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EARLY SETTLER

How an English shipwright, became a successful pastoralist and a trusted civil servant.

History Hub | Talbot House

Talbot House: one mans compassion during wartime

FEATURE

It has often been referred to as one of the most infamous killing fields on the Western Front during WWI. There was however, one place in which those return soldiers, could find some relief from their traumas - Talbot House.

Mr. Ray Geise, OAM and Tanya McColgan | Published 24 February 2024

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The Battle of Ypres was a series of engagements during the First World War, near the Belgian city of Ypres, between the German and the Allied armies (Belgian, French, British Expeditionary Force and Canadian Expeditionary Force). During the five engagements, casualties had surpassed one million. It has often been referred to as one of the most infamous killing fields on the Western Front during WWI.

There was however, one place in which those return soldiers, could find some relief from their traumas - Talbot House.

Talbot House was named in memory of Gilbert Talbot, son of Edward Talbot (1844-1934), Bishop of Winchester, who had been killed at Hooge in July 1915. It was founded by Gilbert's elder brother, Neville (1879-1943), who was a senior army chaplain, and Reverend Philip Thomas Byard Clayton (1885-1972), known as 'Tubby'. The name 'Toc H' is an abbreviation for Talbot House: 'Toc' signifying the letter 'T' in the signals spelling alphabet used by the British army during the First World War.

At first the club was called “Church House”, but Colonel Reginald May proposed - despite the Head Army Chaplain Neville Talbot's protest - to call it “Talbot House” after Gilbert Talbot, Neville’s brother who died on 30 July 1915. Gilbert Talbot became the symbol of a “Golden Generation” of young men who sacrificed their lives in the war.

The town of Poperinge lies ten kilometres behind Ypres and was therefore at the heart of the old Western Front and was a busy transfer station where troops fighting on the battlefields of Flanders were billeted. Thousands upon thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers trudged down the road from Ypres to go ‘on the Pop’ in Poperinge for some rest and recuperation.

Talbot House was designed to be an 'Every Man's Club' where all soldiers, regardless of rank, were welcome. The house was open to men and officers alike. What made Talbot House so special from 1915 to 1918, was its Chapel, known to everyone as ‘'The Upper Room'.  This was located in the loft above the third floor. It was non-denominational, and it was, as one young soldier wrote later, "a room so sacred to many of us that it grows more hallowed with the passing of the years". The altar in the Upper Room was a simple carpenter’s bench. Queues stretched down the stairs and often out into the street for services held in the Upper Room and over fifty thousand signatures appeared in the Communicants’ Rolls kept by Tubby.

Talbot House was built by the wealthy hoptraders of the Lebbe family in the 18th Century. Maurice Coevoet, a local brewer, bought the house in 1911. In 1915, after the house was struck by a German shell, he decided to leave for a safer place with his family. Soon thereafter, the house was rented to the 6th division of the British army. It was here that Chaplain Philip "Tubby" Clayton opened a soldier’s club as an alternative for the often controversial nightlife in the rest of the city.

In 1920, Clayton established Toc H in London, after a acquiring a property in Queensgate Place, Knightsbridge, Clayton opened the first Toc H hostel designed as a home for men coming to London for work but having nowhere to stay. The property quickly proved too small and they soon moved to a larger house in Queensgate Gardens - this was named, in army fashion, Mark 1. By 1921 there were three Marks in London. The first outside London was established in Cheltenham.

 

Further branches of Toc H were also established in other countries across the world, including Australian branches in Victoria and Adelaide, during 1925. In December 1931, the first Mark Australia was opened in Albany, Western Australia.

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"All rank abandon, ye who enter here."

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Everyone who entered Talbot House did so as a member of the human race and not as a soldier or officer. Orders were also prohibited in the house. Tubby insisted that Talbot House had to be a place where people could forget about the war for just a moment. The sign next to the front door saying: "To pessimists, way out!" speaks volumes in this respect. The house is full of similar signs that, by making something clear in a humorous way, subtly takes away the need for orders. Keeping a soldiers club without order and discipline might seem impossible, but by doing this, Tubby succeeded none the less.

Tubby Clayton wanted to offer something that was different to the more obvious pleasures that were available to the soldiers. He created a chaplains’ centre in a beautiful four-storey hop merchant’s house. With the aid of Private Arthur Pettifer – always known as the General – they created a heaven and haven in the midst of the extraordinary hell. The chapel in the upper room with the carpenter’s bench ‘scrounged’ by Pettifer would see literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers climb the vertical staircase to the attic-chapel.

The spirit of Talbot House was encapsulated in the motto ‘Abandon rank all ye who enter here’. Over the door the sign still reads ‘Everyman’s Club 1915 – ?’ Tubby’s spirit of whimsy and good fun was reflected in little sayings posted on the walls: ‘Come upstairs and risk meeting the chaplain’; ‘if you are in the habit of spiting on the floor at home, then do so here.’ Perhaps the most poignant was at the back of the house which read ‘Come into the garden and forget about the war.’ Tubby and Pettifer also took the spirit of Talbot House to the trenches themselves being a familiar sight in a motorcycle and sidecar with a harmonium on Tubby’s lap.

Above all, however, it was a place in which everyone was welcome, there was much fun and laughter and real and lasting friendships were formed. Friendships develop often when people find themselves having to cope in very difficult situations and the Western Front in this part of Belgium was one such place. Everyone who entered through the door at Talbot House was greeted with a smile and a firm handshake. Right from the beginning, Talbot House was unique and this was evident from a sign displayed within it which read: "‘All rank abandon, ye that enter here." It was a true ‘'Everyman’s Club.’ Tubby’s great sense of humour pervaded the whole place, and for many, it was a home away from home.

Soldiers, on the whole, loved being in the Army and were very aware of the risks they take. The commitment alone does not make things easier for their families, but it does provide a set of unique circumstances in which special relationships can develop. Tubby Clayton recognised this and had the spirit and inspiration to develop a real sense of brotherhood and friendship. This spirit may not necessarily be Christian, but nevertheless there is a very deep spiritual need, questioning and yearning in all people and soldiers in particular often have time to think about life and the reality of life’s big questions at a very young age.

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The Rise of a Movement

Toc H attracted the patronage of Sir Alexander Paterson, Sir Henry Willink and Gilbert Keith Chesterton. During these early years, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) later known as the  Duke of Windsor was an active supporter and appeared at many annual festivals. 

 

After his abdication annual festivals and events  were attended by the late Queen Elizabeth II and her mother.  The movement was granted a Royal Charter in 1922, the same year Clayton became the vicar of All Hallows-by-the-Tower in London. 

During the 1920s Toc H spread around the world, especially to the Commonwealth countries. Toc H was initially only open to men, but under the leadership of Alison MacFie (photo), the League of Women Helpers (L.W.H) were established to support Toc H work. The L.W.H developed an active role in Toc H, especially during the Second World War when many men were away fighting. The L.W.H, later became known as the Women's Section and merged fully with the men's movement in 1971.

By the 1940s and 1950s the movement was large and powerful although contained few young members. In the late 1950s a Project scheme was established where young people could volunteer with environmental work, play schemes and work with the elderly, disabled or disadvantaged.

The Lamp of Maintenance

The Toc H Lamp became a symbol of the light of fellowship, that soldiers visiting Talbot House had experienced in the darkness of war.

The Lamp of Maintenance was a symbolic representation of the vitality of the Toc H movement and the light it brought into peoples’ lives, but it was also utilised in the rituals of the organisation. Each Toc H meeting began with the lighting of the lamp and a short prayer for those killed in the Great War. Each new Toc H branch received a lamp lit by the Prince of Wales(photo). The lamps are decorated with the double cross which is also appear in the arms of the city of Ypres. The Latin inscription reads “We will see the light in Your Light.”

​During the 1920s, Toc H spread around the world, especially to the Commonwealth countries. In 1923, the then Governor General of Australia, Lord Forster wrote to Tubby Clayton indicating that he and Lady Forster wished to endow a Toc H Lamp, the symbol of Toc H, in memory of their two sons who were killed during World War I. He also added that he was trying to get Toc H started in Australia. In the following year, a Lamp was lit by H.R.H., the Prince of Wales and Patron of Toc H, at a Toc H Festival in the Albert Hall in London and it was named the Forster Lamp. It was brought to Australia by Padres Tubby Clayton and Pat Leonard in 1925 and given to Lord and Lady Forster.

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About Tubby Clayton

The Reverend Dr Philip Thomas Byard Clayton (1885-1972), known to his friends as Tubby was born December 12, 1885 in Queensland, Australia. Tubby Clayton was best known for his work initially as an army chaplain during the First World War and in particular the founder of Toc H.  

 

Tubby, studied at St Paul's School, London and Exeter College, Oxford. After ordination as a priest of the Church of England, he served as a curate at St Mary's Church, Portsea. During the First World War, he became an army chaplain in France and Flanders, where, in 1915, he and another chaplain, the Rev Neville Talbot, opened Talbot House  - a rest house for soldiers at Poperinge, Belgium.

 

In honour of Tubby’s friend, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot of the Riffle Brigade who was killed in July 1915,  Talbot House  was named in his memory. 

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