for his valorous conduct, which sum the Guardians of the Athlone Union appropriate towards his maintenance; and whether some small increase could be made, so as to enable him in his old age to end his days more comfortably than in a workhouse?

Brodrick replied that:

This case is well known at the War Office. Flynn did very gallant service and was awarded the Victoria Cross, but I regret to say that he was discharged with a very bad character, he having been entered in the defaulter-book 47 times, and tried by Court Martial 15 times. The poor man is a victim to drink to such an extent that when he had the control of his money he only left the workhouse for the purpose of drinking up his annuity as soon as received. It would consequently be useless to consider his case for an increase.

Flynn died in the workhouse on 10 August 1892.

A memorial plaque was erected in the Garrison Church, Whittington Barracks, Lichfield, Staffordshire

RNA Norwich

The Norwich Branch is one of 300+ branches of the Royal Naval Association world wide. It was commissioned in 1979 and today has a membership of just over 90. It is a registered charity in its own right - the Registered Charity Number is: 1068699

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