Music at heart of May’s life
MABEL FLORENCE “MAY” CLARKE, MBE
Music teacher, examiner, pianist
Born: May 7, 1918 Ninfield, East Sussex, England
Died: March 9, 2015, Murgon
MABEL Deeprose came from a family of musicians so it followed naturally that she would also learn an instrument, in her case the piano, although she became proficient on most stringed instruments. Her father Rufus played the cello and her mother Alice the violin.
Mabel, known as May, was born in a small village near Hastings, England. Her parents were devout Wesleyan Methodists and were very involved with village life.
Her father, a third generation market gardener, became superintendent of the Sunday school – as his father and grandfather before him – so from an early age, May played the organ at Sunday school, church services and other events.
Their first child Albert died in 1916 aged 14. Although having many pregnancies between 1902 and 1917, May was the only one to reach full term and she was a much loved and cherished child.
May started school at five. She recalled she didn’t want to go and used to throw tantrums, so for a time her father had to double her on his bicycle to make sure she actually arrived.
The family moved to Bedford, north of London, where May contracted rheumatic fever. They consequently moved to Bath so May could “take the waters” in the ancient Roman baths. Her attendance at school was sporadic but she continued to excel at music and bible studies. The family moved again, to Portsmouth, on the central south coast of England.
May continued her schooling and music studies and won many prizes for her examination achievements and eisteddfod performances.
She became a student teacher at Grindelwald Girls School and travelled to London regularly to study musical counterpoint and harmony. She received her associate diploma from Trinity College of Music in 1938.
It was in Portsmouth she met Fred Clarke in the summer of 1932, they were both 14. They had common interests in music, ballroom dancing and sport. May taught Fred to play the cello and he also sang in the choir. They were married on June 24, 1939.
Portsmouth, being a naval base, became one of many targets of German bombers. Fred worked in the dockyards fitting compasses on the warships and also became an ambulance bearer.
During the Blitz in January 1941, when May was heavily pregnant with their first child, she and an elderly neighbour had to take refuge in a shelter Fred had built in the back yard.
The bombs struck their row of houses, demolishing the neighbour’s house and badly damaging theirs. The rubble fell on to the shelter, trapping them inside. After they were rescued, May walked through the bombed-out streets in complete darkness to her parents’ place. Michael was born on January 17. Their house was not ready for occupation until after their daughter Anne was born in August 1944.
After the war ended Fred, who was still working at the docks, had been advised by doctors that he would benefit from a drier, warmer climate as he had weak lungs.
In 1947, they were offered the chance of migrating to Australia, where there was a shortage of skilled tradesmen.
The family was sponsored by May’s uncle, Ernest Cramp, who had a dairy farm at Tarong outside Kingaroy. He had migrated to Australia in 1911.
On January 27, 1948 the family became £10 poms, boarding the SS Ormonde at Tilbury docks. They landed in Sydney on March 8, took the train to Brisbane, where they were met by relatives, and taken to Tarong.
They settled in Kingaroy, where Fred had a job as a join- er, and he set about building their first house.
In mid-1948, May was asked to teach Prep 1 and 2 as they were short of teachers and she soon became sought after for her musical ability. She also became Brown Owl for the local guides group, a role she had filled in England.
In 1949, May became a regular accompanist at the Kingaroy Eisteddfod.
Two more children, Paul and Peter, completed the family.
In 1956 Fred, who had a flourishing business as a builder, decided to try his hand at poultry farming and bought a hatchery. However, times became tough in the industry and, after two years, they left.
With the help of May’s mother, who migrated in 1957 after May’s father had died, they bought a rundown cottage at Red Hill on two acres.
May continued her music practice, establishing Kingaroy Music Studios and, before long, was teaching more than 100 students a week. She was very much involved in the local music scene and produced annual concerts, which showcased her students’ abilities.
May was one of the many parents lobbying for Taabinga School to be relocated to Red Hill and worked with the staff producing many concerts and writing the school song, which is still sung today.
With lyricist Nev Hauritz she wrote the music for a Peanut Festival song and also became an examiner for the Australian College of Music.
May also enjoyed playing championship bowls and knitting cardigans and pullovers for shops in England.
In 1982, May was named Quota Woman of the Year. Later that year she was awarded an MBE for her contribution to music. Her honour was presented by the Queen during the Commonwealth Games.
After May suddenly lost the sight in her left eye in 1984, she decided it was time to retire. She and Fred sold their home and moved to Maryborough, where son Paul and his family were living.
Despite her disability and bad knees, May continued to compete in, and win, lawn bowls events until her mid-70s.
In retirement she indulged in her love of crosswords and puzzles. She subscribed to Lovatts crosswords and won many prizes, including a trip to Uluru, where she took a helicopter flight over the area. She turned 80 on that trip and rode a camel to celebrate.
After Fred died in 2004, and having been without a piano for many years, May bought one, and her first computer, and soon learnt how to email and research her crosswords.
In December that year, May had quadruple bypass surgery, from which she recovered quickly, and was playing for palliative care patients four days later and singing carols with the volunteers.
At 87, May was “discovered” by John Meyers who had just opened the Maryborough Military Museum and was looking for volunteers to help entertain the visitors. She was delighted to do so and everyone loved her sunny personality and sense of fun.
In May 2007, May performed at the Kingaroy town hall for the 75th anniversary of the eisteddfod. She was 89 and people were amazed by her performance and vitality.
It became clear in 2009 that May needed more personal care, so she moved to Tiaro Care Facility, where she stayed for two years. She then became a resident of Castra in Murgon. The first thing she did was find where the piano was located.
While her memory of events and people dimmed, not lost was her recollection of all those wonderful tunes, nor her melodious voice, and she never lost her childlike glee and mischief, nor her willingness to laugh at herself.
May’s legacy continues through her descendants in the musical and sporting arena, most of whom play an instrument with varying levels of expertise. She is survived by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.