Although he came to play a significant role in many aspects of Abingdon life, John Creemer Clarke was not a native of the town. He came from Devon and remained proud of his roots. He was the son of Robert Clarke, a farmer, and Graciana, whose maiden name was Creemer.
As a young man Clarke was first employed in the drapery business in Bideford before moving to Berkshire and joining the firm of Hyde and Son, wholesale clothiers in Abingdon. He married twice, both his wives coming from Somerset. With his first wife, Anna Avis, he had a son, Heber (1846-98). Anna died in 1848, and the following year Clarke married Elizabeth Joyce. After a few years in Reading, he returned to Abingdon, took up a senior position at Hyde and Son, and lived for the rest of his life at Waste Court in Bath Street. Altogether he had ten children who, unusually for the time, all reached adulthood.
Hyde and Son did well, and during the Crimean War (1854-6) won a contract for army uniforms. The American Civil War (1861-5) also provided an opportunity. At the beginning of the war, Clarke persuaded his fellow-directors to allow him to buy very large quantities of cloth while it was still available − cotton imports from the USA essentially ceased for the duration of the war. Unlike the industry in Lancashire, the Abingdon factory was able to continue production and the workers remained employed.
Hyde and Son became Hyde, Son and Clarke, and finally Clarke, Sons and Co. It was one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the country, employing up to 2000 people at its height, including many home workers. The factory itself was at the bottom of West St Helen Street, next to the churchyard. The company owed much of its success to Clarke’s drive and enthusiasm and it was one of the first to adopt new machinery. At his death Clarke was worth £85,000, which would have classed him as a multi-millionaire today.
By 1860 Clarke was a member of the town council, serving as mayor in 1869-70, and he was also a JP. As a prominent local figure he was persuaded to stand as the Liberal candidate for Abingdon in the 1874 general election. He defeated the sitting Conservative member comfortably even though Disraeli and the Conservatives won nationally, and despite his opponents saying that his business commitments had prevented him fully carrying out his duties as a councillor. This was the first election with a secret ballot, which may have contributed to Clarke’s success. There were great celebrations in the town, and in the factory his workers drank his health in cups of tea. One critic still grumbled that he was not fit for the job, lacking the education and oratorical ability required. Clarke was not very active in parliament but was nevertheless re-elected in 1880 and held the seat until 1885 when the borough lost its separate representation. In 1888, County Councils were introduced and Clarke became one of Abingdon’s two members, the other being John Tomkins, a conservative.
Clarke was a leading Methodist and played an important part in the building of Trinity Church. He gave the land and made a significant financial contribution to the building, and he rarely missed a church meeting. His family continued to support the church in many ways. The girls helped in the Sunday School and the summer treat was held in the Waste Court gardens.
Creating a local cottage hospital was another cause Clark strongly promoted. The hospital opened in 1886 after Christ’s Hospital had provided land in Bath Street and Clarke had covered the building costs. Contemporaries thought this was his greatest contribution to the town. The building remained in use until 1930 when the Warren Hospital, converted from a large Victorian house, was opened on Radley Road. The original site in Bath Street is now Mercers’ Court, part of Abingdon School, built in a style reminiscent of the original hospital.
From 1873 Clarke was chairman of the Abingdon Railway Company. He had been a director since it was founded in 1855 when Abingdon was, at last, about to achieve a railway link, although only a branch line.
Three sons followed him into the clothing business though one of these died when only twenty. Heber, the eldest, took over the company on his father’s death in 1895. He was also a councillor for several years and served as mayor. He and his family lived in Fitzharris House, opposite Waste Court. When he died only three years after his father, a younger brother, Harry, took over the company and later moved into Waste Court. This building is now an Abingdon School boarding house with the new name of Austin House. It was renamed after the first Old Abingdonian killed in 1914, to mark the centenary of the First World War. The boys had anyway disliked the previous name. The clothing company continued until 1932.
How should Clarke be remembered? The original Cottage Hospital, his gift to the town, has gone but Trinity Church is still flourishing. In 1879, Clarke had given the town an elaborate gold badge for the mayor’s chain, bearing the arms of Abingdon, with a link showing his arms and motto. Other mayors have contributed their own links, and the handsome chain is still in use today.
Reporting his funeral, The Abingdon Herald described Clarke as “a good man whose help and counsel both public and private will be very sorely missed”.
© AAAHS and contributors 2017