CLARKE,  James  [1886-1946]

When new housing was being built in the Vauxhall area in the 1980’s local residents successfully campaigned for one of the streets to be names after James Clarke, making it the first street in Liverpool to be named after a black man.

Born in Guyana in 1886, when he was 14 he stowed away on a ship and made his way to Liverpool. Found cold and hungry wandering the streets by the priests at St Augustine’s, they took him in and found a local family  Making it his home over the next forty odd years he would make his mark in the local community by his tireless efforts to promote swimming and for personally saving many people from drowning.

He found work as a docker and was by all accounts a natural athlete, 6 feet tall, 12 stone, and skilled at swimming, running and boxing. He swam for a number of teams in the city, including Wavertree, Everton and Woolton, in the last of which he also captained the water polo team.

In 1914 James Clarke married Elizabeth Murphy in the Church of Our Lady of Reconciliation, setting up home in Elizabeth Terrace and subsequently bringing up a family of thirteen children (they later lived at Ashfield Cottages L5, and  4 Blenheim Street L5. All his known homes have since been demolished) . Their home was near to the canal and James frequently found himself diving in to rescue children who were in danger of drowning. He had already been awarded a certificate by the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society for rescuing a man in West Waterloo Dock in 1911. Clarke felt passionately that children should be taught to swim and in the absence of any action by others he started to give lessons at the Burroughs Gardens Baths. He worked tirelessly to encourage schools to take their pupils to the swimming baths for lessons.

Clarke had a close relationship with the local police. Not only did he train their swimming and boxing teams, but he was often called in to assist in searches for the bodies of people who had drowned.

He died aged 60 in 1946, the local community lining the streets for his funeral, at which the noted swimmer Austin Rawlinson acted as a pall-bearer.

Ashfield Cottages L5

One of the Clarke family's homes - not everyone's idea of cottages.

Woolton Swimming Club water polo team with James Clarke captain, centre front row,

A piece from the Liverpool Echo (28th December 1915) recounting one of Clarke's many brave rescues.


There is a good account of James Clarke's life in  Liverpool Black Pioneers [Ray Costello.  The Bluecoat Press 2007]. The Guyana Graphic has a fairly detailed article and there is also an item from the Liverpool Echo.