John Travers Clarke 1924-2022

We are sorry to announce that John Travers Clarke has passed away. The following obituary is courtesy of his family.

John Travers Clarke went up to Trinity Hall in 1942 to read Maths but was unable to complete his first year due to his call up for military service; after the war he returned to Cambridge to complete his studies, switching Tripos to study History instead. Cambridge – and Trinity Hall, specifically – remained a hugely important part of John’s life. He met Jim Stephen who eventually, through his introduction to his sister, Betty, became his brother-in-law; Trinity Hall also provided a link to his older brother, Evelyn, who had also been a student there and was one of the 57,205 young Bomber Command personnel to lose their lives in the Second World War. Evelyn’s Lancaster ND410 was shot down over the Dutch Coast when returning from a raid of Leipzig on 20th February, 1944.

In both celebrating the life and mourning the death – at the remarkable age of 98 – of John Travers Clarke, we also remember the lives of Evelyn and so many other young people who have been taken from this world far too young amid the horrors of war. John was wholly committed to keeping Evelyn’s memory alive, and it was a hugely significant development for him when Kees Stoutjesdijk from the Dutch historical charity WO2GO made contact with him when Kees and his colleagues started to investigate exactly what happened to the Lancaster which Evelyn had been in; Evelyn’s body was never found nor was the aircraft, but the area of coastland where the Lancaster is thought to have hit the water has been identified. In 2012, John and some close family went out to a ceremony in Goree-Overflakkee to unveil a plaque commemorating Evelyn and the other six crew members.

After graduating, John trained as an accountant and began his career at Express Dairies in 1953 before it was taken over by Grand Metropolitan, of which he eventually became Head of Hotels and Catering. For this time, his job seems to have resembled a giant game of Monopoly, buying and selling hotels and even hotel chains. The John his family knew was a formidable operator, characterised by a no-nonsense approach and straight-talking: when asked at dinner whether anyone would like some more food, woe betide anyone who gave the cop-out answer of ‘I’m ok, thanks’! Such an approach may come across as someone being obtuse and difficult (and, at times, this was undoubtedly the case!), but John’s ultimate aim was always to try to get to the heart of the matter and to find what someone was really about: he was a master at identifying disingenuous platitudes and he would not stand for them!

John was passionate about wine and dinner parties and was incredibly generous in throwing these for others. He was in fact actively on the lookout for reasons to throw these parties, and those who were present at one or more of the dinners in the last decade when he opened his cases of 1961 Claret will have extremely fond memories of them, both the wine and the evenings. But John was not simply interested in food and wine; he was passionate about people and conversation. He was insistent that round tables were the death of any dinner party and that one ought to prepare for an upcoming dinner with a friend or family member in just the same way as you would for any other meeting.

John also had a mischievous side, a side which seemed to be more apparent as his years advanced, and a twinkle in his eye would often beget a long and deep resonating chortle. John kept up a remarkable range of friendships which transcended boundaries and ages, but he was particularly interested in the next generation. He supported his niece and nephew and great-nieces and great-nephews, his god-children and the offspring of friends in numerous ways with incredible generosity, and he would often assert that it was vital for young people to think ahead to what their career be, sparking conversations which would change the course of their lives. He was also the sort of uncle, great- and great-great-uncle and godfather who never, ever forgot a birthday.

On a visit to his beloved flat in Ashley Gardens (he was born at one end of the block and spent most of his life in a flat at the other end), one of John’s nephews was presented with a picture of a man in military uniform and was asked for his thoughts. (These were some of the more uncomfortable, open-ended situations with which John liked to confront his guests, mostly for good reason.) Eventually, John explained that, thanks to the work of Kees Stoutjesdijk, this was a picture of the Luftwaffe fighter ace who is likely to have shot down Evelyn’s Lancaster. When asked how he felt, John said ‘Fine. I bear him no ill will. He was doing his job, just like Evelyn.’ However, John pushed his guest on whether the pilot bore any resemblance to anyone they knew, and it was a strange and uncomfortable moment when the nephew suggested that the pilot in fact bore a resemblance to John himself, something with which John fortunately agreed.

John set up the Airmen’s Fund to support students through their time at Trinity Hall. John cared for the futures of young people, sought to support them and wanted to do something which might help to keep in remembrance those like his brother Evelyn who died in service for their country. John achieved so much in his life, but keeping the memory of his brother, Evelyn, alive is something to which he would increasingly return and which meant so much to him. John was always pleased to hear in what ways the fund was being put to use by current students, before then reflecting on his own time at ‘The Hall’ and the all-too-brief life of his brother, Evelyn.