Arriving in the city without knowing anyone, he soon found himself on the streets – until the priests of St. Augustine’s Church on Great Howard Street came across the hungry and cold teenager and took him in.
In 1900, a 14-year-old boy disappeared on a cargo ship sailing from British Guiana to Liverpool.
James Clarke arrived in 1900 as a 14-year-old stowaway on a cargo ship in Liverpool and was considered a local hero from then on.
Over the years he saved many lives and taught many children how to swim. He regularly appeared in the pages of local newspapers as an expert who performed “unusual tricks” at swimming galas in Merseyside.
What made James Clarke so famous in Liverpool were his heroic deeds and his expertise as a swimmer.
Soon he was adopted by an Irish family and found his home in Scottie Road in Liverpool, an area where he now has a street named after him.
James Clarke was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1886 and arrived in Liverpool in 1900 after hitchhiking as a stowaway on a cargo ship on its way to the city.
Little is known about James Clarke’s early life, although he has left his mark on Liverpool’s history – not only as the first black man to have a street named after him in Liverpool, but also as the only person in his lifetime to receive three medals from the Liverpool and District Swimming Association for his heroic deeds in saving people from drowning in the city’s canals and docks.
In February 1911, he rescued a man who was drowning in the West Waterloo Docks, and arranged for the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society to award him a certificate of valour, which is now on display in the Liverpool Museum along with some of his medals.
Between 1908-1910, as a member of the Wavertree Swimming Club, he won numerous medals for his swimming skills.
As an adult and as a dock worker, he taught children to swim in the pools of Burroughs Gardens and trained swimming and boxing teams of the Liverpool police.
Between 1911 and 1916 he also rescued a number of sailors and dock workers from the Mersey River.
Near his home was a deep canal, part of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and on many occasions he dropped his work and dived in to help a child in trouble who had gone to the docks to play or fish.
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He married Elizabeth Murphy in 1914 at Our Lady of Reconciliation Church on Eldon Street in Vauxhall and moved to Elizabeth Terrace, where the couple later had 13 children.
Over the years he often assisted the local police in training their boxing and swimming teams, sometimes helping the police to search for people drowned in Liverpool waters and diving deep underwater until he found the body.
He was involved in teaching swimming lessons to school-age children, and subsequently taught countless young people in the pools of Burough Gardens.
In addition to swimming at the Wavertree Swimming Club, James, known as Jimmy, also swam for Bootle, Waterloo and Everton clubs and was often invited to galas in other parts of Merseyside, including Wirral and Runcorn, where he wowed audiences with his water skills and daring tricks.