Talbot House, or Toc H as it was known to many, was a club house in the Belgian town of Poperinge. Toc H (gunners’ signalling code) was the idea of padre Philip ‘Tubby Clayton’, who had decided it was important to create a place for soldiers away from the Western Front that would provide peace and relief from life in the trenches.
The house was named after Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, who was killed in July 1915 in Ypres. His brother, Neville, was a senior Church of England chaplain who had been asked to find many more chaplains to join the front line battalions. It was during this search that Neville found Clayton, who’s soon attached to the East Kent and Bedfordshire regiments and arrived in Poperinge towards the end of 1915.
Clayton soon came up with the plan to create a place that was strictly dedicated to the relaxation and peace for soldiers - a place “where friendships could be consecrated, and sad hearts renewed and cheered, a place of light and joy and brotherhood and peace” - and Neville supported him in this quest.
Before long, Clayton was able to rent out a town house from a wealthy local for 150 francs a month. The house had been damaged by shellfire and was in need of repairs, but the Royal Engineers completed the world by December 1915. Clayton ensured that rank counted for nothing inside the building - the house was open to all who were to go up to the front line, as well as those who needed a break from the trenches.
The loft was quickly transformed into a chapel and the makeshift alter crafted using a carpenter’s bench remains there to this day. Unlike some of the rooms downstairs, where song and laughter were encouraged, the chapel was a place for peace for those who were aware that their chances of survival on the front line were very small, and Clayton described his services there as very “difficult”.
Despite the serious nature of some of the offerings, Clayton also tried to create a “home-from-home” feel, providing the soldiers with rugs, vases and flowers whenever possible. At the peak of the house’s use, there were 17 staff members working at Toc H to cope with the number of men who wanted to use it. Over a sixty minute period, arrivals could stretch up to almost 120 men.
One soldier, Harry Patch, described what the house meant to those living in the trenches:
“A lot of us used to call it ‘the haven’ because that’s exactly what this place was to the men – a place of peace where you could relax, and that’s the only time you could forget the strains of war for a couple of hours.”
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