The post of secretary is a key one in any organisation and it is particularly important to have a good one when launching a new organisation. The NELHS was fortunate in having Joe Clarke in this post when the society was formed in 1966. Joe prepared and sent out the agendas, booked the venue, helped draft the constitution, took the minutes of first the steering committee and then the inaugural meeting of the fledgling organisation, and went on to be elected the group’s first secretary. It has been said that a football referee has had a good match when the crowd has failed to notice his presence on the pitch. It was this way with Joe Clarke: the smooth running of the organisation in its early days owed much to his quiet efficiency and personal skills. He was also a prime mover in the launching of the “Bulletin”, forerunner of the present Journal; and together with David Rowe he was its first editor. Indeed, he was responsible for running off the first copies of the Bulletin by hand on a spirit duplicator. We can add that Joe was often a speaker at NELHS meetings, and contributed to the society’s Bulletin and Journal . Dogged by ill health he was absent from many NELHS meetings in recent years, but continued his research and writing until the very end of his life.
Joseph Finbar Clarke was born on 4th June 1927 in Dublin, the son of Joseph Clarke, a newsagent, and his wife Mary Clarke nee Murphy. He once observed that he was not a particularly good Irishman because he had neglected to keep in touch with the “old country” as all good Irishmen were expected to do. He was educated by the Christian Brothers and said that some of the worst moments of his life were at the hands of a fierce Catholic priest who refused to allow English to be spoken during Irish lessons.
Joe had no objection to being taught Irish but thought the methods of teaching were counter-productive; he described these lessons as “a nightmare”. Joe’s father acted as an agent for de Valera’s Fianna Fail during the elections of the 1930s, and Joe remembered seeing piles of political literature stacked at home. He also recalled the poverty experienced by many Dublin families in the 1930s.
Joe moved to England in 1943 to work in a plastics plant in Rochdale, attending evening classes at Oldham Technical College where he obtained an Ordinary National Certificate in Mechanical Engineering. He then transferred to the firm’s London factory to serve his time as a draughtsman. When he left the firm in 1954 the managing director in a testimonial wrote, “During the whole of the time he was in our employment, he carried out his duties to our entire satisfaction. He was a hard and diligent worker, of sober habits, conscientious and of the highest integrity”.
Joe Clarke joined the Young Communist League (YCL) shortly after arriving in England and served as a full-time organiser for the YCL in the London and Birmingham areas between 1949 and 1952. He resigned from this post, and returned to his former job with the London plastics firm, after a disagreement with senior Party officials who had wanted him to remain in the Midlands area when he wanted to return to London. His disillusionment with the Communist Party was cumulative: the Slansky trial of 1952 proved to be his “Kronstadt” and he resigned from the Party in 1956. The move from the Roman Catholicism of his boyhood to Marxism, and then his break with the Communist Party in 1956, were traumatic events in Joe’s life. Although he continued to take a keen interest in current affairs his years of political activism were over and he was content to immerse himself in his teaching and research activities.
He enrolled for an external B.Sc. (Econ.) degree at London University in 1956 and graduated in 1961. The previous year he had successfully completed the teachers’ certificate in further education course at Garnett College, passing with distinction. His first teaching post was at the North London Day College. He then moved to the Newcastle College of Education, followed by a lectureship at the Rutherford College of Technology, which was absorbed into Newcastle Polytechnic in 1968. Here Joe built up a team specialising in the history of science and technology, and was appointed principal lecturer in the subject. In 1968 he was awarded an M.A. degree by Newcastle University for a thesis on labour relations in the shipbuilding and engineering industries of the North East, a subject that became his major research interest for the rest of his life.
In 1968 Joe was taken seriously ill with Behcet’s syndrome, a rare blood disease, and although he was never fully fit again his iron will carried him through. He continued to teach and research his subject. In 1971 he was part-author of The North East Engineers’ Strike of 1871, and two years later he was co-author, with Terry McDermott, of a centenary history of the Newcastle and District Trades Council, followed in 1977 by Power on Land and Sea – a History of Hawthorne-Leslie plus a biography of Charles Parsons. In 1984 he published a centenary history of the North East Coast Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders. Over the years he also contributed several entries to the Dictionary of Business Biography. Finally, in 1997 he published his magnum opus, the two-volume Building Ships on the North East Coast. He was working on a history of Hebburn at the time of his death.
Joe was an assiduous researcher and spent many hours beavering away in the local archives.. He was an active member of the Tyne and Wear Archives Consultative Committee 1975-86, and its successor the Archives Users’ Group 1986-2003. After his retirement he became one of the “Wednesday Boys”, an informal group of marine industries researchers who met every Wednesday
in Blandford House to discuss their work. Joe Clarke brought to his research and writing a rare combination of sources of knowledge, namely his industrial background, his qualifications in engineering and economic history, and his thesis on labour relations. Few people could tap into all these subject areas with confidence: but Joe could and in doing so he was able to put his own stamp on his work. Joe Clarke’s books could not have been written by anyone else.
Joe Clarke died at North Tyneside General Hospital on 22ndJuly 2006, and there was a large gathering of family and friends in attendance at the humanist service held at Whitley Bay Crematorium on 31st July. He leaves his wife Margaret and their five children.
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 38, 2007