Please note that this all-too-brief story of the life of Captain Clarke has been pieced together from a handful of documents, rare photographs and crumbling newscuttings, as well as from conversations with Mr. and Mrs. Clarke and one or two family history sources accessible online. Much of the information on events in the Captain’s life has come from the newscuttings, and in one case from a reporter’s typescript. If you have had any experience with newspapers, you will realise that they occasionally get the details wrong, the dates wrong, and the sequence of events wrong, whether due to noting things down incorrectly or chopping bits out during editing or page layout! While they agree on many things, on other matters some of these cuttings are at odds, or the details are so obscure that it is difficult for me to confirm which is correct one way or the other. One can also not guarantee that a mere human being (even a former lion-tamer!) will be able to remember events exactly as they were thirty, forty or even sixty-odd years ago.
I have therefore done my best to cobble together from the sources immediately to hand what seems to fit best in a logical temporal sequence and which is in accord with documentation such as birth and marriage certificates. I am sure there is much more to the story, and hopefully one day it will be possible to expand upon this brief but hopefully exciting history of a remarkable man who was once celebrated in a world now long-gone but who now seems, sadly, largely forgotten. If more information comes to hand, this feature will be amended accordingly.
I am of course happy to bow to the experts, recognising my inexperience in this field, and if anything in the story below does not ring true, or if you know of anything which might add to the tale, dear reader – and if you have the evidence to back your assertions, or can refer me to published sources, so much the better! I would certainly welcome your contact.
Meanwhile, this story is not about me – it is about one man, his wife, and a remarkable circus life. Read on!
For the first time ever on the internet, the story can now be told of one of the great animal trainers from the grand old days of the circus and the animal shows, days which are now long gone in England and in many other parts of the world.
That man was Herbert Vincent Clarke, who thanks to his spirit of adventure, daring and sheer hard work, was able to climb the professional ladder from waggon-boy to top lion-tamer, travelling the world, with a host of adventures along the way.
Born Bertie Vincent Clarke on 20 October 1883 at Reading, Berkshire, England, the son of James Lawrence Clarke and Hannah Clarke, of 5 Albert Terrace, Orts Road, in later life he traced his desire to be an animal trainer to his love of horses as a boy.
After leaving school he worked as a “trace boy” for 5s. a week, leading a four-horse tram up hills then uncoupling two of the animals for the downward journeys.
Horse-drawn tram, South Shields, c1900
Despite a happy home, however, the young lad was struck early on by wanderlust and, at the tender age of 12, he ran away from home. By the age of 15 he had joined Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie as a waggon boy, stepping into a Boy’s Own adventure such as few could imagine today.
His first test as a budding animal trainer was to be thrust alone into a cage full of wolves – it was almost his last. They “tore his pants off him” and he had to scramble out. Then one of the circus trainers told him the next time to take a stick in with him and show he was not afraid of them. This he did, and came out on top, the first lesson in what would prove to be a long, distinguished but deadly dangerous career. Before he was 20 he was putting lions, tigers and – yes, bears – through their tricks.
It was with Bostock and Wombwell that he was given his first chance to work with polar bears and for this his wage was increased to 30s. but soon after, when the regular trainer recovered from illness, he returned to odd-jobs and a straw bed under a waggon.
All was not lost, however, and later the great Captain Fred Wombwell, himself one of the greatest ever animal trainers, gave him three tigers to train. A remarkable career had truly begun. But it would not all be plain sailing. At the age of 16 the wanderlust caught hold of him again, and he left the circus while it was in Southampton, getting a menial job on board a tramp steamer which was to take him to Africa, true home of the great animals which so excited him.
After three gloriously idle weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, his money ran out. Hard up and footloose, he wangled a job with Wirth’s Circus, spending his time breaking in young lions and leopards. It was hard, dangerous work but important experience for the young lad. But he was not in the job long when trouble came his way, and in October 1899 the Boer War broke out.
With the circus horses taken for cavalry by the government, young Herbert decided his best bet was to join the British army, and, still looking for adventure, he joined the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner. Clarke and his comrades saw plenty of action, hard, dangerous and not always successful. At Spion Kop, the guns were worked so hard they ran red hot, and Herbert and his fellow soldiers had to charge with their horses as cavalry.
But despite the excitement of a soldier’s life, it was hard, bloody work and he was glad when the war was finally over in May 1902 and he could return to his first love, working with animals. Not one to do things by halves, this time he headed around the world to the United States of America, travelling as a first class passenger.
By 1906 he was working in the Brooklyn district of New York, at Coney Island where he earned the amazing sum of £50 a week as a lion-tamer and one of the stars of the legendary Ringling Brothers Circus who took over the equally famous Barnum & Bailey, their largest competitor, in 1907. At that time they ran the biggest circus in the world, with three rings and audiences of up to ten thousand. Now billed as “Captain” Clarke, Bertie, at the age of 23, lived and travelled in style across every part of the States in his own caravan – no more sleeping under the waggon! It was in the USA that he made a real name for himself as an animal trainer. But it was still early in his career, and there was more to come.
BACK HOME: BEARS, BOSTOCK AND BEAUTY
In 1911, having made a name for himself, Captain Clarke left the States and returned to England, where he eventually joined the Frank C. Bostock circus and trained bears for the three years he spent with them.
It was while working for this company that he met his beautiful future wife, Ethel Stella Cork, who was better known to the public as ‘Mademoiselle Louise’, a fellow trainer of big cats – in her case the smaller but still deadly ones such as leopards and panthers. What better match could there be? It was a love to last a lifetime.
On 7 December 1912 they were married at Sheffield. He was aged 27, she was 21 according to the marriage certificate but she was in fact just 19, having been born in Kensington, London, on 29 November 1893. Herbert was resident at “The Jungle”, Hawley Street, and she at number 15 Hawley Street. So began another adventure for a truly adventurous couple!
Not long after their marriage, Mrs. Clarke was attacked by a panther she was training at Liverpool. Her husband rushed into the cage, beat back the animal and saved his wife’s life. That same year, Captain Clarke was awarded a unique gold medal by Frank C. Bostock for rescuing a trainer called Wade from seven bears who had attacked him. The medal’s clip was made of two lion claws, and was still in Mr. Clarke’s possession in 1962, but the medal itself was sadly lost some time after 1935.
Every year Bostock’s divided their time equally between London, Paris and Belgium, giving four monthly shows in each capital. They were at the top of their game in Britain and Europe, and at one time they also operated in the USA. In those days, people spent freely on their entertainent and the crowds were always ready to welcome the circus in their thousands. Captain Clarke and his colleagues even appeared before our own King George V and Queen Mary at the White City, Manchester.
But behind the scenes and in the corridors of power, all was not well with the world, and when the Great War broke out in 1914 Herbert Clarke returned to the soldier’s life to defend his homeland. But this was to be no adventure, just deadly danger, as history recounts. Mr. Clarke went to France with the Old Contemptibles. While his wife Ethel carried on the act for a while, food and booking problems finally forced her to sell the Captain’s nine lions, each worth £200, a sad day indeed. Worse still Herbert, better known to his lifelong love as Bertie, was gassed at the battle of Loos in Autumn 1915. He was lucky to survive, and spent much time in hospital.
After the war, Clarke thought that it was time to seek out another adventure, so he decided to return to South Africa to collect animals for zoos and various circuses. He was out there for a couple of years travelling about the country with a number of African “boys” in a battered old truck to haul back the animals they caught for return to England.
In his own words: “It was a good life, working under the blazing sun and sleeping beneath the stars. A camp fire life, when I lazed beside a roaring blaze at night and listened to the boys talking and laughing and singing.
Our method of catching animals was to dig a pit and tie a goat to a pole in the centre. Around this we spread a net, so designed that it trapped any animal who ventured to try and kill the goat.
We had some narrow escapes. Once I was chased by a buffalo, a very treacherous animal, and only escaped by flinging myself into a patch of ‘wait-a-bit’ thorn.
On another occasion tragedy struck. There was a cry of, “Baas! Baas,” and then I saw one of the boys struck down and killed by a lion which leapt out on him from the brush.
During the two years I was out there I caught 74 animals, including lions, leopards, antelopes, zebras and snakes. I am proud to say that I looked after them so carefully that only two were lost on the long voyage to England.”
When Captain Clarke returned to this country he worked for Chapman’s and Bostock’s circuses for a time. Bostock’s occasionally visited South Africa, so it is possible that Clarke travelled there with them. One of his mementos was a Thomas Cooke bedding voucher stamped Cape Town, 20 Feb. 1928. Later in 1928 he undertook another trip to South Africa to obtain animals for Chapman’s animal importers, and on this occasion he brought back 28 zebras.
Earning his stripes: Captain Clarke and the zebras, 1928
For his last few years as a lion-tamer, from the 1920s to early 1930s, Captain Clarke joined the legendary Pat Collins Amusement Empire. He would have been a real catch for the company and became one of their top attractions. Indeed, in 1958, ‘Quaestor’, writing in the Express & Star, described him as the “Best known of all the servants of Pat Collins.”
Working with the circus side of Pat’s travelling fairs and at Pat’s grounds like that at Barry Island Bert Clarke trained and presented a group of lions for the extraordinary Pat Collins Lion Show.
Life was never easy for a lion tamer, no matter how experienced. Death was waiting on a half-dozen podiums for the slightest slip or for one bad-tempered beast to leap and that would be it – forever. Once, while appearing at Barry Island, he was knocked to the ground by a tiger and badly mauled before being rescued; not the first time the Captain had been attacked in his long and dangerous career, despite his consummate skill at training his animals. But it was also during this time that he befriended ‘Spitfire’, a lioness, one of the best he ever handled.
When she first arrived, however, Captain Clarke was suspicious of her. Wild and vicious, she had a roar which made the ground tremble, and even the hardened cage hands were wary of her. Clarke spent months training Spitfire, feeding her little tit-bits, speaking to her and calming her down. Gradually a strong bond grew up between them; a very deep attachment. Little did he know then that she would save his life.
The incident happened in Wales one evening when he appeared before a capacity audience. Part of the act was for “his lioness,” (Spitfire) to leap over his head. But on this occasion she growled and refused to jump. She was about to become a mother. No one realised how soon. She grew listless. Captain Clarke took a stern attitude but it was too late to do anything when he realised that ‘Spitfire’, heavily laden with unborn cubs, was going to miss a pedestal and land on him. The great animal did fall, catching Clarke with a huge paw. He fell, senseless. Other lions in the cage leapt in for the kill but it was ‘Spitfire’ who held them back while he was removed from the cage.
‘Spitfire’ became the mother of four cubs but refused to suckle them. It was thought that she linked the birth with the injury to Clarke. Pat Collins had to buy a lurcher bitch to rear them. Captain Clarke saw to it that ‘Spitfire’ had the best of everything after that, and when he returned to the circus a few days later she greeted him with a shattering roar of welcome.
One rather less deadly encounter with a Pat Collins lion which is often told and re-told in Bloxwich, is that one evening while Captain Clarke was peacefully enjoying a film in the Odeon cinema (originally Pat Collins’ Grosvenor) next to the Bloxwich Wakes Ground, a message was flashed across the screen to the effect that a lion was loose in a house in Church Street, and could Captain Clarke come and fetch it! Apparently the lady of the house was cooking dinner in her kitchen, turned around and there was a lion. As we would say today, “Who you gonna call?” Needless to say, as ever, the good Captain was the hero of the hour, and saved the day…
After the death of Mrs Flora Collins in 1933 the animal and circus side of the show was taken off the road and Captain Clarke decided, with much regret, to retire from lion taming. Mademoiselle Louise had herself taken on another job many years before – raising, and no doubt training, a family! One of the Captain’s final few performances would have been at the Bingley Hall, Birmingham, that year.
He and his wife then bought a newsagents, tobacconists and sweet shop in Beeches Road, Leamore, Walsall. In those early years in Leamore, Herbert Clarke also supplemented his shop’s income by working as a commissionaire at the Rosum Cinema in Bloxwich Road (now Farmfoods), and would have been a familiar sight to many in his ‘other’ uniform! Did they really know who was welcoming them to a showing of ‘Tarzan and His Mate?’ I’d like to think so. The Clarke family remained in Leamore until around 1955, when they moved to Brownhills.
Towards the end of his life, Captain Clarke was interviewed by a Sunday Mercury staff reporter. Some of the things he had to say about his circus life were particularly poignant and telling:
“Perhaps I’ve been lucky. I’ve been mauled at least half a dozen times, ripped by claws and torn by teeth. But though I’ve suffered savage pain and been in hospital for weeks I’ve always managed to go back to the ring. I have never been afraid of animals. If you have confidence in yourself the animals can sense this and they will do your bidding. All, that is, except bears. They are the most treacherous to train and I made it a rule never to turn my back on them. And those tales you hear about vicious beating of animals, starving them until they do the trick. It is all lies. Training can only be done by kindness. One soothing word is worth fifty whips.”
“Since then I have often been asked, “Would you do it again?” The answer is – Yes. Gladly. Even now I know the pangs of wanderlust, the yearning for new sights and sounds. For me it’s all in the past. But I don’t regret a minute of my circus life.”
In 1965 Captain Herbert Vincent Clarke died, aged 81, at his home at 120 Watling Street, Brownhills. His loving wife Ethel, also known as Mademoiselle Louise, followed him into sleep just 14 days later.
In his lifetime, Captain Clarke was renowned the world over. Today, thanks to the loyalty of his family and the power of the internet I hope the world may enjoy reading of this remarkable man, and of his adventures, once again.
Thomas Cook & Son bedding ticket issued at Cape Town (1928).
Birth certificates of Captain Clarke (1883), Mrs. Clarke (1893) and their daughter Flora (1932).
Telegram from Pat Collins to Captain Clarke (1932).
Other photographs of Captain and Mrs. Herbert Clarke are from the newscuttings listed below with due acknowledgement.
Other images sourced elsewhere for illustrative purposes only. Copyright unknown.
Express & Star 30 October 1958 p8 – ‘A surprise centenary for world-famous Walsall fairs’ in ‘Random Reflections by Quaestor’.
Sunday Mercury Publication date unknown – typescript by ‘Mercury Staff Reporter’ (Punnett?) written about 1960.
Walsall Observer 2 March 1962 p9 – ‘Animal trainer’s lively memories’.
Walsall Observer? Unattributed obituary (therefore 1965) – ‘Errand Boy Who Became A Lion Tamer’, possibly Walsall Observer.
Genealogical research sources:
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