Robert James Clarke was born in Bootle, Lancashire, England on 12 September 1898, the son of John and Mary Elizabeth Clarke. Robert’s father and older siblings were ship’s stewards in the Mercantile Marine, and Robert followed on in the family tradition. He was probably introduced to the sea by his father, who also worked for the Cunard Steamship Company as a steward on the Mauretania. In 1915 the family lived at 77 Sidney Street, Bootle, Liverpool.
He engaged as a stewards' boy in the Stewards' Department on board the Lusitania at Liverpool on 12 April 1915 at a monthly rate of pay of £2-10s-0d (£2.50) and joined the vessel on the morning of 17 April. It was not his first voyage on the ship.
Having survived the disaster, he was sent back to England nursing a bandaged hand and arrived at Lime Street Railway Station, Liverpool, where he was met by his father and reporters from the local press.
He gave them an account of his experiences which was reported in The 'Bootle Times' on 14 May 1915. He stated that he was in the 'glory hole', presumably deep down below decks, when the ship was struck. When she began to list, he went up to the boat deck and, presumably because of his age, he was put into a lifeboat with about 50 others. Then apparently the falls were accidentally cut and the boat plunged some 80 feet, spilling all its occupants into the sea. This was probably Lifeboat number 17.
Clarke was left hanging onto one of the ropes, which badly bruised his hand. As the ship continued to list he was able to gain a footing on the edge of the side plating and eventually drop into another lifeboat, which was also full. This lifeboat 'turned turtle' three times and its occupants were also thrown into the water.
He said that floating wreckage, which consisted of a lifebelt, an oar and a deck chair, kept him and four other men afloat for an hour and three quarters, before they were all rescued by the Government tug Brock, and eventually landed at Queenstown. He was of the opinion that the Lusitania had been hit by two torpedoes, the first in the number 1 stoke hole and the second in the engine room.
He also stated to the 'Bootle Times' reporter that he was told to get into the first boat by Assistant Superintendent Caterer WH Winter, who told him:
"Get into the boat sonny, you are only a bit of a kid yet."
When Clarke urged Mr Winter to get into the boat himself, Winter replied:
"I've got plenty of work to do shoving out the next boats. Goodbye, boys, and good luck."
The Assistant Superintendent was not amongst the survivors, and his body was eventually recovered from the sea.
Another account published in 'The Barrow News' on 15 May 1915 also tells of his experiences, although it names him as Robert Black. There was no person named Black serving as a crew member on the
Lusitania’s final voyage however and it is most probable that the newspaper article refers to him. It stated:
"Another member of the stewards’ department Robert Black, a bell boy, said that he was reading in his bunk when the ship was violently shaken from stem to stern by the torpedo. "I ran on deck and found the huge vessel already heeling over. I slid down the ropes and was taken on board one of the lifeboats which was just leaving the ship"."
After he had returned to Liverpool, he was officially paid off from the Lusitania’s
last voyage and received the balance of wages owing to him, which amounted to £2-17s-8d (£2.94). This was in respect of his sea service from 17 April to 8th May 1915 - 24 hours after the liner had gone down.
According to his family, while Robert was awaiting rescue from the ocean he vowed to devote the remainder of his life to serving the Lord. Thus he became a clergyman of the Episcopal Church and moved to America where he became a vicar of The Church of Good Shepherd, in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Cunard records show Robert Clarke's surname to be spelled Clark, but as three local Merseyside newspapers all spell it with an 'e', this is more likely to be the correct version.
Robert Clarke married Margaret Hellstrom and they had three children; Margaret, Mary and Lillian.
Reverend Robert James Clarke died in State College, Pennsylvania, USA on 8 June 1974 aged 75 years. He was buried at the Buck Mountain Episcopal Church, Earlysville, Virginia, USA.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of England and Wales, 1911 Census of England and Wales, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, Barrow News, Bootle Times, Crosby Herald, Liverpool Echo, Cunard Records, PRO BT 350, Cyndi Morrison.