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Heritage: Hornchurch cottage homes a memorial to teenage war hero

PUBLISHED: 15:00 01 June 2019

The cottages in Station Lane, Hornchurch, designed as a memorial to Jack Cornwell, Boy (1st Class). Picture: Google Maps

The cottages in Station Lane, Hornchurch, designed as a memorial to Jack Cornwell, Boy (1st Class). Picture: Google Maps

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Prof Ged Martin explains the history of six cottages built for disabled ex-Royal Navy men

Although rivalry between the British and German navies helped cause the First World War, the two fleets clashed only once, at the battle of Jutland in 1916.

Germany's High Seas Fleet was smaller than the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. Mostly, the Germans stayed in port, emerging occasionally to bombard towns along Britain's east coast. The Kaiser relied on U-boats to attack Allied shipping.

The fastest ships on either side were the battlecruisers. In May 1916, the Germans planned to send their fleet north along the Danish coast.

This move would draw out the British battlecruisers from their base at Rosyth in Scotland - straight into a planned ambush by submarines. Britain would lose its naval supremacy.

Everything went wrong with the plan. Technical problems delayed the sailing of the German warships. High winds prevented their Zeppelins from scouting the North Sea.

Most crucially, the British broke the German codes. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe knew an attack was planned.

In a pre-emptive strike, he mobilised the entire Grand Fleet before the U-boat screen was in place.

On May 31 and June 1, the two navies clashed. With 151 British ships fighting against 99 Germans, the Royal Navy had every advantage.

But German gunnery was lethal. "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today," Jellicoe remarked, when three of them blew up within 24 minutes.

Eventually, Jutland proved to be a British victory. The High Seas Fleet never dared to emerge from port and fight again.

But at the time, with fourteen British warships sunk against just six Germans, it looked like a defeat.

Britain badly needed a hero. The Navy duly supplied John Travers Cornwell.

Sixteen year-old "Jack" Cornwell, from East Ham, was one of the forward gun crew on HMS Chester, a badly mauled light cruiser.

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Jack's orders were to remain at his post and await instructions. His comrades were blown to pieces. He was badly wounded, but he'd been ordered to stay at his gun, and he did his duty.

Jack won the Victoria Cross - one of the youngest recipients ever. Alas, the award was posthumous. He died two days after the battle.

Politician Sir Edward Carson told striking workers to honour Jack's memory: "Obey your orders, cling to your posts, don't grumble."

Carson led Ulster's Protestants. They grumbled a lot. They didn't obey anybody's orders.

Jack's rank, "Boy (1st Class)", became a symbol. It was claimed he'd been a scruffy urchin - until he'd joined Sir Robert Baden-Powell's youth movement, the Boy Scouts. In the Scouts, he'd smartened up and learned to do his duty. The Scouts created their own bravery award, the Cornwell Badge.

East Ham mayor Robert Banks-Martin had led his borough in mourning when Jack was buried at Manor Park.

In 1928, he organised a national memorial to the boy hero, six cottages for disabled ex-Royal Navy men.

An architect by profession, Banks-Martin lived in Woodlands Avenue, Emerson Park. He probably designed the memorial, and chose its location, at the corner of Station Lane and Suttons Avenue, near Hornchurch Station.

The garden paths were arranged to form the letters VC.

Jellicoe, now an Earl, spoke at their inauguration in June 1929. HMS Chester, he explained, had spotted a German warship through the smoke of battle, and closed in to attack.

Unluckily, Chester's captain couldn't see that he was challenging not one, but four German vessels.

That was why Jack's ship was so badly damaged, and how he'd come to die so bravely.

Today, the six cottages are managed by the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust. They call their responsibility "a great privilege".

In a particularly mean crime, the memorial plaque in Jack's honour was stolen by metal thieves in 2011.

Local businessmen and residents clubbed together for a replacement. Hornchurch still honours the memory of Jack Cornwell, Boy (1st Class).

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