Lovely to have Adam here today, talking about something very close to may heart: Toc H.
My book BETWEEN NOW AND THEN is a love story with a smattering of time-travel, with the characters existing in a kind of no-when or double-time between 1916 and 1991. That’s the ‘elephant in the room’ dealt with, and I mention it here only to introduce the subject of the remarkable Talbot House in the small Belgian town of Poperinge, which was the origin of one of the (thinly-disguised) locations used in the story. I had the good fortune to visit Talbot House some years ago (1998) as part of a tour of the battlefields, and it made a very considerable impression on me.
Tucked away in a relatively quiet side-street – and, if I remember, almost directly opposite a wonderful patisserie – Talbot House has an imposing frontage with a pair of elaborate wrought-iron gates. Inside, it could be almost any British bed-and-breakfast or family-run hotel from the first half of the twentieth century, although as it’s a working building rather than a museum time has not completely stood still. It isn’t luxurious, however; it’s utilitarian – it might almost be described as ‘basic’ – but for men coming out of the line and desperate for a little time to recover, to behave like normal human beings for a while, it must have been absolutely perfect. In fact, it’s a half-way house between the privations of war and the comforts of home – and far enough away from the one to serve as a gentle reminder of the other.
The story of how Talbot House was founded, as a sort of rest centre or hostel, is well-documented. Two Army chaplains, Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton and Neville Talbot, set it up in the second half of 1915 and named it after Talbot’s younger brother, Gilbert, who had been killed earlier that year. It was intended as an ‘Every Man’s Club’ where servicemen from all ranks and a variety of social backgrounds could mingle and forget about the war for a while, and it soon became popular enough to acquire the nickname ‘Toc H’ – which persists to this day, and which derived from radio signals parlance of the time as a way of rendering the initials ‘T. H.’.
As well as enjoying a night in a proper bed with sheets and blankets – which was no doubt welcome after the hazards of billeting in tents and trenches – men could take meals there and engage in a number of benign social activities which were a deliberate contrast to the somewhat racy night-life that apparently existed in Poperinge at the time. There was a lending library where a man’s uniform cap acted as his ticket – he would never dare be seen on parade without his cap, and therefore did not fail to return his library book – and a large garden used for everything from discussion groups to choir practice and even the very British pastime of gardening. On the top floor, accessible by a steep staircase little better than a ladder, a chapel was installed with a simple carpenter’s bench serving as the altar – powerfully symbolising the robust practicality of everything the two chaplains had set out to achieve.
In due course, many years after the war, Toc H developed into a wider Christian community with the emphasis on ‘fellowship and service’. Successive administrators have seen this remit expanded to include international branches delivering help and support wherever it is needed. Toc H pioneered talking newspapers for the blind, for example, and were associated with setting up the National Blood Transfusion Service – and Chad Varah, who founded the Samaritans, was an alumnus of Toc H. The organisation has been involved in famine and disaster relief throughout the world, and in less ambitious projects on British soil such as providing servicemen’s (and women’s) canteens, co-ordinating voluntary efforts on every scale from the modest to the truly heroic.
None of this could, of course, have been imagined back in 1915 when Clayton and Talbot took their first steps towards providing a place of refuge for officers and men temporarily standing down from active duty. Their concern at the time was the immediate one – of supporting soldiers who would almost certainly have to return to the war before long, and to give them as far as possible the physical and spiritual resources they needed to survive.
It is still possible to stay at the original Talbot House, and for a surprisingly modest price. While most of us will mercifully never know what it feels like to be a serving soldier caught up in an unimaginable global conflagration, we can – for an hour on a tour, or for an overnight or longer stay – experience the down-to-earth practicality and tranquil ambience of Toc H for ourselves, offering some glimmer of insight into the sanctuary it afforded a previous generation in a time of utmost need. If ever there was a way of stepping directly into the shoes of the men of the First World War, then a visit to Talbot House in Poperinge is surely it.