A Living Memorial –Talbot House as ‘A living Memorial ‘ The Revd Philip “tubby” Clayton (1895-1972) became famous for setting up what has been described as “A Haven in Hell” at Talbot house in Poperinghe in 1915 and running it as rest centre to which all were welcome and in which rank was irrelevant. At the end of the war he decided to set up the Toc H Movement to perpetuate the work and ethos of Talbot House. The Revd G. F. Macleod ( 1895 - 1991), writing in 1927 in an article “What is Toc H?” claimed: “We seek humbly to create a living war memorial, something alive and eager and outgoing.” The term ‘living memorial’ was one that Tubby used often. In 1919 Tubby’s aim in starting the Toc H movement was to continue into civilian life the ethos of equality and friendship that had prevailed at Talbot House. He aimed to perpetuate the active service atmosphere of fellowship and to extend to the younger generation the legacy of the Talbot House tradition of service thought and conduct. The story of the Toc H movement in the 20th century was that of holding in tension the remembrance of the dead, who Tubby called “The elder brethren” and the determination to so shape society that it should be a fitting memorial to their sacrifice.
Talbot House was opened in December 1915 as a response of the army authorities and the Army Chaplains Department to the lack of recreational facilities at Poperinge. The town was growing rapidly as it was a main rail head and was used for the moving of supplies, for billeting troops, for casualty clearing stations and for rest areas for troops out of the front line. Thousands of troops passed through this the town during the course of the war. In 1916 and 1917 there were about 250,000 British soldiers in and around Poperinge although it had only had a population of 20,000 in peace time. It became known as “Little Paris”. The Revd Neville Talbot, (1879 1943), senior chaplain to the Sixth Division, called upon the Revd P.B.’ Tubby’ Clayton to take charge of setting up a house which would provide an alternative to the estaminets and brothels of the town. With his outgoing and slightly eccentric personality and his facility for getting on well with officers and men, Tubby, who since arriving on the Western Front early in 1915 , had been stationed at no 16 base hospital at Le Treport ,seemed the ideal man for the job.
The new venture was called Talbot House originally as Talbot had instigated its existence but it was Neville Talbot’s wish that it should be called this in memory of his brother Gilbert Talbot (1891-1915), who had died at Sanctuary Wood in July 1915. By 11 January 1916 over a 100 officers had stayed at Talbot House and by February 200. The officers were charged five francs for board and lodging “On the Robin Hood principle of taking from the rich to give to the poor.” Although in the house generally the conventions of rank were observed , an egalitarian atmosphere prevailed, especially in Tubby’s study, which had a sign saying “All rank abandon ye who enter here” and where a private would sit down for tea and a yarn with an officer or general .
The discipline of the house was achieved not by military means but by getting its visitors to cooperate by means of what Tubby called “Light hearted little notions that arrested the reader’s attention and won his willingness on the right side. ” Notices abounded. Some examples were “If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, pleases spit here”, “The waste paper baskets are purely ornamental ‘by order ‘’, and “To pessimists way out.!” The chapel remained the heart of the house and Tubby recorded many gifts from men and officers which helped to give the chapel its special atmosphere. Tubby calculated that for more than a year there were seldom less than 100 communicants weekly, and that more than 10 thousand officers and men received communion in the chapel over the course of the war. 800 were confirmed there, some making their first and last communion on the same occasion, and 50 were baptised. The debates organised in the house prefigured one of the tenets of the later Toc H “to think fairly’. The debates gave Tubby an opportunity to absorb the thoughts and opinions of the wide spectrum of British male society that passed through the doors of the house. The egalitarian rules of the house were popular with the men and prompted Tubby to reflect on quality in state and church at home. The ethos of unstinted welcome and hospitality was one which earned Tubby the names ‘Boniface’ or ‘The Innkeeper.’
During March the German Army launched its offensive and the British Army retreated across Passchendaele and were close to Ypres. The house came increasingly under bombardment but despite the nearness of the German army, Tubby kept the house open. He wrote on 24 April: ‘Folk are thankful that T.H. is still open and my opportunities for spiritual work are great.” . The house was eventually closed on 15 May 1918, but reopened in September 1918. The last and only recorded address given in the Upper Room was given on the 21st Sunday after Trinity during the final advance of the allied armies. Tubby talked about ‘The Hope of Immortality’. In this address he examined the difficulty of speaking to the realities of friends and comrades who had died. Although Talbot House was returned to its owner in 1918, Poperinghe and the Ypres salient became the focus of Tubby’s battlefield pilgrimages. In 1920 Tubby took a small party of friends to visit the battlegrounds of Ypres, at a time when the countryside had not been restored to any great extent and battlefield debris was still to be seen in the fields. As a result of this visit, Toc H published The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Ypres Salient. In 1931. Lord Wakefield bought the property outright for the Toc H Movement . Talbot House was not meant only as a shrine of remembrance, but also as a place where new generations of pilgrims and Toc H members could learn about the war and in learning, remember. This role the house continued until the Second World War when Poperinghe was occupied by the German army. The furniture and effects form the house, including the chapel were spirited away by the local supporters of Toc H just before the house was requisitioned and saved for the post war reopening in December 1944. Talbot House was back in business and opened its doors to the fighting men of the Second World War just as it had done in the First. Talbot House has continued to be a beacon of hospitality to visitors of Ypres Salient in the years since the Second World War, and a practical help to those who wished either to revisit the scene of their war service, or to visit the graves of relatives. Its cosy kitchen giving a peaceful refuge to tourist and pilgrims, presided over by volunteer wardens from Toc H who continue the custom of providing endless cups of tea to visitors. The Old Hop Store was listed as an official monument in 1998 and restored. A new museum has been opened on the ground floor, with an exhibition which provides a vivid portrayal of war time Poperinge called “Life behind the lines” and the concert hall on the second floor has also been restored. The house itself is largely unchanged, with notices and pictures dating from the Great War. Visitors can still chuckle at Tubby’s signs and look at a reconstruction of his study. The garden, which played such a large part in the lives of wartime visitors to Talbot House has been restored to its original layout and planting. The heart of the house remains the chapel, which retains a vivid sense of “such a cloud of witnesses.” To climb the narrow steps and emerge into the chapel is to enter momentarily a world in which so many men worshipped and found comfort before facing the front line. Before his death Harry Patch, the last British soldier survivor of the war, visited Talbot House and talked about his memories. He was the last surviving human link between the war time world and ours but Talbot house continues that link in its work or remembrance and education.