On Tuesday 15th October Walsall`s writing community was saddened by the news that Stuart Williams passed away after a battle with cancer. Stuart was the gift to all of us that just kept on giving: dedicated local historian, Bloxwich blogger, author, photographer, Dark Age re-enactor, poet and retro computer games expert. He had so many interests and supported so many clubs and charities that the whole of Walsall must have known him or met him at some point. He championed the Bloxwich Bookmark Library Theatre and Walsall`s only independent bookshop Southcarts as well as Walsall Writers Circle were he was a committee member.
Stuart will be remembered by many for his work at the Walsall Local History Centre were he spent the majority of his working life. I was especially grateful to him and his research when I was commissioned to write a book in 2013 about Walsall characters for Mapseekers Archive Publishing. We all knew the tales of Sister Dora and John Henry Carless VC - but did Walsall have any other interesting sons and daughters? Stuart had just the ticket because he had unearthed an amazing yet long-forgotten story that he wanted to reveal to the world once more: Captain Clarke, the Leamore Lion Tamer. Stuart was very keen to share with me the story of the Captain and his remarkable escapades and I got the feeling that Stuart was revelling in Walsall`s Boy`s Own tale of adventure and death-deying feats of bravery from recent history The tale was of all about Bert Clarke, an ordinary lad born in 1883 who ran away to the circus when he was just 12 years of age.
In the following years, through hard work, daring and fearless determination he became a famous animal trainer in England and Europe (with Bostock`s) and America (withy Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey) travelling the world and then the UK with Pat Collins until 1936 to run a newsagents shop in Beeches Road and work as a cinema commissionaire in Leamore until 1955. He died in Brownhills in 1965 and in between animal training and bringing animals from Africa Bert was also a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery during the Boer War and the First World War. Bert`s wife, "Mademoiselle Louise", worked with him in the circus training panthers and her real name was Ethel Cork.
When Bert died at his home in Watling Street aged 81 his wife followed him 14 days later. They both had enjoyed a lifetime of adventure and romance. Over the years Stuart had helped me unearth lots of stories at the Walsall Local History Centre about people who have done great things but nothing quite like a lion tamer. I shared Stuart`s enthusiasm and also wanted to pay tribute to Captain Clarke. We just do not hear stories like his locally in Walsall - a boy who ran off to join the circus and then served in the Boar War and First World War for good measure. Captain Clarke appears to have been forgotten to history until Stuart Williams brought this good and brave man back to life.
In inspiration I wrote this poem in 2013 when I was Walsall Poet Laureate based on Stuart`s research and dedicated to him in tribute for all of his professionalism in preserving our heritage at the Walsall Local History Centre. The poem is acrostic which means that the title of the poem is spelt vertically with the first letter of each word .
Captain Clarke The Leamore Lion Tamer
(for Stuart Williams)
Captain Clarke, the Leamore lion tamer,
A world famous showman extraordinaire;
Prince of the circus with no disclaimer,
Taming wild beasts with courage and a flair.
Adventure and romance along the way
In pursuit of glory, he made his name,
New York legend, role model for his day.
Circus skills, he travelled, finding world fame,
Lions and bears, he controlled without whips;
Audiences packing out circus tents,
Risks taken, commands followed from his lips.
Kindness rewarded at these great events.
Empire called and this young man went to war.
The Boar War, he was in artillery,
He craved adventure, like lions` teeth and claws,
Excitement, now, in the military.
Lion tamer, Boar War, Great War, then gassed,
Ending up in hospital, he survived
A hell in trenches, he endured shell blast,
Marrying Ethel, she helped him revive.
Order to his chaos, he found a home,
Residence in Bloxwich with his young wife
Ending his wanderlust and will to roam.
Lion taming, with Pat Collins, his life,
In Walsall and across the nation.
On a pedestal, in the circus shows,
Now at peace, a cause for celebration.
Training animals, Ethel`s heart aglow,
A life no longer craving for new sights:
Memories of Africa, of wildness,
Echoes of beasts in Africa`s twilight,
Respect earned from animals by kindness.
by Ian Henery
Member since: 4th February 2019
Managing Director of an award winning law firm
Ian Henery Solicitors Ltd
Award winning poet and playwright