On 11 December 1915, an ‘Everyman’s Club’ opened in Poperinge, Belgium. Named Talbot House, and soon after shortened to ‘Toc H’ (army jargon for ‘TH’), this was a place of rest for men from the trenches.
The club was founded by Philip Bryard ‘Tubby’ Clayton, an army chaplain, by his superior, Rev Neville Talbot. Whilst there were other rest houses for soldiers, Tubby wanted to create a ‘home from home’ and a place where the men could forget the war they were fighting just five miles away.
Tubby hired an empty house from a merchant in Poperinge. He named the house after Gilbert Talbot, the brother of Neville, who had died in the trenches July that year. Tubby was keen to promote Christianity in the club, which led to him creating a chapel in the attic room of the house.
Improvising an altar out of a carpenter’s table found in the shed and other found and donated furniture, Tubby created a space for the soldiers to take communion or pray by themselves. Many soldiers chose to take first communion there. For many heading back to the front, it might also be their last communion.
At Lambeth Palace Library a register is held of communicants and candidates for confirmation at Toc H between 1915 and 1917 (MS 3211). It gives us information about their names, rank, and sometimes regiment and civilian address.
Tubby wrote extensively about his experiences in Belgium. During the war he had a continual correspondence with his mother, to whom he describes the exploits of the House (these letters were rediscovered by Tubby after her death, and published in 1932). Not long after the war he began to write memoirs of his time at the House (Clayton, Tales of Talbot House, 1947).
In May 1916, Archbishop Randall Davidson travelled to Belgium to see the front and meet the soldiers. He made a visit to Talbot House to carry out a confirmation service. In his journal, Archbishop Davidson describes: ‘Guns firing outside… and the men presenting themselves for confirmation with obvious and unabashed earnestness, corresponding with the courage they show in thus coming forward among their fellows’ (Davidson 583 f.16). In turn, Tubby states in a letter to his mother: ‘Cantuar was perfectly delightful, and as simple as a Mission preacher with them’ (Clayton, Letters From Flanders Fields, 1932, p.59).
Although thirty-seven men were confirmed that day, Tubby mentions four in particular, although not by name, who were commanded by the recently killed Major Philbey. These four men, we can see from MS 3211, were Sergeant Hazelhurst, Corporal Hollies, Private Wyard and Lance Corporal Field. Within weeks of the confirmation, both Hazelhurst and Wyard had been killed in action (Clayton, 1932, pp.58-59).
The club caused such an impact on men such as these that after the house was closed in 1918 (when German troops were advancing on the area), those who had experienced it wished to maintain the spirit and fellowship of Talbot House, and so the charity Toc H was born. A new Talbot House was opened in London, and hostels were opened for people coming to London for work. Toc H has now developed into an international charity, focused on community work.
Clayton, P.B., Plain Tales From Flanders (Longmans, Green & Co., 1929)
Clayton, P.B., Letters From Flanders (Butler & Tanner Ltd: London, 1932)
Clayton, P.B., Tales of Talbot House (Toc H: London, 1947)