This wonderful fellowship’: The work of Talbot House and the Toc H movement with the British and Imperial armies in two world wars
‘This wonderful fellowship’: The work of Talbot House and the Toc H movement with the British and Imperial armies in two world wars.
Toc H is a movement, still existing today, which had its roots in the battlefields of the Great War. Talbot House, in Poperinghe, Flanders, had been set up by a chaplain, the Revd P.B. ‘Tubby’ Clayton at the end of 1915 as a rest house for troops just behind the line. It became a unique institution, referred to by the men by its signaller’s symbols, Toc H. At Talbot House troops could meet and “forget the war” relaxing in the garden and rooms, writing letters and engaging in debates and games. 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 private would sit down for tea and a yarn with an officer or general.
The heart of the house was the chapel, housed in a hop loft at the top of the House, “The Upper Room”. Tubby described its purpose:
Thus it was the homely beauty of the chapel, with it inward gift of hope and fellowship, drew many who had learnt their hunger in the grimmest school which the spirit of man has yet experienced.
At the end of the war Tubby rescued from Talbot House many scraps of paper with the names of people who had been communicants during the war. These were to be the “foundation members” of an organisation that was crystallising in his mind to perpetuate the work and ethos of Talbot House. The ethos of the movement was encapsulated in the “Four Points” of the “Toc H compass: “FELLOWSHIP - to love widely, SERVICE - to build bravely FAIRMINDENESS - to think fairly, THE KINGDOM OF GOD - to witness humbly,” and was called Toc H after the signallers wartime parlance for Talbot House. The movement spread quickly and by 1921 there were 70 branches in Britain.
Many of the troops that had visited Talbot House during the war had been from the Dominions, particularly Canada and Australia. In 1916 an Australian tunneling company took over the Hill 60 mining operations from the Canadians and were there until the mines were blown as part of the battle of Messines in June 1917 , and so Australians became a regular visitors to Talbot House
Describing the chapel at Talbot House Tubby mentioned that the font had been used for a great number of baptisms, Britons, Canadians , Australians New Zealanders and West Indians.
On October 17, 1917 Tubby wrote to his mother : “Many old Canadian friends Have turned up after a year’s absence and I can’t make my mind up whether I like them more than the Australians !” and continued “I had two British West Indian sergeants at communion the other week.” Writing on the 27th November he told his mother “I have a volunteer party of Canadian carpenters doing wonders day by day – real bright boys. The English are dull dogs in comparison!” A debate at Talbot House focused on “The colour problem” in the empire Two West Indian sergeants made excellent speeches to an audience composed of largely of Canadian and Australian troops. Tubby described this debate as “most interesting both in its matter and spirit.” In November 1917 Tubby conducted a baptism service for three British West Indian men who were sponsored by these same sergeants. The service was attended by a large number both of Australians and Canadian troops. Tubby mentioned that some Canadian tunellers were among the first Canadian troops to turn up at Talbot House having walked from Vlamertinghe on the chance of weekday service. The first Australian that appeared grumbled that a 7.30 celebration of Holy Communion was too late for him Tubby offered to have the service at 630. The soldier accepted and turned up the next day with 27 communicants from the Australian field ambulance. When they returned home, whether in Britain or further afield, men who had benefitted from their time at Talbot House formed groups of ex-servicemen, who seeing the growth of the Toc H movement, resolved to start groups of their own. Speaking to The Royal Empire Society in 1931 Tubby emphasised that “The whole atmosphere of Talbot House was from the first Imperial” and continued “It was an empire growth from the beginning. Canadians, New Zealanders. Australians, men who had never thought to set foot on English soil until they came to share an agony they could have easily avoided, created Talbot house and stood by its true spirit.” Tubby described how Toc H had taken started to take root in the dominions, not as a movement imposed from London, but considered that it the natural result of men who had known the fellowship of Talbot House in the war to attempt to replicate it in their own countries after the war: “The survivors, scattered in all parts of the world, who regarded Toc H as the turning point in their experience did not attempt to keep it to themselves, but were unanimous that they should transmit the truth of Christ in Flanders to the next and subsequent generations.”
During the 1920 s Tubby travelled widely to promote and support the Toc H branches that were beginning in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and India . Edward, Prince of Wales sent an open letter of support for the 1925 world Tour called “The Empire tour “: I would like all my friends in Australia and in the United Sates to have the chance of sharing in this wonderful fellowship. You will meet many fine men on your journeys and I feel sure that some of them will l receive the torch that you carry.
Canadians Tubby met on his tour were occasionally prone to think that Toc H was a Canadian invention. Someone said that “I hear that you are starting Toc H in England.” A group of men travelled from Chilliwack to Vancouver for a guest night and then back again to be in time for morning milking on their farms. At the outbreak of the Second World War Tubby was turned down for active service in the army as he was then 55 . However, admiral Ramsay was prepared to take him on and sent him to Scapa Flow. His headquarters was in Kirkwall on in a pre- war Toc H building which was to act as a centre for the welfare of naval personnel based and passing through Scapa Flow. A report in the Toc H Journal in November 1939 described the house as having three large rooms, a kitchen, and a dormitory for Tubby’s helpers and a large main room for the use of the troops. In Tubby’s papers there exists an account of his work in the time he was based in Orkney . The Toc H clubs set up in the Orkneys and served the men of the Atlantic convoys, who were defending Britain’s essential supply routes throughout the war. He was accompanied by Alison Macafie the ‘founder pilot’ of the League of Women Helpers who opened a home where men suffering from shock, shipwreck, exposure could recuperate. Alison later described the need for such a house: “For the men from ships, these bare, windswept distant Islands displayed no charm and provided little more than an unlovely base with few amenities.” Tubby described his job when visiting the ships: “ My task , when so invited in is to act as an old friendly priest, asked aboard as ships come in , at the conjoint invitation of the commander and chaplain. My invitation is a liberal one, and gives me one or two nights in the ship, so that I can arrange to call on messes and find old friends and add some younger men.”
In the meantime, Tubby, mindful of the bigger picture, appealed in the Toc H journal for all members serving in the forces to drop a line to Toc H headquarters giving their present whereabouts, as the movement was very keen to keep in touch with as many members as possible throughout the hostilities. Tubby’s Easter message 1941 emphasised: “Toc H must be prepared, through tribulation, to undertake to carry on its work through the great darkness into the time when the deliverance comes. It must be true to the traditions of its founders and carry its message through e service to the forces, wherever they may be.” At the end of 1941 Tubby had managed to get himself appointed to the tanker fleet as chaplain and was crossing the Atlantic and sailing in the Caribbean in large oil tankers, ministering to the men on board and trying to improve material and spiritual conditions. This was dangerous work. After nine months on tankers, Tubby spent the rest of the war travelling to support troops and sailors in the Mediterranean, Near East, Algiers ,Ceylon and Bengal
On September 26th 1939 Lord Halifax wrote to The Times in his capacity as one of the Vice Presidents of Toc H on the subject of the task of Toc H members in war time. He explained that Toc H could stand for “To conquer hate” and that he regarded the “varied work that Toc H had been possible training for what it is now undertaking.”
He described how Toc H was making “Its full contribution of men to the fighting services and all forms of civil defence.” He continued “Besides direct national service, Toc H is discovering and using a great many opportunities to serve the men of the Navy and Army and Air Force, the civil defence workers, the evacuated population, and indeed anyone in need of friendship. Its twenty-five houses and numerous local meeting places in this country and overseas are providing premises for such work and its available membership is being mobilised to carry it on.” Within four months of the outbreak of war 142 clubs and centres had been opened for troops and another for forty-three civil defence workers and evacuees. The annual report of 1940 described how in over two hundred places Toc H units had opened or were largely responsible for running, service clubs. A war services committee had been sent up and was appealing for funds to carry out the war work of the movement. Fifty thousand pounds was required.
Lt Arthur Denver described his experiences at Poperinghe in August 1939. Describing the last hours of the Old House. He was visiting the house as part of a training course ran by Paul Slessor to become ‘honorary wardens’. He remembered the week: “Beautiful weather and everything perfectly peaceful. taking tea in the garden in the sunshine gave no hint of war imminent. I firmly believed at that time that man could not be so foolish as to kill and desecrate again.” On 24th August he received a message from Paul Slessor asking him to come back to London immediately and later in the day another one came commanding him to return to his regiment amid an atmosphere of mounting tension in the house and the town, he took light and joined in prayer in the Upper Room. He then wrote in the warden’s log and caught a train to Dunkirk. (exactly five years and one month later on Sept 28th 1944 he was back in Poperinghe and spoke to Olida Berat who assured him that the lamp was safe.) Early in 1940 a group of Toc H members went with the British Expeditionary Force to set up service clubs in Belgium and France. Lt Col Bonham- Carter, Rex Calkin, general secretary, H.R Pilcher, R.H. Stanton and the Revd Austen Williams set out and established clubs at Lille, Douai and Rouen, with the intention of opining Talbot House again. However, the swift progress of the German army meant that the houses at Lille and Rouen had to be evacuated. On May 21st these five “after serving the retreating troops and evacuees too long for their own safety,” left the house at Lille, making for Rouen and were captured, becoming prisoners of war . In November a house was open in Reykjavik, Iceland under the leadership of Geoffrey Johnson and Alec Churcher, and shortly after Padre Owen Williams was put in charge of a club in Alexandria. These were followed early in 1941 by two new houses in Malta and a houses in Cairo and Alexandria . However, Harrington house in Gibraltar was destroyed by enemy action in September of 1940. A leave camp in Burma, Elephant Point, was particularly appreciated by troops who could not go home on leave from the eastern battlefields. The growth of Toc H clubs and house, in Britain and abroad was funded by the income from the clubs and by annual radio appeal which brought in £10,000 a year. Ken Prideaux Brune wrote: “Its work was widely known and appreciated and raising money for it was not a problem.”
When World War II broke out Toc H in Australia found a new focus. In 1940 A Club for Servicemen was opened in Sydney. It opened Services Clubs in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and in North Queensland in Townsville and Cairns. Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President of the United States of America, visited the Services Club in Townsville in 1943 to thank everyone there for all they were doing for American Servicemen. The club in Cairns was called Talbot House. It was situated across the road from the railway station and today is the Grand Hotel. These Clubs filled a real need for many thousands of members of the armed forces making their way to and from the theatres of war. They provided accommodation, including meals, and in each there were facilities for reading, writing letters home or simply relaxing. There was a Club in Port Moresby in New Guinea and there were fourteen Toc H Branches in Changi Prisoner of War Camp. In 1947 Toc H hosted the first Midnight Service on ANZAC Eve at the Shrine of Remembrance in Brisbane.When Tubby sailed to Suez in January 1944 he visited the local Toc H members and leaders. Despite the rapidly fluctuating and moving troop movements the average attendance at meetings was fifty men . Shortly after this he attended a Toc H meeting on Tehran. Throughput the war in Malta three Toc H houses were kept in operation. The permanent staff on staff on several troops ships formed Toc H branches . A report in 1943 spoke of a branch started in a dried up well. Censorship prevented a revelation of this location but the editor hazarded a guess it was in Libya. There were houses in Tel a Viv and Jerusalem . A worker in the house at Tel a Viv reported “There seems no end to the groups , circles , wings, call them what you will which have sprung up in the name of Toc H all over the middle East . Wherever Toc H members find themselves they have kept alive a desire to meet together, bring in their pals and keep alive the fellowship .” In the official services guide to Cairo , Talbot House in Cairo was described : “Talbot House , Toc H , seeks to provide an opportunity for a period of quiet home life for those who use its facilities. Lounges, reading and writing rooms, dining Hall, chapel and a hostel of 65 beds are continuously open. Toc H meetings for members, their guests and friends are held every Tuesday evening at 8.30 p.m. Tariff: Bed and Breakfast 15 piastres, Lunch and Dinner 10 piastres, Afternoon Tea 4 piastres. The original five Toc H members that had been taken prisoner in 1940 at Talbot house were added to as the war went on, By January 1942 there were 143 of them, 70 concentrated on Oflag vi b at Werburg . Toc H groups were formed in many POW camps in Germany and Italy , and men recruited and Toc H principle applied to making Life in the camps more bearable to all. The news of theses captive Toc H groups formed an article in most of the wartime Toc H journals In July 1944 Lt F.W. Morgan wrote to his father describing the activities of Toc H in France after the success of D day, and the efforts of Toc H members to create a canteen and rest and chapel .The group had weekly meetings. In a comment which augured well for the post war health of the movement he explained: “ are all very keen, there must be thousands of these fellows in the services now and it looks as if the movement will rapidly increase its members and strength when this wretched war is, at last , over. This letter was included in the September Toc H Journal under the heading “Toc H is back in France.” A report entitled ‘Back to the Old House’ had good news for the readers of the Toc H Journal : “Listeners to the midnight BBC news on September 7th 1944 heard Frank Gillard journalist and a Toc H member, announce that he had just visited Poperinghe and found the house intact.” In the journal a more detailed letter from Frank Gillard was quoted: “You will remember saying, when we met in London last May that I stood a very good chance of being the first member to return to that Old House. Yesterday the prophecy came true.” The November Journal reported that the house was not only open but used: “by our own men of the British Liberation Army. An R AF regiment had helped with the initial clean-up. They had managed to restore the chapel to a semblance of sanctity.” Kenneth Prideaux Brune assessed the contribution of Toc H in the Second World War: “The contribution of this small charity during the Second World War is a remarkable story. At no other period of its history was Toc H so well known or so widely supported.” The Toc H movement has links with veteran’s organisations and has been prominent in helping with remembrance throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. On Sunday 11 November 2018, 16 Toc H members marched at the Cenotaph in London and remembered both past members in the armed services and the service Toc H gave to others from all over the world in the First and Second World Wars .
An Address given by Tubby to the Royal Empire Society, March 10th 1931, included as ‘Toc H in the Empire’, a chapter in P.B .Clayton Earthquake Love (London, 1932), p. 13.
Letter from Tubby to his mother October 17, 1917.( London Metropolitan Archives, GLC/437 M/S 29959) Letter from Tubby to his mother October 27 1917. LMA:GLC/437 MS 29959,from Tubby’s Diary 17.8.41. Pat Leonard Diary of The World Tour Toc H Archives, Cadbury Collection, University of Birmingham Toc H Annual Report 1940, p. 8 . Toc H Journal , September 1944, p. 48. Toc H Journal , November 1944, p. 173.