Photo story

Jack Cornwell And The HMS Chester Gun

  • Naval Gun from HMS Chester

    5.5 inch naval gun from HMS Chester on display in the First World War Galleries at IWM London

    This 5.5 inch naval gun was once part of HMS Chester, a light cruiser that took part in the Battle of Jutland which took place off the coast of Denmark in May 1916. In this battle, the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet confronted one another at sea for the only time during the First World War. Although Germany claimed victory, the Royal Navy retained control of the North Sea. The role played by HMS Chester at Jutland makes this gun one of IWM's most important naval artefacts. But like many objects in the IWM Collection, this rather anonymous and imposing piece of machinery can tell a number of surprising stories.

  • HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland

    Damage to the deck of HMS <em>Chester</em> sustained during the Battle of Jutland, 1916
    Damage to the deck of HMS Chester sustained during the Battle of Jutland, 1916
    SP 1592

    On 31 May 1916, HMS Chester was scouting ahead of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, a massive formation of 150 British ships that had set sail from its bases the previous day in response to intelligence that the German fleet was putting to sea. Around 5.30pm, Chester was sent to investigate distant gun flashes amid a bank of mist. Suddenly, four German light cruisers appeared and opened fire. A hail of heavy shells fell all around Chester, hitting the ship seventeen times. Extensive damage to the ship's guns meant that she could take no further part in the battle and at dawn on 1 June was ordered back to port. The ship suffered casualties of 35 killed or died of wounds and 42 wounded.

  • The gun on board HMS Chester

    The 5.5 inch forecastle gun on board HMS <em>Chester</em>, 1916.
    The 5.5 inch forecastle gun on board HMS Chester, 1916.
    SP 191

    During the shelling of HMS Chester, the forward 5.5 inch gun position was hit four times, killing or badly wounding all the gun crew apart from the sight setter, Boy (1st Class) John Travers (Jack) Cornwell. The badly wounded boy sailor remained at his post awaiting orders until medical assistance reached him. Although Cornwell survived long enough to reach hospital in Grimsby, he died of his wounds on 2 June.

  • Boy (1st Class) Jack Cornwell VC

    Portrait of Boy (1st Class) Jack Cornwell VC, 1916.
    Portrait of Boy (1st Class) Jack Cornwell VC, 1916.
    Q 20883

    Shortly after the battle, reports of Jack Cornwell's bravery began to appear in the press. On 7 July 1916, the Daily Sketch featured him on their cover with the headline 'Boy Hero of the Naval Battle'. This portrait photograph of him was used to illustrate many of the reports. It remains the iconic image of him. However, it is now generally thought that it actually shows one his brothers, most likely his younger brother George.  Another brother, Ernest, was also used as a model by the artist Frank O Salisbury for a portrait of Jack at his gun.

  • Funeral procession for Jack Cornwell

    Funeral procession for Jack Cornwell VC passing along Romford Road, London, before his burial at Manor Park, Essex, July 1916.
    Funeral procession for Jack Cornwell VC passing along Romford Road, London, before his burial at Manor Park, Essex, July 1916.
    Q 115421

    After his death in Grimsby, Jack Cornwell's body was returned to London and he was initially buried in a communal grave at Manor Park cemetery in Essex in June 1916. However, the Daily Sketch, the newspaper which had first publicised his bravery, began to campaign for a more fitting burial. The following month, in July 1916, Cornwell was reburied in the same cemetery but with full naval honours. The funeral procession included 80 boys from Jack's former school, six boy sailors from HMS Chester and local boy scouts.

  • Jack Cornwell's Victoria Cross

    Jack Cornwell’s Victoria Cross, awarded posthumously in September 1916.
    Jack Cornwell’s Victoria Cross, awarded posthumously in September 1916.
    OMD 2406

    In September 1916, Jack Cornwell was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for valour in the face of the enemy. The citation for his award recorded how 'mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, Jack 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 was under sixteen and a half years'. Jack Cornwell's Victoria Cross was presented to IWM in 1968 and can now be seen in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes.

  • Jack Cornwell Day

    Commemorative stamps sold on Jack Cornwell Day, 21 September 1916.

    Jack Cornwell's devotion to duty at the Battle of Jutland inspired a huge show of public affection across Britain and 21 September 1916 was named 'Jack Cornwell Day' in his honour.  A national fundraising appeal in Jack's name also began in September 1916. Schoolchildren could buy small flags or penny stamps with Jack's image, like the ones shown here. The money raised provided the Star and Garter Home in Richmond, Surrey with a ward for disabled sailors.

  • The HMS Chester gun on display

    The HMS <em>Chester</em> gun on display at the Imperial War Museum in Crystal Palace, 1922.
    The HMS Chester gun on display at the Imperial War Museum in Crystal Palace, 1922.
    Q 27025

    The 5.5 inch gun manned by Jack Cornwell was requested from the Admiralty by the Imperial War Museum in 1919 and was proudly displayed in IWM's first home at the Crystal Palace. However, Museum Archive files show that in 1926, HMS Chester's gunnery officer visited and noticed that the Museum's gun was not Cornwell's gun at all. After enquiries were made to the Admiralty, it emerged that as the forecastle gun manned by Cornwell was considered still serviceable, they had retained it and given the museum a gun from another part of the ship instead. Concerned museum staff immediately took steps to rectify the matter and ensure that the correct No.21 gun, mechanism and sights were obtained from the Admiralty and quietly substituted.

  • Cornwell's gun during the Second World War

    HMS <em>Chester</em> gun on display at the Imperial War Museum during the 1960s.
    HMS Chester gun on display at the Imperial War Museum during the 1960s.
    Q 69005

    Jack Cornwell's gun has remained on display at IWM throughout most of its history. However, in 1940, after the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk, there was an acute shortage of equipment and weaponry needed to carry on fighting in the Second World War. Even the museum was asked to help by handing over a number of exhibits, including Jack Cornwell's gun. Though some exhibits were given up, the trustees refused to relinquish the Cornwell gun, recognising its significance to the museum.

  • The Cornwell Scout badge

    The Cornwell Scout badge

    Before joining the Royal Navy, Cornwell had been a Boy Scout. His bravery during the Battle of Jutland inspired the creation of the Cornwell Scout Badge, an award for Scouts who demonstrated extraordinary character, devotion to duty, courage and endurance. It is still awarded today 'in respect of pre-eminently high character and devotion to duty'.

You can see Jack Cornwell's gun from the HMS Chester on display in the First World War Galleries at IWM London.