During the First World War Talbot House, known to British soldiers as ‘Toc H’, was an oasis of sanity amid the carnage of the Western Front. Thousands passed through its doors searching for a safe space where they could, as much as possible, forget the horrors of the trenches. Founded in the town of Poperinghe (known to British troops as ‘Pops’) in 1915, it was a place where rank counted for nothing and its organisers actively encouraged their visitors to treat it as home from home on a ‘Our house is your house’ basis.
The founders provided entertainment, a library, a little food and, possibly most important of all to battle-weary men after time in the trenches, peace and quiet. The break from conventional military discipline was as important as the break from the fighting to the men who went there. Regardless of status, whether you were a muddy-soaked, louse-ridden Private fresh from the trenches or a General making an official visit, you left your rank and social status at the door. Everybody was to be treated as an equal.
‘Toc H’ was devised by an Army chaplain, the Reverend Philip Thomas Byard Clayton. He ‘Captain Clayton to other officers and simply ‘Tubby’ Clayton to the thousands who passed through Toc H. The soldiers called it ‘Toc H’, Army signals terminology for ‘Talbot House.’ It was named after Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot of the Rifle Brigade (brother of fellow chaplain and co-founder Neville Talbot). Gilbert was killed in action on July 30, 1915 (99 years ago today, as it happens) and after initial opposition, Neville agreed that it be named after his late brother.
Being chaplains, although not ignorant of soldiers sometimes being a rough and ready bunch, Clayton and Talbot wanted to provide something for them that didn’t involve boozing, brawling and brothels. What they achieved was what they called an ‘Every Man’s Club’ with a large sign by the door stating clearly:
‘All rank abandon, ye who enter here.’
From Privates to Generals, infantry, artillery or cavalry, it simply didn’t matter. Even giving orders was firmly discouraged within its walls. ‘Toc H’ wasn’t just a place where soldiers could try and forget the war. It was a place where they could try to forget they were soldiers at all and just be ordinary people. Even General Sir Hubert Plumer admired its purpose and acknowledged its unique value to its visitors. British Army Generals aren’t usually known for tolerating the unorthodox and relaxing of military discipline and protocol, but Plumer openly admired its total reversal of military convention. Long after the guns finally fell silent, the dead had been buried and the survivors returned home Plumer paid it a highly unusual compliment, writing in 1929:
‘In all my experience I have never known a place as vital to morale as Talbot House.’
‘Toc H’ offered a number of different ways to wind down. The loft was converted into a chapel with makeshift altar and even an small organ for the religiously-inclined. If you enjoyed reading you could use the library, leaving your cap badge as a deposit while you borrowed a book and simply settled down for a while. If you wanted to take in a show then the storehouse had been converted into a small theatre (when it wasn’t in use for larger religious services). Illusionists, comedians and poets plied their trade along with lectures, discussions and you could even take in a movie if there was one showing during your visit. It even had its own house band and acting troupe for music and plays. The garden was a very popular spot as well, simply to sit and read and think, or perhaps jjust stroll around and see something other than mud and mayhem. Once you’d done a stint in the trenches and returned alive then you could take some time out, remind yourself that there was still a world outside of the battlefield and the war, remind yourself that you were still human. After a bath, some decent food, a little rest and some entertainment, you could feel like a free agent, not a very small cog in a much larger machine.
It didn’t end with the Armistice. On November 11, 1918 the guns finally fell silent and the ‘war to end all wars’ was finally over. ‘The story of ‘Tubby’ Clayton and ‘Toc H’ wasn’t. Today the original ‘Toc H’ still exists and is still open to visitors. From individuals to group bookings, anybody passing through Poperinghe can visit and it also has accommodation if you fancy a slightly longer stay. You can find out more about it here:
Toc H is also the name of a worldwide charitable institution, active in a number of different countries around the world. ‘Tubby’ Clayton had returned to England when the war ended, but what he called ‘The Old House’ still occupied his mind. He set up a peacetime equivalent in London and from ther the Toc H charity extended its reach. It now has members and branches in the UK, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Belgium, France and other countries. The charity provides support to many people in need. The original ‘Toc H’ was renovated and is now a living museum. If you want to know more about the charity then do visit their website here:
The original ‘Toc H’ was an oasis of sanity amid the nightmare of the Ypres battlefields, a small safe space where body and mind could recover a little from the constant stress, fear and hardship. That it continues today along similar lines, although in different form, is perhaps the best tribute to its founders Chaplains Talbot and Clayton and to those thousands of men for whom it was perhaps their last place to rest and relax before they marched up the line and didn’t come back.
It’s well worth a visit if you should happen to be passing by. Thousands of young soldiers can’t be wrong.