Mike and Diane Wilson -
Free Spirit Writers
The Birth of Toc H
“Talbot House is upside down, for the foundations are in the loft.”
That is what Philip “Tubby” Byard Clayton said of the Chapel in Talbot House. But this is halfway through our tale. Let me take you back 90 years to the beginning of the world wide Christian fellowship (known as Toc H), and its famous lamp.
On 10th November 1915, Philip Clayton (Chaplain, fourth class) was sent to work with the British Expeditionary Forces in Belgium. He was to work with Neville Talbot somewhere in the Ypres Salient. That ‘somewhere’ was Poperinghe. Poperinghe was one of the few ‘free’ towns in the Salient. It was within range of the German big guns and was shelled intermittently as it was on a main route to the front, and at times, had as many as 250,000 men, horses, transport, guns and even London buses in its streets at once.
Philip and Neville had the task of finding a house to rent to start a homely club for the troops passing through the town. On 11th December they found a place on Gasthuisstraat belonging to M. Coevoet Camerlynk, a wealthy brewer. They were able to rent the house for 150 francs a month. This was to be the famous “Every Man’s Club” or, as it is famously known, Talbot House. The Toc H name was the signallers’ code: 'Tock' for T and 'Aitch' for H (today it would be Tango Hotel).
Talbot House opened its great white doors on 15th December 1915 and was an immediate hit. Philip Clayton, known by all as “Tubby,” began in earnest to make the house a ‘home from home’ for the battle-weary men who sought the doors of Talbot House. As the days passed the house became busier and busier. Over the door of Tubby’s room hung a scroll ‘All Rank Abandon Ye Who Enter Here.’ It was to be the very essence of Talbot House. The sign still hangs there today at the House, now a living museum.
However, back to the tale. The men who trooped into the House found that it was a place where they could relax and write home in comfort. There was even a library. Tubby was an excellent scrounger and had obtained many books. He did not want them to go missing and devised a pawn system for the borrowing of books. A soldier would hand over his cap for a book; before he left he needed his cap, so back the book would go and the man could retrieve his cap. This system worked so well that many of the original books are still in the archives.
When Tubby said “the foundations are in the loft,” he was referring to the fact that the chapel or “upper room” is in the roof of the house. When Tubby was searching for an altar he came across an old bench in a shed. He told the men “I have found my altar.” The National Westminsters, the soldiers there at the time, were aghast that such a filthy thing could be considered for this purpose. Tubby told them “Christ was a carpenter. What better for an altar then a carpenter’s bench?” The men said no more and carried it to the Chapel. The top of the same bench remains there today, preserved under glass.
There were many men who received communion at that altar and for many of them it was their first and last. Now they rest in Flanders fields in the numerous cemeteries. At times during the war years there would be up to 500 people in the house waiting to attend Mass. Some men were even confirmed there; it is thought around 800. Sometimes the Upper Room would be filled to bursting with an incredible 170 men attending services. The fragile timbers of the loft led to Tubby to pronounce that “at times the chapel rocked like a cradle.” The atmosphere of the Chapel radiates down and through the House. It must have also been so in those dreadful times for the things which it stood for were part and parcel of everyday life below. It is still so today.
Tubby wanted the men to feel ‘at home’ but he still needed to have house rules. He made signs that were scattered around the house. They included such quotations as ‘If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, please spit here,’ ‘The wastepaper baskets are purely ornamental,’ ‘No swearing aloud hear.’ These, and others, showed Tubby’s wry sense of humour and enhanced the positive, tidy and healthy atmosphere of the house. The most well-known sign is near the door with an arrow pointing back out to the street. The sign reads ‘To Pessimists - Way Out.’ Tubby wanted no long faces in his house. These signs and others can still be seen today.
The garden was a haven for the soldiers, who even indulged in a little of the Englishman’s pleasure of gardening. The men sat in the sun, read and relaxed encouraged by the sign ‘Come into the garden and forget about the war.’ The men who returned home brought with them grim memories, but for those who visited Talbot House memories of a white house with ornate doors were treasured. So Tubby gave the men what they most needed, “a little bit of home.” The tradition was that each soldier entering the house would be offered a cup of tea.
For everybody who goes to stay as a resident at Talbot House that tradition still lives. Yes, you can stay at the House for very reasonable rates. It is self-catering but with the excellent shops nearby catering is no problem. It is an excellent base for battlefield tours and exploration of the area and of course a few quiet moments in the Chapel are a must. My husband (Mike) and I go to Talbot House as volunteers for three weeks each year to be wardens. It is not a job; I consider it an honour.
Visit the Talbot House website at www.talbothouse.be