James Rodgers continues the series in which he commemorates the Sydney University cricketers who died serving in the First World War, a century ago. Today: Gother Clarke.
Major Gother Robert Carlisle Clarke MB ChM was born on 27 April 1875 and died on 12 October 1917.
Gother Clarke’s family was extraordinarily well-connected. His father, Major General Mordaunt William Shipley Clarke (1833-1918) and mother, Georgina Alice (nee Mann), lived at ‘Branthwaite’ in North Sydney in gracious comfort with their six children. His grandfather, Reverend William Clarke (1798-1878), geologist, clergyman and poet, was the second Headmaster of The Kings School from 1839 to 1840, later discovered gold in the Blue Mountains, and was the first Rector of St Thomas’ Church at North Sydney. ‘William Clarke College’ at Kellyville, founded in 1988, is named in his honour. The family could claim relationship with William Stather, imprisoned by the order of Queen Mary in York Castle, where he died in 1558.
Gother Clarke was one of the first students at ‘Shore’ School, number 9 on the school roll, where he was Senior Prefect, captain of the 1st XI and the 1st XV, and editor of the school magazine. He matriculated to the University of Sydney to study Medicine in 1895. While an undergraduate, he played most of his seven first-class games for NSW as an accurate leg break bowler, aggressive left hand batsman and fleet-footed fieldsman. Until 1916, he lived a life of relative ease and service as a suburban doctor (after a short time at Newcastle Hospital) and he played Grade Cricket and Badge Tennis. He eventually set up practice at Wahroonga in ‘Terranora’ on Lane Cove Road (what is now the Pacific Highway) just opposite on the Wahroonga site where Abbotsleigh School was established in 1898.
It was at Clarke’s home that a sensational relationship (to which the genial doctor was no more than a footnote), developed. Clarke had employed Annie Birkett as his housekeeper and ‘Harry Crawford’ as a yardman and driver. Annie and Harry became romantically attached but in October 1917 (the same month that Gother Clarke was killed in Belgium), Annie’s body was found. ‘Crawford’ was brought to trial and convicted. While in gaol, ‘he’ resumed ‘his’ previous gender. ‘He’ had been born Eugenia Falleni in 1875 but had passed ‘himself’ off as a man after coming to Australia. The full story of one of the more extraordinary criminal trials of legal history has been recently told in ‘Eugenia’ by Mark Tedeschi (Simon and Schuster, 2012).
Gother Clarke was called ‘Shore’s first great cricketer’ and before Jack Massie and Jack Gregory, he probably was. In his final season, he was dominant with the ball, taking 54 wickets at 11.2. But after his debut as a 19 year old in Sydney University’s First Grade of 1894-95 (1st Grade cap no. 38), he took time to establish himself, even spending some time in 2nds in 1895-96, where he was puzzlingly used sparingly as a bowler but averaged 43 with the bat (including an innings of 120 against Manly). In 1896-97, he played the whole season in First Grade and increasing confidence in his leg breaks, composure and experience all combined so that he made his first-class debut in December 1899. His best years, however, coincided with Sydney University’s bleakest. Withdrawing from the competition entirely in 1897-98, the Club then returned in Second Grade, its teams restricted to undergraduates. Clarke, who needed to play in First Grade to have any chance of playing for his State, transferred to North Sydney. As an undergraduate, he was, however, still eligible for the Intervarsity matches with Melbourne University. He was irresistible in 1898, taking 7-72 and 6-89 and scoring an even 100. This is still the most productive all-round performance in these games, which date back to 1870. In three Intervarsity games, he took 33 wickets.
In 1901-02, he played twice for NSW against MacLaren’s touring English side. In November, in NSW’s victory by 54 runs, his 4-98 and 6-133 (from 51 overs) overwhelmed the Englishmen. Five of his six in the second innings were Test players of quality: Archie MacLaren, Johnny Tyldesley, AO Jones, the mighty hitter Gilbert Jessop and elegant Tom Hayward, one of the greatest of all time, scorer of 43,551 first-class runs. This was the second time that Hayward had fallen to the young leg spinner. Playing for Australian Universities against Stoddart’s Englishmen in 1897-98 on the Sydney University Oval, Clarke bowled steadily to take 4-98 including the legendary Ranjitsinhji and Tom Hayward. He came back to earth when NSW played MacLaren’s team for the second time in 1902. The Englishmen were merciless in amassing 769. Clarke’s one wicket cost 134.
In 1905, he transferred to the new Gordon Club and played in Gordon’s initial First Grade game against Waverley at Chatswood. But his skills seemed to have deserted him (13 runs for the season; 7 wickets). From then on, consumed by his medical work, he turned out infrequently for Gordon, where he ended his Grade career. 118 runs at 10.8 and 17 wickets at 38 were scant evidence of his previous dominance.
He enlisted on 14 March 1916, aged almost 41, and was appointed the first RMO of 34 Battalion. He sailed on the ‘Hortata’ on 2 May passing through Albany, Colombo, Suez, Port Said, Alexandria, Plymouth and Amesbury on his way to camp at Larkhill. He was then sent into action at Amentieres, Messines and Ypres. As a soldier, he gave a ‘fine example of bravery and devotion to duty’. As a doctor, he was gentle, popular and esteemed. He was mentioned in despatches posthumously.
On 12 October 1917, as Clarke was treating an officer 300 yards behind the front line at Polygon Wood, he was hit by a shell that also killed several others. The shell fell among the wounded men and medical personnel who, because of severe overcrowding, were being forced to treat the wounded in the open.
Clarke was one of only three NSW cricketers killed in the Great War, all in 1917. Norm Callaway, killed on 3 May, played one game for NSW in February 1915 and scored 207 against Queensland in his only first-class innings. ‘Tibby’ Cotter, killed on 31 October, played 21 Tests for Australia. Clarke was one of seven Gordon players killed; one of 15 SUCC players.
He is remembered on the Wahroonga War Memorial, at Shore (where the ‘Gother Clarke Award’ for the outstanding cricketer of the season is awarded to this day); by his three Grade Clubs and at Sydney University, where one of the carillon bells is named in his honour. His memory at Gordon DCC has been enhanced by Paul Stephenson’s splendid work, ‘A Cricket Club at War’ (The Cricket Publishing Company, 2015).
His family connection with Gordon DCC endures. He is the great great uncle of James Packman, scorer of over 5000 runs for the Club, who also played five times for NSW in 2004-05. In life, Gother Clarke commanded great respect. In death, his men continued to regard him with much affection. Captain VH Collins of 34 Battalion wrote: ‘His death is greatly mourned by all of us who knew him…a brave comrade, one who had always manifested his willingness to lay down his life in helping others.’