‘Unknown Sailor’ was a millionaire

Yesterday at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the identity of the so-called unknown sailor was revealed as twenty-one-year-old Able Seaman Tom Clark pictured here. But there’s so much that hasn’t been reported about him that makes the young man even more fascinating in life than death. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.

Tom Clark’s body was washed up on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean eleven weeks after the HMAS Sydney was sunk in a battle with a German raider off the coast of Western Australia. The sinking was exactly eighty years ago yesterday on the 19th of November 1941. 

This was during the Second World War and all 645 lives on board were lost. It remains the Royal Australian Navy’s biggest single tragedy.

HMAS Sydney

Clark’s body was the only one ever recovered, and he became known only as the ‘unknown sailor’ until yesterday thanks to DNA research.

Tom Clark was born in Brisbane in 1920. He was tall, fair haired, blue eyed, and had a fresh complexion. He was working with an accounting firm in Mary Street in Brisbane when he enlisted in the navy in 1940.

Media reports say that Clark went to school in Warwick in Queensland but reveal very little else. Among his rich history is that a great-grandfather was a ship’s captain and was also lost at sea north of Sydney, both his grandfathers loved the sea and were famous yachtsmen, and an uncle was killed in action in Mesopotamia in the First World War.

Also missing from public reporting is that thirteen years after his death, young Tom Clark’s estate was sorted out and valued at a fabulous forty-one thousand pounds which is almost four million dollars today based on average weekly earnings.

But Tom’s family were no average earners. His paternal grandfather was the “Pearl King” Jim Clark of Brisbane’s New Farm who made a fortune in the pearling and pastoral industries. He was born on a Hunter estuary island in New South Wales in 1857.

Jim Clark

When Clark’s fleet was operating off Broome in Western Australia, it discovered one the world’s finest ever pearls. It was named “The Star of the West” and was a perfect oval in shape, measuring about half an inch in length. The pearl sold in London at Christie’s for over five-and-a-half million dollars in today’s money.

Tom’s maternal family was another very well-known one and closely connected to the history of Ipswich in Queensland, and the clue is in his full name – Thomas Welsby Clark.

Tom’s mother was Marion Welsby, and his grandfather was Thomas Welsby the famous accountant, author, politician, and sportsman who was born in Ipswich in 1858. That’s where he grew up and went to Ipswich Grammar School.

Thomas Welsby

Welsby was the manager and half-back for Queensland in the first ever inter-colonial rugby match between Queensland and New South Wales in 1882. He was made a life-member of the Queensland Rugby Union and was later its president.

Unknown to many is that Welsby was also a founder of Australian Rules Football in Queensland and was named manager of the Queensland Australian Rules “Team of the 19th Century.” His brother was named as a player.

Welsby was one of the founders of the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron, the founding treasurer of The Royal Historical Society of Queensland and later its president. He was also a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly.

A family home ‘Cooneana’ at New Chum in Ipswich is today the home of the Ipswich Historical Society. The locality of Welsby on Bribie Island was named after him, as is the library of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. His home later in life ‘Amity’ is in Welsby Street in New Farm, and today is included on the Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Rugby’s Welsby Cup is still played for today.

The grandfathers Jim Clark died in 1933, and Thomas Welsby in 1941 just nine months before their grandson Thomas Welsby Clark lost his life serving on the HMAS Sydney. They passed away at their respective homes in New Farm and each left a fantastic legacy.

However, young Tom has probably now surpassed them both as the sole sailor from HMAS Sydney to be laid to rest.


Photo credits:
Thomas Welsby Clark – Australian War Memorial P08739.001

HMAS Sydney at Circular Quay – Wikipedia public domain
Jim Clark pearl king – Robert Lehane
Thomas Welsby – State Library of Queensland

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