Azariah Clarke GC BEM (EM exchanger)

b. 18/11/1891 Silverdale, Staffordshire. d. 17/02/1975 Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire.

DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 02/07/1935 Holditch Colliery, North Staffordshire.

Azariah Clarke (1891-1975), known as Ezra, was born on 18th November 1891 in Silverdale, near Wolstanton, Staffordshire, the son of George and Lizzie Eugenie Clarke (nee Leese). He was one of three children with a brother, George and sister, Edith. His father was a collier in a local mine. Little is known about Ezra’s childhood and schooling, though he did enlist as 61995 Private in the North Staffordshire Regiment on the outbreak of the Great War, serving in France and Flanders.

Ezra married Annie Hall in 1921, and had a daughter named Edith. After his first wife’s death, he re-married to Lily Pepper in 1948. Following his service in the Great War, Ezra returned to his pre-war employment at Holditch Colliery in North Staffordshire, where he also held the position of Captain of the Rescue Brigade.

On 2nd July 1935, a fire broke out in the Four Foot Seam at the Holditch Colliery. The fire spread rapidly but of the 55 men employed in the affected area all except two succeeded in withdrawing from the danger zone. As soon as it was discovered two men were missing, an unsuccessful search was made for them. A large explosion then occurred and one of the search party was found to be missing. Meanwhile a call had gone out for the Colliery Rescue Brigade, and Azariah Clarke and 3 other men had assembled. They were asked to search for the man lost after the explosion and donned breathing apparatus. Despite the smoke and gas, they made an unsuccessful search for the man. They then began to search for the original missing two men. They stumbled in the smoke up a steep road, when another explosion occurred killing 27 men. The Rescue Brigade were slightly affected, and had to come to the surface for fresh breathing apparatus as supplies were low. They went back in, extinguished a fire, came across a number of dead bodies and badly injured men. They made the injured comfortable and arranged for stretchers for them. They evacuated the injured and dead, and by 3.25pm all men known to be alive were recovered. All the men were then withdrawn due to the risks of further explosions. The Rescue Brigade led by Clarke had worked continuously below ground with breathing apparatus since 7.30am. At 6pm, Clarke again led his men back down the mine, and after an extensive search still found noone by 8.30pm.

For Clarke’s gallant actions, he was awarded the Edward Medal on 5th August 1938. Ezra continued to work at Holditch Colliery until his retirement in the 1950s. On 9th June 1955, Ezra was awarded the British Empire Medal. In 1971, following the change in the Royal Warrant, Ezra chose to take the opportunity to exchange his Edward Medal for a George Cross. It was believed that he donated the Edward Medal to the Newcastle under Lyme Museum but they have no record of it sadly.

Ezra Clarke died on 17th February 1975 in Crossheath, near Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire and was cremated at Bradwell Crematorium four days later, and his ashes scattered in the Garden of Remembrance by his widow Lily. In 1984, Lily donated Ezra’s GC to the Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum, which sadly went into receivership in 1993. The decision was made to put his GC up for auction to pay for the debts, which caused a public outcry. Newcastle under Lyme Borough Council raised the money and bought it and the Sevres Vase (presented to the Rescue Team) to go into Newcastle under Lyme Museum. The campaign was led by two surviving members of the pit rescue team, Fred Taylor and Joe Woodcock.