Veterans, Victoria Crosses and Degrees of Separation

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (October 2009) 

Over the summer holiday I read Henry Allingham’s autobiography – Kitcheners Last Volunteer.

I knew that Henry Allingham was born in Upper Clapton, the posh end of Clapton, which is now part of the London Borough of Hackney in 1896, some 60 years before I was born in Lower Clapton in a maternity hospital that was not even built until Henry was raising his own family.

What I didn’t know until reading his book is that we attended the same school. His family moved to Walthamstow and he attended what he called Gamuel Road School from 1901 to 1902. I attended mid 60s by which time the school was called Thomas Gamuel after the local grocer who gave the land to the parish. The school still exists and this is its website. The building that Henry and I knew is pictured just before its demolition (the photographer is standing on what I knew as houses) and the new building is about 300 yards east, in Colchester Road, just behind the Boundary Road synagogue. By the time I was at Thomas Gamuel Henry and his wife had recently retired to Eastbourne from their home in Essex and his engineering job at Fords of Dagenham.

Henry remembered watching the Clapton Volunteers home from the Boer War parading at Hackney Town Hall shortly before his family moved to that area of Manor Park called Little Ilford where he went to Bessborough Road School which later became Walton Road School.

As I wrote elsewhere Henry Allingham was notable for being the last surviving founder member of the RAF and the last survivor of the battle of Jutland in 1916.

In May 1916 he was serving in the Royal Naval Air Service as a mechanic and was told to report to HMT Kingfisher where a Sopwith Schneider, one of his favourite aeroplanes, was being loaded on board. They were to rendezvous with the Grand Fleet where the Sopwith would be lowered into the sea to take off for reconnaissance flights to locate the German fleet.

He said “I discovered later that John Travers Cornwell, who went to the same school as me, was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery in the battle. He died in Grimsby Hospital on 2nd June aged just 16.”

I wrote about Jack (as he was known) Cornwell here.

To recap, he was born in Clyde Place Leyton, just across the Leyton/Walthamstow boundary (which was of significance up until the two boroughs merged with Chingford to form London Borough of Waltham Forest in 1965) and Lea Bridge Road in January 1900. While boys under 18 lied about their age to join the army the Navy took boys from age 15. He joined the navy and served on HMS Chester.

I am currently reading the autobiography of Bill Stone who was born in September 1900. When he was 15 he wanted to follow his father, uncles and older brothers and join the Royal Navy. His father refused to sign the forms, saying that he already had two sons serving and that he now believed that 15 was too young for a boy to join.

Bill Stone makes the point that had he got his wish he too might have been a ‘Boy First Class’ on a cruiser at the Battle of Jutland, and died young like Jack Cornwell. Bill Stone didn’t join the navy until he was 18 and I have just begun the story of his 27 year career in two World Wars.

While Jack Cornwell was living in Leyton he attended nearby Farmer Road School which is now called George Mitchell School. The family then moved to Manor Park where he also attended Walton Road School. There was a four year age gap between the two young men, which is a big difference to teenagers and they were not contemporaries at that school and I doubt that they ever met.

The story of how he stayed at his post as a sight setter on one of the guns of  HMS Chester while mortally wounded is well known. He was moved from the public grave pit at Manor Park Cemetery and reburied with full naval honours in a more prominent grave with an impressive memorial. Always described by my father as ‘the only thing in Manor Park cemetery that is well maintained’.  

I have not been able to find a photograph of Jack that is genuinely of him. The portraits painted later and many, if not all, of the photographs published in newspapers at the time used one or other of his two younger brothers, who all bore a close resemblance to each other.

When I first read that Henry Allingham and Jack Cornwell VC attended the same school I immediately thought of Johnson Beharry VC who formed part of the escort of the veterans at the Last Voices of a Generation service last year. He is the youngest living recipient of the VC and this is his citation here.

I like what he said: ‘Some days you are the bug, some days you are the windshield’.

Some of the streets and institutions that Henry Allingham and Jack Cornwell knew are still there, others have gone, or changed. There is a Blue Plaque in Clyde Place, in Manor Park there is a Cornwell Street and a pub called the Victoria Cross which I must visit quickly as I hear that it has closed and been boarded up – the fate of too many pubs. Walton Road School was renamed John Cornwell School in 1925 and demolished in 1969. There is now the Jack Cornwell Community Centre nearby.

His medal is held by the Imperial War Museum and Newham Sea Scouts (since 1965 Manor Park is part of LB Newham) have JT Cornwell VC on their cap ribbon.

Farmer Road School which Jack Cornwell attended as a small child in Leyton is now called George Mitchell School. My friend’s brothers went there. I never pondered much at the time who the school was named after but thought it might be the chap who developed the Spitfire.

I was very wrong.

Farmer Road School was renamed in 1959 after another old pupil, George Allan Mitchell of 1st Battalion the London Scottish Regiment who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in the capture of a German machine gun placement in Italy in 1944. See his citation here. His family entrusted his medal to the school until 2006 when his nephew sold it to the London Scottish Regiment and gave the money to the school for a new classroom and computers.

There is apparently no other state school in the country that has produced two Victoria Cross holders.

I would love to hear in the next few years that something locally has been named in memory of Henry Allingham; he did visit schools in the area and his old rowing club were keen to know him. A pub is unlikely (Wetherspoons, are you listening?) but maybe a road on a new estate.

That other well known, rapidly becoming notorious, former inhabitant of Walthamstow has blotted her copybook and is unlikely to be remembered with pride.

And I dearly hope that none of the young men and women from East London and Essex currently serving become posthumous holders of any gallantry medal. May they come home safely.


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