Talbot House or Toc H is in the Belgian town of Poperinge. Toc H (gunners’ signalling code) was the idea of Philip ‘Tubby Clayton’ who wanted to create a place where soldiers on the Western Front could find some peace and quiet when they were away from the trenches. The house was named after Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot who was killed at Ypres in July 1915. His brother, Neville, was a senior Church of England chaplain who had been tasked with finding chaplains to join battalions at the front line. It was while carrying out this task that he came across ‘Tubby’ Clayton who became attached to the East Kent and Bedfordshire regiments. Clayton arrived in Poperinge in late 1915.
It was Clayton’s idea to find a house where soldiers could relax as much as was possible given their circumstances. In this quest Neville Talbot supported him.
Clayton himself summed up the philosophy of what was to become Toc H:
It was a place “where friendships could be consecrated, and sad hearts renewed and cheered, a place of light and joy and brotherhood and peace.”
Clayton managed to rent out a town house in Poperinge from a wealthy local brewer for 150 francs a month. The house had been damaged by shellfire – the loft in particular needed repairs. The Royal Engineers did this work and by December 1915, Toc H was ready to be open. Rank counted for nothing in Toc H and the house was open to those who were about to go up to the front line as well as to those who had a break from the front line trenches.
A chapel was made in the loft. A carpenter’s bench was used as a makeshift altar and it remains in the loft to this day. Whereas the rooms downstairs were full of song and laughter, the chapel was different. Clayton was very aware that many of the men who arrived for a service would be killed in battle. He was also aware that many of the men who arrived for one of his services also knew that their chance of survival on the front line was very small. Clayton described these services as “difficult”.
As much as was possible given the proximity to the front lines, Clayton tried to produce a ‘home-from-home’ effect. The house was done out in rugs and in what must have been a curious sight for soldiers used to the mud of the trenches, as many vases of flowers as was possible.
The garden, however, had a reminder (if the soldiers needed one) as to just how close they were to the front line as a shell hole could be found in the lawn at the back of the house.
At its peak, seventeen staff worked at Toc H to cope with the number of men who used it. On one occasion, the staff there counted arrivals over a sixty minutes period. It came to 117 men.
“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.” (Harry Patch)