Lil Clarke: the Woman Who Started World War One

I sometimes attend the Tuesday mass at St. Bernard’s Church in Toxteth, and on these occasions, I privately relish the possibility of hearing Lil Clarke (all four feet two of her, though she was once four foot eleven and still claims to be four foot nine) unselfconsciously add her comments to the homilies of our parish priest, Fr. Peter Morgan.  She is quick to tell him when he’s done a good job and equally quick to tell him if she thinks he’s forgotten something.  For his part, Fr. Peter accepts her observations and reminders with great humour, affection and good grace. 

It didn’t take a conversation with Lil to realise that this lady had an interesting story to tell, so a couple of weeks ago I arranged to meet Lil at her home near Sefton Park so that she would be the first of my interviews for this blog.

***

Lil Clarke

Lil is proud of her age and readily told me that she will be 96 next week, although adding rather cautiously, “If I live that long.”  I said I’d heard that Fr. Peter always acknowledges her birthday in church.  “That’s the thing, sometimes,” said Lil, “I do get made a fuss of and I’m inclined to be a bit cheeky anyway.  They say that as you get older you mature, but I’m afraid I haven’t – or not in the right way, maybe!”  Lil added that she was enjoying a second childhood so I must forgive her if she says childish things.

Elizabeth Grue (always known as Lil) was the sixth of seven children born to Francis and Dora Grue in 1914, and as a result of her year of birth, Lil’s mother often accused her of starting the First World War.  As was usual in those days, Lil’s mother delivered her at home: 13 Rathbone Street, situated in the shadow of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.  Lil’s younger sibling did not survive infanthood, so Lil became the youngest member of the family, a rank which resulted in her older sister frequently telling her she had been ‘ruined’: “You got a pram and I never did!” she’d say.

Before she had children, Dora worked in service for a family in Southport, first as a maid and later as the children’s nurse.  When Dora married Francis Grue and they started a family of their own, finances were tight but Dora was a good manager and Francis, a carter, always worked.  So even in the years between the two World Wars, a time of great hardship for so many families, the Grues had everything they needed.  Speaking of the terrible poverty of the time, Lil recalls that many parents were unable to take their children to the doctor because they couldn’t afford the one shilling and sixpence  that it cost to see a doctor – much less the three and six for a home visit – before the NHS came into being.  One and sixpence (just over 7 pence in decimal money) was a great deal of money in those days.

The Grue’s home had the unusual luxury of four bedrooms in what had formerly been a dairy.  Situated in a cobbled court with five or six houses on each side, the homes shared two toilets and two taps located in the centre of the court.  Lil remembers the family home as a very happy house; her father was a wonderful accordion player and on Sunday nights, the family gathered together to sing; first hymns and then secular songs.

Housework when Lil was growing up was a full-time job, especially with so many children born to each family (in Lil’s family there were no more than 18 months between each of the seven children).  Mothers did the laundry by hand; there were coal fires to feed and ovens that relied on the fires.  “It’s no wonder me mum gave us all fish of a Sunday morning because you could cook that all in one pan,” said Lil.  Then once breakfast was out of the way, her mother would spend the next few hours preparing Sunday dinner.

As a carter, Francis Grue delivered goods with his horse and cart, mostly to warehouses in the dockland area of Liverpool.  He was a very hard worker, making deliveries six days a week and then on Sundays going to the stable to care for his horse’s needs.  In the course of his deliveries, Francis liked to stop at the same establishment every day for a beer and a snack.  One day, when the boss was riding with him, the horse stopped at the usual point along the Dock Road.  “What’s wrong with the horse,” said the boss.  “There’s nothing wrong with the horse,” replied Francis, “He’s just used to stopping here.”

Lil attended St. Vincent’s Roman Catholic School in Norfolk Street, off Park Lane.  She loved her school days, especially enjoying music and entering many competitions with the school choir.  Looking back, she thinks she must have been one of those blue-eyed kids whom teachers like, because despite the frequent use of the cane, she only remembers receiving it once, and it was the shame of it that hurt her most.  Lil had attended eight o’clock mass, as she did every morning as a member of a devoutly Roman Catholic family, but on this occasion, she was late to school and the headmistress caned her.  When Lil gave her reason for being late, the headmistress, who was a nun, said “I went to mass, too, but I’m here.”  Reflecting on this event, Lil says, “But I bet she went home to the convent, which is just round the corner, and had her breakfast given to her.  I had to go back home, and Mum would give me something and rush me out again.  So you couldn’t compare and I thought that was terribly unjust.”  I asked Lil what kind of message that sent her about religion.  “Well,” said Lil, “I was a bit disillusioned, in a way, but it didn’t stop me.”

Daily mass attendance (with the then-statutory fasting beforehand) was accompanied by regular confession; a month between confessions would be considered a long time, even for little children.  Lil remembers that she was always a bit frightened of going to confession because she felt that she had to make things up for want of real offences to confess and she thanks God that things have changed so much now.

Lil loved school and didn’t want to leave, but finally her sister Mary said to their mother, “It’s time she was working.”  There was an opening at Mary’s place of work, which is how Lil got into tailoring, and it was here that she met her first husband, David Johnson.

***

Lil and David married in June 1940, a few months after he was called up to the armed forces and joined the Artillery.  Fortunately, David was first posted to Scotland, so the newlyweds had many opportunities to see one another before he went overseas.  David did well and became an officer, a first lieutenant, an achievement that made the family very proud –especially his mother, Bessie.  She would insist that he wore his uniform when he went out with her while on leave.  However, whenever possible, David preferred to wear his civvies because as an officer, ordinary soldiers were required to salute him, which he didn’t enjoy.  David would say to Lil, “Let’s cross over the road.  There’s a soldier coming up here and I think he’s getting ready to salute.”   

David survived the war, but in January 1946 after Armistice, while he was still on active duty in Germany, a telegram arrived for Lil.  She assumed it contained news that her husband would be demobbed earlier than expected, but instead it said that he had been killed.  Pockets of resistance remained in Germany, even after Armistice, and David had been killed instantly when his car was bombed.  He was 29 years old. 

For days after his death, she continued to receive letters from David, a cruelty of postal timing which made her hope beyond hope that the army had made a mistake.  In all those belated letters, David had written so positively of their future together.  But Lil knew in her heart that her husband was dead.  One particularly deep sadness was that she and David had had no children.  “People would say, ‘Aren’t you lucky that you’ve got no children to look after?’  But to me that was another tragedy: I would have had something of him, and he was an only child, also.”  

***

After the war, the churches mobilized to become more socially active again, and Fr. Francis Danher of St. Bernard’s asked Lil to help set up a Guild of St. Agnes, a club for girls aged eight to 15 years old.  Lil says that The Guild kept her sane at a time of terrible tragedy and sadness, creating for her a welcome diversion from her intense grief.  She taught the girls dancing and singing while her sister, Mary, taught sewing.  The Guild met on two evenings a week, but additionally each night the Guild choir would sing the benediction at church.  Lil’s work with the Guild continued for 10 years and to this day, eighteen of the girls, grandmothers themselves now, remain in touch with Lil, continuing to share their lives with her. 

Lil has an unwavering commitment to her Christian faith, but she observes that in her earlier days, faith was implicit: “People didn’t question anything…In one way it was wonderful, but in another way there was a Catholic self-righteousness that assumed everyone else was going to Hell.  I used to feel sorry for the Protestants!”  But involvement with the YCW (Young Christian Workers – a Roman Catholic organisation that provides young people with the opportunity to unite life and faith through reflection and Christian action) and growing maturity in life and faith gave Lil a broader outlook.  “Some of the things that went on you would be ashamed of now”, she says.  For example, Lil knew one priest who conducted the marriage of a friend of Lil’s in the church vestry – and wearing a funeral stole – because her husband-to-be wasn’t a Catholic.  But since then, Lil has seen some enormous changes of attitude in the Catholic Church, particularly since Vatican Two; she says the changes are all for the better, particularly  noting the advantage of celebrating mass in one’s own language instead of Latin.  Although Lil was in the choir and had a good idea of what she was singing about, on the whole, the congregation didn’t.  As a child, Lil was taught that the argument for the Latin mass was that it would be the same wherever you went in the world, but observed, “We never went any further than Princes Park, so that was nothing to us as kids.”

Lil with Fr. Peter Morgan at St. Bernard's, Toxteth on her 96th birthday

Lil has attended mass and used her talents and skills in the service of the Parish of St. Bernard (now the Parish of St. Anne and St. Bernard in Toxteth) for 76 years now.  Both of her marriages and both of her daughters’ marriages took place there, and also the baptisms of all five of her grandchildren.  She has seen many priests come and go at St. Bernard’s, and speaks fondly of Fr. Francis Danher, who cycled everywhere although he could have enjoyed the convenience of a car.  She says, “He was a great man for the children, knew the name of every child in the parish, whether they were Catholic or not.”  Later, Fr. Joe Daly came to the parish, whom Lil describes as “a man before his time…We were taking communion in the hand before it was announced because he felt it was the right thing to do…He was a very caring man, much for the underdog.”  Then Fr. Austin Smith came to St. Bernard’s and worked together with Fr. Daly.  “They were twin souls” says Lil, “Very much in the same line of thought.”

As Lil spoke, it became clear that Fr. Austin has made an enormous impression on her faith.  “He was a wonderful, wonderful orator,” recounts Lil, “Very anti-establishment, I will say.  He hasn’t got much time for popes and that kind of thing, you know, but wonderful; he brought a breath of fresh air.  Fr. Daly…was already a bit anti-establishment so they got on very, very well.  And I think Fr. Peter is a bit like that inclined as well, so Fr. Austin always felt he was at home in St Bernard’s….He is a wonderful, wonderful man.  Very much for the downtrodden and the poor.  He could refer to Christ who mixed with the poor and loved the poor, didn’t he, so I can understand why he doesn’t go for all this pomp and that, you know?  Because if you follow what Jesus said, really, and lived the way he lived, he didn’t live among the rich…his love was for the poor and the downtrodden, and if the Church is going to follow that way, maybe there should be some more priests like Fr. Austin.”

***

Nine years after David died, when Lil was forty, she met Matthew Clarke, a forty-five-year-old bachelor, at one of the dances at St. Bernard’s.  “He was a nice dancer,” said Lil, “and we started going out…He said, ‘Would you get married?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”  But Matthew persisted and Lil, pointing out that she and her first husband had had no children, asked Matthew if he would be willing to adopt if they married, “God love him – he’d have agreed to anything!”  says Lil with a laugh.  They married, agreeing that if nothing happened after a year, they would adopt.  And that is what happened: when Lil was forty-one, she and Matthew adopted a six-week-old baby girl whom they named Christine.

A few years later, the family decided to adopt a second child.  On the day that Lil, Matthew and Christine went to bring home the new baby, they met a little boy, one of Christine’s playmates, on the street.  The child said, “We got a baby from the queen today,” in his innocence believing that the queen provided families with their new babies.  Christine responded, “We’re getting one from Canon Bennett,” (the Roman Catholic adoption agency that later became amalgamated with Nugent Care). 

At Canon Bennett’s, Lil gently placed a tiny baby girl on Christine’s lap and said to her, “Shall we take her?”  Christine responded, “Oh, yes, she’s lovely, Mummy.”  The family took her home and called her Elizabeth.  But the novelty eventually wore off for little Christine, when one day, young Elizabeth took her ornamental national dolls out of the cabinet where Christine kept them with such care, took all the pins out and brushed their hair, ruining them.  When Christine saw the destruction, she said, “Mum, what did we get her for?”  Lil answered, “Well, you came with me, if you remember, and you chose to bring her home!”  Lil says of her daughters, “I’m very blessed.  I never thought I’d live to this age and see grandchildren.”  She has five of them.

Lil’s first mother-in-law, Bessie, was delighted when Lil remarried, all the more so when Lil and Matthew adopted children; David had been an only child, so when he died, the possibility of grandparenthood had died with him.  But the adoption of Christine and Elizabeth fulfilled Bessie’s longed-for desire to become a grandma, and she set about indulging them accordingly.  But while the grandchildren were still quite young, Bessie was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Lil immediately decided to bring Bessie home and nurse her.  The doctor said, “Are you quite sure about that?  What does her son think?”  Lil said, “He’s not her son!”  The doctor observed that this was a “bit rare” because some people don’t even want to bring home their own mothers, let alone somebody else’s, but Lil insisted that she would care for Bessie as long as she could:  “We brought the bed downstairs…and my husband was marvellous with her, as the kids were…Elizabeth would sit there for hours, holding her hand.”  Bessie only lived three weeks after her diagnosis, but in those last weeks, she enjoyed every care in the heart of a family who loved her.

Matthew was a great fan of Everton, and in 1986, while attending the last match of the season, he suffered a stroke.  When he was well enough to speak, he complained to Lil, “I didn’t even see the match!”  Sadly, Matthew never recovered, dying about six weeks later at the age of seventy-seven.

***

From about the seventies, recounts Lil, Granby suffered a lot of turbulence, unhappiness and uneasiness, and you were “black marked” if you admitted to living there.  Frequently she was advised, “Don’t say you’re from Granby.  Say you’re from Princes Park”, advice she refused.  Then the Toxteth riots of 1981 diminished feeling about the neighbourhood still further.  Speaking of the riots, Lil says, “It was mostly against the police.  You could see it happening because black people were very much looked down on…If there was a black lad walking around in the Granby area, he would immediately be accosted by the police, which I don’t think a white lad…would be.  And that did happen.  You could see that happening.  And in the end, the riots changed the neighbourhood completely.  Granby Street and Lodge Lane used to be a wonderful shopping area.”  After the riots, many houses were demolished and to this day, many still stand abandoned and neglected.

Also, after the riots, Lil’s house insurance stopped being collected as had been usual, so she went down to the centre of town to the beautiful Royal Insurance Building to enquire.  “We’re sorry,” apologised one of the insurance agents, “We don’t insure that area.”  But for 20 years, Lil had paid insurance to the company and had never made a claim. 

***

After both their husbands had died, Lil and her sister, Mary, lived opposite each other on Cawdor Street in Granby.  When Lil’s house suffered subsidence caused by traffic using the entry next to her end-of-terrace house, she complained to the council.  The council at first blamed the Water Board, who dismissed Lil’s concerns, but eventually a council inspector came out to investigate.  He gave Lil and the family 24 hours to get out of the house because it was so unsafe.  She moved in with Mary across the road and was eventually compensated for about a third of the value of the house in which she had lived for 48 years.

Lil then applied for a council house only to be told that she didn’t qualify because she’d been a homeowner.  However, a stiff rebuke to the council from one of Lil’s nieces resulted in the offer of a flat on the corner of Lodge Lane.  She and Mary lived there together.  After 14 years, the council moved all the residents to another high-rise building next to Sefton Park because the building in which they lived was to be demolished.  But after the evacuation, the council sold the block to a private investor who refurbished it and sold the apartments to private buyers. 

Sadly, Mary never moved into the new flat with Lil, suffering her third stroke the day before the move and then two further strokes while in respite care.  As much as she wanted to, Lil, who was approaching 90 herself, was physically unable to care for her older sister, leading Lil to what she describes as “the biggest decision of my life”, the decision to allow Mary to be looked after in a care home.  Three weeks later, Mary died.  She was 93 years old.  Lil is the last remaining sibling, but she has a big and loving family of nephews, nieces, daughters and grandchildren.

Lil describes her life as very full.  Apart from her work in the Guild of St. Agnes, she has sung in concerts and later became involved in senior citizens’ contests using her talents as both a singer and comedienne.  One year she went to Morcombe for the finals of the Senior Citizens’ Challenge Contest, winning for the North of England in a performance with her sister Mary, her friend Madge and accompanied on the piano by another friend, Mrs Kelly.  But despite having such a full and productive life, Lil considers her achievements to have been simple ones – “nothing grand”, she insists.  She considers her biggest achievement to be her ability to communicate with people, to make them laugh and to show interest in them because she understands that this makes them feel welcome, and although she admits to having “quite a lot of sorrow in some ways,” she philosophically concludes, “But that’s part of life, isn’t it?” and says that she has been blessed with good friends, good relations and good children.  Lil is grateful for her neighbours, too, including a man who brings her the Echo every day and posts her letters, another who will pass on messages and assist her in other ways; and yet another who brings her a chippy meal every Friday and won’t take payment for it.  She thanks God every day for her blessings.

On my way out, Lil points rather vaguely to a certificate mounted on the wall: “That was an award I got there.  I don’t know what it’s for, don’t know what I did…that was at the Town Hall…The people there did marvellous things.  I didn’t do much.” 

The document, presented to Lil in 1999 by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Councillor J. A. Devaney, says:

This certificate is presented on behalf of

Liverpool City Council

to

Lil Clarke

for the exceptional service

you have given your community

over many years

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By way of introduction…

Before I begin blogging in earnest, my thanks to Mandi Adams of Blue Orchid Ltd for suggesting that I start blogging.  Secondly, thanks to my Mum, Gwen Brown, for reminding me that “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” (an expression she knows I can’t abide), and for all the other moral support she’s given me since my employers pulled the rug out from under me – not to mention since I was born!  Finally, thanks to my writing mentor, Deb Martinson, Professor of English Writing and Women’s Studies at Occidental College, Los Angeles, for her consistently encouraging and often hilarious emails.  I am writing this now because I’m afraid that if I continue to just talk about it, Deb will stop encouraging me and start cajoling.  Then she will start nagging.  Eventually she will threaten to send her German Shepherd, Tina Fey Martinson, a.k.a. Miss Hot Breath, to lick me into shape – and I’m none too fond of dog breath.

You women are true menches.  Thank you.

This blog will be about the people of Liverpool – primarily the locals and the implants, but occasionally its visitors.  I love this place.  It’s my adopted city; I came here as a grad student and liked the character of the place and its people so much that I’ve decided to stay.

I will be writing about the extraordinary stories of “everyday” people in Liverpool.  The city is teeming with them; you can’t spit without hitting one – not that I’m a spitter.  Take for instance a certain lecturer who taught on me on my my science fiction MA.  He says he’s from Wirral but I think he’s actually from somewhere much further away – not of this world – and some of his emails suggest this, too.  Then there’s my friend’s dad, Mick, who has had an internal defibrillator connected to his heart and he has quite a tale to tell; until they adjusted the machine, it kept on shocking him when his heart was still pumping quite adequately, thank you very much.  At the church I sometimes attend there’s an elderly lady in her nineties who sits in the front row and good-naturedly heckles the priest – all four feet of her.  She’s inspiring just to sit next to, so I hope she’ll agree to let me interview her.

So as soon as I get one of my people of interest to say yes, I’ll be up and running.

Let me end by echoing the words of the writer of the Second Book of Maccabees: ‘If it is well composed and to the point, that is just what I wanted.  If it is trashy and mediocre, that is all I could manage.’ (2 Maccabees 15:38)

Lois Brown

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