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Hunt for family of Canning Town soldier

PUBLISHED: 12:00 01 March 2015

Harry Gray (left) and Alan Hendry in front of a photograph in Wick Heritage Museum showing soldiers from the local area leaving for the Western Front in 1914.

Harry Gray (left) and Alan Hendry in front of a photograph in Wick Heritage Museum showing soldiers from the local area leaving for the Western Front in 1914.

Alan Hendry

A young, talented pianist from Canning Town was one of thousands of men to lose their life in the Battle of the Somme.

Wick in the far north of Scotland as it is today. When Billy Clarke moved there before World War One it was a busy herring fishing port.Wick in the far north of Scotland as it is today. When Billy Clarke moved there before World War One it was a busy herring fishing port.

Pte William Clarke was just 22 when his life was cut short during the first month of the battle.

Known as Billy, he moved from London to the opposite end of the country to work as a cinema pianist in Wick, Scotland.

Now two historians from the north Scottish town are trying to piece together Billy’s life story nearly 100 years on from his death.

Alan Hendry and Harry Gray are keen to reach any of Billy’s relatives who may have photographs,and more information about him.

“The circumstances of his life are intriguing,” said Alan, 52.

“This was a young Londoner of Jamaican extraction who at 17 came to work in a small fishing town on the northern edge of the Scottish mainland.”

Billy was the son of William Clarke senior, a ship’s fireman from Kingston, Jamaica, and Leah Matilda Young, who came from east London.

The couple married in West Ham in 1891 and set up home in Clifton Road.

Billy Clarke’s grave in Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery in northern France.Billy Clarke’s grave in Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery in northern France.

One of seven children, Billy moved to Wick in 1911.

Alan, the former editor of the town’s regional paper, said that Billy “seems to have been a very popular character in Wick.”

He and Harry, the chairman of the Wick Society, are keen to find about more about the early years of their town’s adopted son.

His name featured in a booklet listing details of 320 Wick men who lost their lives in the First World War which was compiled last year.

Alan said: “He was a long way from his home and his family, but by all accounts Billy quickly became part of the community and made many friends.

“He played the piano at concerts as well as silent movies and seems to have become something of a local celebrity.”

Billy proudly enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders regiment when war broke out in 1914.

He put his musical talents to good use on the Western Front, playing the piano and the harmonium to boost morale.

“At one stage he organised a successful local appeal for hymn books for them to use,” said Alan.

“He comes across as someone who was committed to making life better for those around him.”

Billy sustained gunshot wounds to the head during the fighting in the Somme, and he passed away on July 31, having failed to regain consciousness.

He was described in a newspaper report as “a great favourite in town” and buried in Longueness Souvenir Cemetery at St Omer in northern France.

“We would be delighted to make contact with anyone who has a Clarke family connection or who can point us in that direction,” said Alan.

“Who would have thought that a young cockney from Canning Town would die on the Somme in a kilt?”

If you can help, call Harry on 01955 603242 or Alan on 07590 259962.

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