Mike Clarke was born in Liverpool on 10th August 1948, the youngest of three children. He lived near Cressington & Grassendale Station, where he spent much time ŌhelpingÕ in the booking office. His secondary education was at the Liverpool Institute, which he left as quickly as possible in 1964. He was then apprenticed to Pilkington Bros, St Helens, as a fitter/turner, dealing with maintenance of the many types of machinery found in a glass works. During his apprenticeship, he obtained an ONC and HND in mechanical engineering. In the 1960s, he was a volunteer on the Welshpool & Llanfair Railway and the Worth Valley Railway, as well as being involved with the Merseyside Model Railway Club, where he became half owner of the Salmond, a Hawthorn Lesley saddle tank that had worked at BICC Prescot. From 1969-71, he studied Thermodynamics and Gas Dynamics at Birmingham University, where he became involved with the early stages of the Black Country Museum and with canals. In 1971, he worked for Peter Froud at Preston Brook, on a variety of heritage transport, and on the trip boat Lapwing with Charlie Atkins as steerer. In 1972 he purchased Pluto, one of the last wooden motor boats used on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, restoring it to something like its original condition. He lived on board for five years, working partly self-employed on other canal boats, and for two years as Engineer at Leeds Industrial Museum. As a result of meeting many former canal workers, and actively encouraged by Edward Paget-Tomlinson, he began to write articles on waterway history.
In 1977 he sold Pluto to The Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port and then worked for Dorothea Restoration Engineers for two years, where he was in charge of the on-site restoration of a wide variety of industrial machinery. This included not only steam engines and water wheels for industrial museums, but also the routine maintenance of mill stones for stone ground flour production. In 1979 he began to suffer from osteo-arthritis, and had a hip replaced in 1980. During his convalescence, he undertook voluntary work at Merseyside Maritime Museum, cataloguing some of the Dock Board engineering drawings there, and undertook research for a book on Jesse Hartley, Liverpool's Dock Engineer during the Victorian period.
From 1980-1986, he employed as Engineer at the Helmshore Textile Museums, responsible for the removal, installation and maintenance of a wide range of textile machinery. He continued to have articles published and gave talks on canal history. In 1986, for health reasons, he had to stop working as an engineer, and moved to Accrington Library as an assistant, after a couple of years working in the new Local Studies Library. His library work permitted a day off during the week, which he used to research material for his book, The History of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. This was published in 1990 and was short listed for the Portico Prize, given annually for the best book on the north-west of England. As a result of the bookÕs success, in May 1991 he set up his own business, Milepost Research, to offer a consultancy service to museums, local authorities, business and the media.
In the early 1990s, he edited and extended a book, Railway on the Water, on the Tom Puddings which worked on the Aire & Calder Navigation for the Sobriety Project. The No.5 Boat Hoist had been listed, and Mike became Chairman of the No.5 Boat Hoist Trust, which worked with the owners, Associated British Ports, to help encourage the conservation and interpretation of the site.
He has undertaken a wide variety of work related to industrial history, such as conservation policies for the paddle gear on the locks of the Rochdale Canal for British Waterways, and on listed bridges for Hull City Council. He also published several books for the Merseyside Maritime Museum and for the Waterways Museum, and published Waterways Journal for The Boat Museum Society. He appeared on a Bavarian Television programme about the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the director, having recently made a film on the subject, introducing him to the German waterway community in Dorfprozelten-am-Main. This led to travels on a 1,200 ton family-operated boat, and a developing interest in international waterway history. Since then, he has visited Russia (working with the Institute for the History of Science and Technology in Moscow, and members of the Russian Academy of Science), Finland, Poland (working with industrial history students at Wroclaw Polytechnic, conservators, and TICCIH Poland), Romania, Germany (where he was involved with the Wasserhistorisches Gesellschaft, and worked with other waterway historians), Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, France, Belgium and Holland. As a result he has contacted many researchers and conservators of industrial history across Europe, and has also advised researchers in China responsible for the application for World Heritage status for the Grand Canal and worked with students from the Southeast University in Nanjing. As a result of this international interest, he has written articles on European canal history for Encyclopedia Britannica, was extensively involved with the 1996 TICCIH International Waterway Monuments Report, and was consulted by ICOMOS with regard to the Rideau Canal, the Augustowski Canal, and the Grand Canal of China World Heritage Site applications. All of his travels, except to China where expenses were paid, have been self-financed, the money coming from his business; his earnings have averaged below the national minimum over his fifty odd years at work.
For many years, in the 1970s and 1980s, his only means of road transport was a 1934 Riley 9 special he built from spares saved previous Riley 9 cars. He began the restoration of a 1927 Lancia Lambda in the 1980s which, because of health problems and financial restraints, was never completed. He was an active member of the Vintage Sports Car Club for many years, and in the mid-1970s was a marshal at Prescot Hill Climb where he met Tom Rolt. MikeÕs interest and practical involvement in all forms of historic machinery followed the earlier role of Tom Rolt, and Mike's writings sometimes reflects their joint interest in the importance of the craftsman in society.
With regard to the RCHS, Mike was on the Publication Committee for several years, and is involved with printing and distributing the Waterways History Research GroupÕs Notes & Queries, and will be President for two years from May 2016. He is also a member of the Newcomen Society, Association of Industrial Archaeology, and various historic boat groups, but does not attend local meetings very often because of restricted finances, preferring to spend his money on research.
The one exception was the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Society, which he founded in 1997, in particular to make the canalÕs unique heritage more widely understood. In 2008, they took over the heritage short boat Kennet from British Waterways, and the displays and educational material are usually produced by Mike using his extensive archive and knowledge of the canal. He also edits and produces the Society's newsletter, Clogs & Gansey, currently amounting to 36 issues (Feb 2016). His role in promoting the canal was recognised with the Mersey BasinÕs Dragonfly Award in 2000, and a local Barnoldswick Town award in 2014, while the Canal SocietyÕs interpretation of Johnsons Hillock Locks, led by Mike, received a BURA Waterways Renaissance Award in 2008. The SocietyÕs work with Kennet has also resulted in a Living Waterways Award in 2015. Recently, the Canal & River Trust have named one of the locks at Bank Newton ŌThe Mike Clarke LockÕ in recognition of almost 50 years involvement with promoting the canalÕs history and heritage.
With his extensive international links, foreign languages became important, and he can speak reasonable German, some French, and a little Polish and Russian. His German was good enough to act as interpreter and editor for an English version of the book Canal Lifts and Inclines of the World, which had been written by his German friend, Dipl-Ing Hans Uhlemann. The book was published by Internat, part of Inland Waterways International, an international group of which Mike is a committee member.
Outside of history and heritage, Mike has sung in several choirs, initially at Accrington Library, then with Blackburn Music Society, and then with Langcliffe Singers when he moved from Accrington to Barnoldswick. It was through singing that he met his partner, Linda, in 2003. They also sing with a small choir, Gisburn Singers, and Mike put together a programme of locally composed choral music which they performed for local history societies, amongst other performances.
For over half his life, Mike had some form of disability. His first hip replacement was in 1980, when he was also diagnosed with anklosing spondalytis, followed by a severe attack from Raynaud's Phenomenum which ended his practical work in 1986, when his doctor recommended that he should not work with cold metal. He had his other hip replaced in 1998, and had a triple fracture of the pelvis in a car crash in 2003.
Under-lying much of MikeÕs work is an appreciation of the place of the craftsman in industrial history. He is particularly concerned that the educational route he took has been abandoned in favour of the academic, and he is always keen to explain how the industrial revolution only came about because of the skill of craftsmen.
However, encouraging greater understanding and appreciation of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is probably regarded as MikeÕs most important work. When he moved onto Pluto in 1972, the canal was still regarded as a problem by many, and the section into Liverpool proposed for closure. By introducing people to the canalÕs unique heritage, and the opportunities provided by it, the tide of public opinion changed. It was following the publication of his book on the canal in 1990 that people really began to appreciate the canalÕs history. An extended edition has been published for the canalÕs 200th anniversary of completion from Leeds to Liverpool in 2016. His book Brightwork, written with former boat builder and painter Sam Yates, recorded one of the canal's traditions which would have been lost otherwise. Founding the Canal Society and his work with Kennet further continued this promotion of the canal, and has allowed many members of the public to understand better its role and significance.
Some of work he has undertaken
Canal heritage interpretation displays at Johnsons Hillock Locks working with the local visually-impaired society, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project received the 2008 Waterways Renaissance Award for Education and Learning.
Conservation policy for Rochdale Canal paddle gear and research into traditional wooden canal lock gates for British Waterways.
Desk-based research into the historical development and use of the water supply to the Leeds & Liverpool Canal for British Waterways.
Historical research and conservation advice regarding the hydro-technical monuments on the Solovki Islands, Russia, a World Heritage Site.
Interpretation of hydro-technical sites on the Onega River for Kargopol Museum, Russia.
Historical research into cast iron swing bridges for Hull City Council.
Conservation policy for the listed bridges in Hull for Hull City Council.
Historical audit for the warehouse at Stockbridge on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal for Structural Perspectives, Halifax.
Historical audit, Dutch River Swing Bridge, Goole.
Historical audit, South Dock Bridge, for Associated British Ports.
Historical surveys of mills in Burnley and Haslingden.
Research for displays at the National Waterways Museum, Gloucester.
Review of British WaterwaysÕ historic collection for the National Waterways Museum.