Although John Smith Clarke might be best known as one of the few socialists who have also been lion tamers, he led a busy life in various distinct spheres of activity.
He was born into a circus family in Jarrow in 1885 and was the thirteenth of fourteen children; he spent most of his childhood being involved in the life of the circus. Initially, he specialised in working with horses but acquired a wider range of circus skills. In order to earn a living in 1897 [aged 12] he went to sea as a result of ‘his insatiable need for knowledge and experience’. When not at sea he worked in the circus and at the age of 17 he became a lion tamer’s assistant. When an accident befell the lion tamer, John quickly became the youngest lion tamer in the country. Two books written by John - Roughing it round the world and Circus parade - describe both this time of his life and his wider knowledge of the history of the circus. In Newcastle, he wrote articles for the Newcastle Journal on animals and well-known personalities of the time. For a while, he maintained a travelling menagerie and helped train animals.
He joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1907 and, by virtue of his unique background, emerged as a strong public speaker. He also wrote a number of articles and published poetry, much of which was explicitly political. Later in his life he was referred to as the ‘Poet Laureate of the Revolution’. John wrote for a number of journals and in 1908 became the editor of The Keel, the voice of the Newcastle Socialist Society. In 1906 he became involved in shipping arms to Russian revolutionaries, but escaped prosecution.
Many members of the SDF in Scotland, including James Connolly and John Maclean, had left in order to form the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in 1903. After the SDF had failed to support widespread strikes on Tyneside in 1908, John also joined the SLP rejecting not only the SDF but also the parliamentary activities of the Labour Party. During his time in Newcastle he continued to go to sea and in 1909 worked on such an unseaworthy boat that he jumped ship in South Africa. He began to walk/ride/jump on board trains with a view to returning home but collapsed of malaria and he was nursed back to health by sympathetic Zulu people. He eventually returned home by boarding another ship in Durban.
In 1910 he moved to Edinburgh where he worked as the private secretary to Jane Clapperton, the novelist, social theorist and supporter of eugenics, and continued to edit publications such as the Reform Journal. He wrote regularly for The Socialist and extended the content of the magazine to include science and literature. He also wrote for children particularly the publications of the Socialist Sunday School movement. Above all, he was a lecturer of renown and pioneered the use of lantern slides to make the material more interesting.
He married Sally in Edinburgh in 1912 and made a living by his writing and by teaching horsemanship, acquiring a reputation for being a ‘horse whisperer’. He was unhappy with the extent of centralised control in the SLP, but in response to the demands of branches greater autonomy was established from 1914. In that year, John was elected to the post of editor of The Socialist.
Under his editorship, The Socialist maintained an anti-war stance and when the Clyde Workers’ Committee and other anti-war activists were tried in Glasgow, many of them were sheltered by John and Sally in Edinburgh.
When John was threatened with arrest he joined what was known as ‘the flying corps’ – a group of activists and war resisters who set up a network to avoid arrest. It was through the ‘flying corps’ that John was assisted by Alice Wheeldon in Derby. Alice inadvertently gave shelter to a government spy and was subsequently charged with the attempted assassination of the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, through the use of a poisoned nail in his boot. Owing to wartime hysteria and a concerted press campaign Alice was found guilty on a clearly trumped up charge and was sentenced to ten years in prison, along with other members of the family. After a difficult time initially in Aylesbury prison, and in poor health, Alice was released from Holloway but died shortly after. Although still on the run, John gave an oration at the funeral and wrote extensively about the matter in The Worker.
In 1919 John and others published a pamphlet The Red Army: revolutionary poems and the following year he travelled to Moscow to attend the Communist International as a delegate from the Clyde Workers’ Committee. After an amazing journey to and from Moscow John wrote the ironically titled Pen pictures of Russia - under the “Red Terror”. On his extensive travels he met those who had been the victims of the British war on the newly formed Soviet Union and he described the British troops as ‘having behaved like wild beasts’. He analysed the attack on the Soviet Union as having the aim of ‘dividing its riches up among a crowd of imperialists’.
John met Lenin and other revolutionary leaders and cured Lenin’s dog.
Although John wrote appreciatively of what the Soviet Union was trying to achieve, he thought that the Soviet interpretation of the British political scene was poor and that the wrong guidance was being offered to socialists in Britain. In particular, John felt that the side-lining of Sylvia Pankhurst was an error. John was attacked in The Communist, the organ of the newly formed Communist Party and denounced as an anti-communist follower.
He joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1927 after having written for the ILP journal Forward for some time. He subsequently became a Councillor in Glasgow and was the MP for Glasgow Maryhill from 1929 to 1931. He spoke little in the House but in June 1931 raised the issue of widespread tax avoidance; he also campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty, which had been one of his long-term interests.
Throughout the interwar period John continued to earn a living through journalism and lecturing. He gave lantern slide talks on subjects as diverse as ‘War & Imperialism’, ‘The Carpenter of Nazareth’, ‘The Romance of Russia’ and talks on the poetry of Byron and Keats. In 1927 he published the work Marxism and history as a teaching aid for use in labour colleges.
He also wrote nature columns and had a regular newspaper feature on looking after and treating animals. He wrote and lectured too on archaeology, biology and history. He became the President of the Burns Federation and was a leading light in the ‘Burns Revival’. He both lectured and wrote material for the Labour College.
During the Second World War he returned to lion taming, advertising performances that were ‘brighter & better than ever’. He thus was at different points in his life both the youngest and the oldest lion tamer in Britain. After the War he worked for the Scottish Daily Express where he wrote as ‘Uncle Mack’.
He died in 1959.
The Working Class Movement Library has material on John S. Clarke to come in and read. The brief biography by Ray Challinor (the source of much of the material above) John S Clarke: parliamentarian, poet, lion-tamer is located at B03.
Marxism & history [NCLC – Box1]
Pen pictures of Russia – under the “Red Terror” [A46]
An epic of municipalisation [ILP – Non ILP Box 1]
Potted Sociology [SLP (1903) – Box 1].
There are collections of poetry – Satires, lyrics & poems [Q33] and The poems and satires of Romany Rye [J21/8]. The Library also has a copy of Robert Burns and his politics: a study in history and human nature [Poetry – Box 7].
SLP material and books on socialism published by the Socialist Labour Press are to be found at SLP (1903) Box 1.