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Marke, Ernest Patrick (1902–1995), seaman and club owner, was born on 20 August 1902 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the son of a Sierra Leonean merchant, Peter Adolphus Marke, and his Nigerian wife, who was related to the Egba royal family of Abeokuta. In 1917 he ran away from home and stowed away on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. In the Bay of Biscay the ship was torpedoed but managed to escape serious damage and arrived in Liverpool, where Marke disembarked. In Liverpool he witnessed the anti-black riots of 1919. He saw a crowd of ‘John Bulls’ (racists) chasing a black man: ‘He jumped into the river, trying to swim to a ship. He succeeded but even while he was swimming the crowd hooted and threw bricks at him’ (Marke, Old Man Trouble, 31). As Val Wilmer, who knew him later in life, commented, ‘The chilling experience raised Marke's consciousness. Always proud and hot-tempered, now he questioned all inequality’ (The Guardian, 16 Sept 1995). Marke went back to sea and led an adventurous life. Over the next twelve years he made more than thirty-three voyages, visiting Africa, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, the United States, China, and India. Meanwhile, on 12 December 1928, in Manchester, he married Alma Augusta Douglas, an eighteen-year-old music hall artiste, and daughter of Edward James Douglas, ship's cook. The marriage later ended in divorce.

When he decided to quit the life of a seafarer Marke remained in Britain. He earned his living at a variety of jobs: as a seller of quack (but harmless) ‘medicine’, a showman, a boxer, a racing tipster, and a gambler. In the mid-1930s he found work as a film extra, appearing as an African ‘spear carrier’ in Sanders of the River (1935), starring Paul Robeson. The following year he was in the cast of Adventure, a children's Christmas play at London's Victoria Palace. He was listed in the cast as ‘Cook's boy’.

At the start of the Second World War, Marke opened a drinking and gambling club, the Coloured Colonial Social Club, in Gerrard Street, Soho: ‘My customers were mainly American GIs who were very violent. But business was booming. I used to hire West Indian musicians who made all the difference. As for violence and crooked business from those bloody GIs, it didn't scare a strand of hair on my head’ (The Voice, 20 Dec 1994).

Marke was a socialist and always concerned himself with the welfare of black people in Britain. He credited Marcus Garvey with raising his consciousness as a black man: ‘Garvey preached of racial pride and change in Africa. He preached about the necessity for educating the black man’ (Henry, 27). In 1944 he organized the Coloured Workers' Association and on Sundays his Gerrard Street club was used as a base for political discussions. Among the regular visitors to these gatherings were Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. Marke was also involved in organizing the Pan-African Conference in Manchester in 1945. The conference was chaired by W. E. B. DuBois from America, and, in addition to Marke, Nkrumah, and Kenyatta, the many delegates included Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey.

After the war Marke ran the Jungle Club in Soho, but gave up club life in 1956. He had a new family to support after meeting Elsie Dolphin (1928–1985), daughter of Herman Victor Dolphin, warehouse manager; they had five children, and eventually married on 22 January 1972. He found more secure employment as a boilerman at the duke of York's headquarters in Chelsea until he retired in 1968. He then documented his life as a black man in Britain in Old Man Trouble (1975). A revised edition entitled In Troubled Waters was published in 1986. Towards the end of his life he was interviewed for several television documentaries about black people in Britain including Here-Say (1990), a discussion programme about the participation of black people in the Second World War; Black Britain (1991); The Nineties (1993); and Forbidden Britain: Our Secret Past 1900–1960 (1994), in which he recalled the 1919 race riots in Liverpool.

Marke died in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on 1 September 1995, of bronchopneumonia and acute myeloid leukaemia. Val Wilmer described him as ‘Articulate and forceful … in constant demand to talk at conferences and gatherings of black Britons throughout the country, celebrated as a survivor and strategist who had never eaten humble pie nor bowed his knee to the white man’ (The Guardian, 16 Sept 1995). In 2010 the singer/songwriter Lizzie Nunnery opened her album Company of Ghosts with a military drum beat, setting the scene for ‘England Loves a Poor Boy (The Ballad of Ernest Marke)’.

Stephen Bourne


E. Marke, Old man trouble (1975) · E. Marke, In troubled waters (1986) · D. Henry, Thirty blacks in British education: hopes, frustrations, achievements (1991) · P. Thompson and G. Wood, The nineties: personal recollections of the 20th century (1993) · The Voice (20 Dec 1994) · H. Adi and M. Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester pan-African congress revisited (1995) · The Guardian (16 Sept 1995) · m. certs. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

under £145,000: probate, 3 May 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales