1980s >> 1988 >> no-1009-september-1988

Obituary: Bill Clarke

“Bill” Clarke was born in 1899 at Litherland, County of Lancaster, of respectable, religious and teetotal parents.

When Bill was a boy, his father was dismissed from steady employment as a crane driver on the mighty Liverpool docks because he came to the aid of a boisterous workmate. He, a teetotaller, was falsely charged with being drunk. In the ensuing years, William senior went to sea, working his passage on the Adelaide Steamship boats around the Australian coast, with the intention of bringing his family to Australia. In 1911 the SS Koombana, pride of the coastal fleet, sailed into the eye of a cyclone off Port Headland and vanished with all hands (including Bill’s father).

The Clarke family’s situation was now desperate. The older children sought employment, and young Bill got a job as “hugger off” in the local woollen mills:

   Dean Clough Mills, ten stories high.
A thousand girls they do employ,
And if you are five minutes late
Down goes your name on a big black slate.

Jobs in the mills for 12-year-old boys were appalling. William resolved to run away to sea, stowing away on a French windjammer, but was unceremoniously bundled back home to a fearful mother by the harbour master. On land he flitted from one degrading junior job to another.

At the outbreak of World War I, the army mistakenly dragooned Bill, then under age, into military service in his older brother’s stead. Once in the army, there was little chance of getting out. But, rather than accompany the Northumberland Fusiliers into Ireland to quell civilians whom the Asquith government deemed to be hindering the war effort, Bill slipped away to sea and landed in New York.

His adventures as a young hobo resembled those of Jack London. American jobs for 15-year-old boys were just as degrading as English ones. Always poor because he sent his earnings home to mum, and ever on the move, he rode the “rods” from town to town, dodging railway cops on the lookout for freeloaders.

Eventually he returned to sea, joining the British Mercantile Marine Gunnery Unit, and escorted convoys throughout World War I. At night he would stroll the deck, reading his bible, and pray for the destruction of German U boats, until it occurred to him that doubtless there were young German boys praying for exactly the opposite. Religion then lost its charm for him.

After the war he worked in a lighthouse tender in the Gulf of Mexico. The state of Texas was then dry, and bootleggers from the West Indies frequently dogged the tender boat to hide from the machine-gun-toting excisemen of the coast guard.

In 1919 he joined his first Australian ship and, on arrival at the dock, immediately succumbed to the spell of his chosen country. Before reaching his majority, he was already spokesman for the union, insisting on award conditions. He had read Darwin’s Origin of Species with the help of a dictionary, was writing verse and had taught himself Esperanto and shorthand. He even subscribed to the celebrated Literary Digest. He was self-educated in the best sense.

In Australia he met many of the then feared IWW radicals (Wobblies) whom Billy Hughes had jailed for their opposition to conscription, but instinctively he steered away from these celebrities towards a tiny group of men: Jack Temple, Bill Casey, Barney Kelly, Jacob Johnson and Stan Willis, who espoused the democratic socialism of the small Socialist Party of Great Britain. Their vehicle was the ballot box: you can only create a democratic world democratically – you can’t impose it. Their method was education.

Having reached this position, Bill never wavered. He knew that majority class consciousness was a long way off and accepted that he might never see socialism in his lifetime. In succeeding years, as the handful of supporters dwindled, he never despaired. He understood man’s social being and was confident.

Then followed the dramatic years: the founding of the Socialist Party in Australia in 1924. Bill ran open-air and indoor meetings, lectures, classes, debates and edited the party’s journal. In the mid-1920s it took rare courage and political understanding to hold that the Russian Revolution was merely a revolution against feudalism – just like the English and French revolutions before it – and that Russia had become a totalitarian capitalist state.

This was the time of the celebrated attempt by the Bruce-Page Government to deport Jacob Johnson and Tom Walsh, officials of the Seamen’s Union; the exposure of the defalcations of the Communist Party officials by Johnson, Casey and Bill, and the rise of the Socialist Party officials. Bill became Federal Secretary of the union and editor of its journal.

Then followed the disastrous 1935 seamen’s strike, foolishly started by posturing Communist Party officials. Bill openly opposed the strike in grounds accepted long after by historian Brian Fitzpatrick. The collapse of the strike saw the setting up of a scab union by the Communist Party in league with the ship owners and the Labour government, and finally the smashing of the legitimate union. Throughout this period, the tiny group of socialist union officials had a national influence far greater than their numbers.

In the 1934 federal election, when Bill stood as socialist candidate for the seat of Port Melbourne, he urged his huge personal following ‘not to vote for me personally but for socialism. I only want votes from people who understand what socialism means and who appreciate its implications”. He polled 10 per cent of first preference votes in a three-way contest against Holloway, who had previously unseated Prime Minister Bruce.

Major political parties offered him plum jobs, but these had no allure for him. He stood solely for a world in which people have risen to a mastery over property, not one in which people are mastered by it. As such, he was the world’s first democratic-socialist candidate: the first to stand solely for a vision of socialism.

During this period he met Marie Stanley, a young woman who shared his vision and became his lifelong companion. It is not easy to survive in a world in which the overwhelming majority of your fellows totally oppose everything you stand for, and yet somehow this couple managed to do so with the quiet aplomb of conviction.

In the late 1930s Bill and Marie ran a small poultry farm out of an old 1860s goldrush hotel in country Victoria. His companions at this time included Charles Sundberg, last survivor of the old timers. After World War II he took up journalism (the Communist-dominated union determined to prevent him from returning to sea) and for 25 years had a congenial job, retiring in his mid-70s.

In retirement he contributed socialist articles and returned to Esperanto, French and German. After Marie’s death in 1982 he continued to write and publish political and historical articles, he was writing verse in January, prior to a debilitating stroke. In the previous twelve months he had typed 60,000 words of critical Australian industrial and political history.

Bill died on 15 May having kept alive the elusive vision of a world free from poverty, hunger and war throughout his adult life of almost 70 years. Those were pearls that were his eyes.

World Socialist Party of Australia

Bill will be fondly remembered, not only by his Australian comrades but by members of the Socialist Party who met him on his infrequent landings here. We strive to follow his example.