William Welham Clarke was born in Salhouse, near Norwich, Norfolk on
22 Dec 1879. He was the eldest child of Richard John Clarke, a
civil engineer, and Elizabeth Anne Clarke (née Borrett).
The name 'Welham' was derived from his paternal great great
grandmother: Elizabeth Welham. It was by that name that he was
known to the family. He had an uncle, born fifty years
previously, also called William Welham Clarke.
Welham attended school in Norfolk but was afterwards indentured
with an engineering firm in The Midlands. He also trained at
the Camborne School of
Mines in Cornwall.
Travel to the USA
In 1903 Welham sailed, at his father's expense, to the US in
search of career prospects. He stated his profession to be an
'Assayer', which related to his mining background. He accepted
samples of rock from mining companies and analysed them for
their metal content. This he did mostly in New York, but would,
on occasion, travel to the mining areas along the American West.
Welham returned to England and joined his brothers to fight in the First World War. In February 1915 his youngest brother, A. South Clarke, records a meeting with him on the South Downs during the period in which he (ASC) was training at Portsmouth for subsequent service in France for the Royal Marines.
In 1916 Welham was a Private with 34 Mobile Section, 'A V Corps', 22 Division, Salonica Forces. This was an Army Veterinary unit, with responsibilty for either transportation or cavalry horses, but, if so, it's unclear how Welham, with his civil engineering background, came to hold such a post.
After the war Welham remained in England for some time, living in Merstham, Surrey, near his mother and sister. During this period he submitted a patent application for a method of constructing concrete buildings. The drawings for this are likely his own work, since he had earlier been employed as a draughtsman.
On Welham was married in Manhattan, New York, to Lily Ellen Branner, the daughter of George Henry Branner and Sarah Kate Francis. Lily was also a first generation immigrant to the USA, having been born in East Ham. Family legend has it that he underwent an acrimonious divorce. There is as yet no corroboration for this, other than her non-appearance as a legatee of Welham.
In 1920 he attended the wedding of his youngest brother A. South Clarke at Westminster.
Welham died, without issue, from lung cancer in New York on 10 Apr 1939. He was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. His estate passed to his youngest brother: A. South Clarke. At the time, South and his motor repair business were reeling from the Depression, and he remarks to the New York law firm handling the estate that it would be "a matter of considerable convenience to me" if the money could be sent to him sooner.
April 21. 1906
I expect you will have received my letter of the eighth or there abouts by now, in which I said I was leaving Frisco by boat on the 15th so you will have imagined me to be in B.C during the earthquake but I had difficulty in getting my trunck which I had stored and that kept me there till the 18th the day of the shock of which you no doubt have read of in the home papers.
I had got the trunk and intended leaving the day of the shock but that put a stop to every kind of business. I'm sending some papers which will give you all I know about it except my individual experiences. I was rooming at the Winchester Hotel and had a room on the sixth floor which was the highest.
When the violent shock came at 5.15 in the morning I was in bed, waking up half asleep. I said when I heard the racket "by Jove, there's another fellow killing himself in the next room", there had been one do so not long before but I soon got that idea out of my head and when a piece of plaster came down and hit me on the head I pretty soon got out of bed and choose a spot in the room where the plaster seemed to be falling less thick.
The shock was exactly the same as the vibration the traction engine used to make when passing 51 St Nicholas Rd only of course much more so. It lasted 63 seconds but seemed about two minutes. When it was over I dressed took a very hasty wash then another tremor commencing made for the door. I found the passage full of people and incidentally found out the preference of American women for pyjamas as nightwear. One lady stopped me as I was going downstairs and asked me to unlock her door which I did, she had run out and locked it and come back but couldn't unlock it. She asked however "what are all these people going downstairs for?"
I heard afterwards there were 7 or 8 people killed in the building besides some injured. When I got outside I walked down the street and met a man apparently crazy, hollering "another shock in 20 minutes".
A little further along I came to a wooden one story building, a restaurant which had totally collapsed, a man among the debris called to me that there were people buried in it, so he, I and several others set to work to try and get them out, breaking a hardware store window to get some axes which fortunately were handy. After about an hour I should think we got out a man and a girl, a bit cut up but otherwise all right and a dead girl.
Then I went back to my hotel and found it already too much on fire to get out my things which were all burnt up.
I never saw anything like the rapidity with which the fire burned and burst out and in 50 different places all over the city and the water mains and sewers were all fractured so no water was to be had, the only thing they could do was to blow up the buildings to stop the spread. The city was soon put under martial law and the soldiers pressed everybody into service. That night I spent out on Telegraph Hill, from which I had a view all over the city, it was a splendid sight in a way, the line of fire was I should think 3 miles long and totally beyond control. The next day, I and a lot more were pressed into service unloading provisions from warehouses into carts to be sent to refugees camping in the parks. One had to do it whether one liked or not as they put a guard of soldiers with bayonets fixed over us. That night I went aboard the four masted barque Balasore of Liverpool with an English sailor I met and slept in the fo'castle, the next day I'd hardly taken a step down the waterfront when the press gang again got me and sent me to pack water from an English tramp steamer which kept her condenser going all the time making fresh water for the people in that district which was the only supply they had and it was a blazing hot day. They took the fresh water faster than we could make it. I stopped on board her till this morning and had a good time with the engineers and 3 or 4 mates, all Englishmen and good fellows. I got away across the bay today here and am going up to B.C tomorrow I hope. I had all my money except 20 dollars on deposit in a bank and I don't know when I shall be able to get that. I shall give a B.C bank the certificate to collect. They say the vaults of all the banks are intact. but there will probably be a long delay before they start up again. The police closed up all the saloons the first day but they were broken into and there were hundreds of drunken men lying about and a good many got burnt up through inability to move no doubt. I walked through the district where the ragtag and bobtail dwelt and it was sickening sight to see the corpses, some burnt to cinders. The fire swept so fast through the wooden shacks, packed closely together that it was impossible for anyone to get drunken men out of the way. The soldiers were half drunk themselves which no doubt was the cause of so many being shot by them, I saw half a dozen soldiers shoot into a lot of men, digging in the ruins of a jewellery store and drop two of them, it was their order from the Mayor to shoot not to arrest. Thee quarters of the city is burnt up, all the business and manufacturing part and lots beside.
There are very few brick buildings even those untouched by the fire which are not ruined by the shock. I shall have to stop now as my paper has come to an end, that and a piece of soap was all the looting I did.
I will write soon and again and give you my address. With love to all
Wm Welham Clarke