H.M.S Chester and Llanelli
For over a hundred and fifty years Llanelli was an iron and steel manufacturing town of note.
A large proportion of the raw material needed for this industry came in the form of scrap iron which was sourced from the ship-breaking yards that once operated on the town's coast. This 'recycling industry' provided much needed employment during the depression that was prevalent in the 1920s. One such dismantling company was Messrs Edgar Rees & Co Ltd.
Shortly after the end of the Great War, a number of decommissioned warships went to the 'graveyards' at Llanelli, finally to be broken up for scrap. In 1922, the Blake, Swift, Lizard and Chester, were among many famous ships that met their doom there. H.M.S Chester was the 'Town' class, light cruiser of the Royal Navy that gained fame in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. It was the very ship aboard which John 'Jack' Travis Cornwell earned 'The highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy' - The Victoria Cross.
Jack Cornwell was known as 'The Boy VC' because he was posthumously awarded the medal at the very young age of sixteen. Much has been written of this gallant young lad, but it is sufficient enough to sum up the lad's bravery from the contents of the letter that was sent to his mother from the Captain of H.M.S Chester that was published in the Boy's Own Paper...
I know that you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your boy during the action of May 31st. His devotion to duty was an example for all of us. The wounds which resulted in his death within a short time were received in the first few minutes of the action. He remained steady at his most exposed post at the gun, waiting for orders. His gun would not bear on the enemy, all but two of the crew were killed or wounded, and he was the only one who was in such an exposed position. But he felt he might be needed – as indeed he might have been – so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God's help to support him. I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world. No other comfort would I attempt to the mother of so brave a lad, but to assure her of what he was and what he did, and what an example he gave. I hope to place in the boys' mess a plate with his name on and the date and the words 'Faithful unto death'. I hope some day you may be able to come and see it there.
The official announcement of the award of the VC in the London Gazette read...
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, John 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 round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.
On Saturday 11 February 1922 it was reported that the famous light cruiser H.M.S. Chester, under the tow of two tugs had arrived in Carmarthen Bay from Sheerness. It had been due to enter the port at 5 o'clock that afternoon but because of bad weather her arrival had been delayed by a day. 'The piloting of HMS Chester round the Lighthouse demanded great skill, her length making it a most difficult proposition and the feat was accomplished without mishap'.At that time it was reported that huge crowds gathered to see one of the largest ships ever to have entered the Port of Llanelli.
Grasping the opportunity to gain financial assistance for Llanelly General Hospital under a charity known as the 'Princess Mary's Wedding Fund', Messrs Edgar Rees & Co Ltd., announced that the warship would be laid open to the general public for inspection at an entry fee of sixpence (2.5p). The company also stated that a souvenir brochure would be published about the ship and its action at The Battle of Jutland and would be sold to add to the fund. Temporary lighting was to be installed on board the ship to allow the visitors to see more of this grand old warrior that was berthed alongside in the North Dock.
On Saturday 25 of February 1922, The Mayor of Llanelli, Alderman Joseph Roberts JP., performed the opening ceremony adjacent to the place where 'Jack' Cornwell was mortally wounded. During the course of his opening speech he commended Messrs Edgar Rees & Co., on their purchase and the work that it would provide for the town's unemployed. Responding for the company, Mr Evan Jones of Trimsaran exhorted everyone to visit the ship adding that the company would match whatever amount of money was taken and double it.
Although the 5.5 inch gun served by Jack Cornwell had already been removed and sent to the Imperial War Museum along with the ship's bell and crest, hundreds of visitors toured the ship, including two young lads who had walked all the way from the village of Garnant, some twenty miles distance to see the ship of their hero. Numerous artefacts and mementos were fashioned from some of the timber and metal salvaged from the Chester including cooking plates and ink blotters.
When the ship was finally closed to the public, Messrs Edgar Rees & Co Ltd., presented a cheque for £100 to the Mayoress, to be donated to 'Princess Mary's Wedding Fund' for Llanelli Hospital, and the warship was finally broken up. Sadly the ship that had suffered so many deaths and casualties during the Battle of Jutland was to claim one more fatal casualty. On Friday, 16 June 1922, a labourer named John Williams of King's Square, Llanelli, met with an accident while the dismantling work was progressing. Unfortunately, a piece of cast iron fell upon him, causing injuries to his shoulder and rib and fracturing his ankle. Williams died a week later from internal injuries. Messrs Edgar Rees & Co Ltd., paid £290 compensation to his widow, Marian Williams.
We are grateful to Llanelli Community Heritage Member, Mr Neville Tonge, for this previously unpublished photograph of H.M.S. Chester alongside the eastern wall of the North Dock, Llanelli, in 1922. The original has been deposited in Llanelli Library. The North Dock now forms a leisure facility as part of the Millennium Coastal Park, Llanelli.
Notes and Citations
South Wales Press, March 1922Llanelly Mercury February, June 1922Llanelly & County Guardian February, September 1922Llanelly Star February, July 1922The Industrial and Maritime History of Llanelli and Burry Port 1750-2000 P291., Craig, Protheroe Jones & Symons, Carmarthenshire County Council 2002
HMS Chester on Wikipedia