In 1915 army chaplain the Reverend Phillip Byard (Tubby) Clayton was sent to France and then on to the town of Poperinge in Belgium. Sitting a few miles back from the trenches around Ypres (nowadays known by its Flemish name Ieper), Pops, as the soldiers called it, was a busy transfer station where troops on their way to and from the battlefields of Flanders were billeted. Clayton, universally known as Tubby, was instructed by his senior chaplain, Neville Talbot, to set up some sort of rest house for the troops.
Renting a hop merchant’s house, temporarily vacated by its owner – to use as his base, Tubby decided to steer away from the traditional church club and set up an Everyman,s House. It was named Talbot House in honour of Gilbert Talbot (Neville’s brother) who had been killed earlier in the year. Of course, soldiers being soldiers, Talbot House soon became known by its initials TH, and then, in the radio signallers’ parlance of the day as Toc H. It opened on 11 Dec 1915.
Tubby ensured the house was open to men and officers alike. He created a library where soldiers could check-out a book by leaving their cap behind as a ticket. Tubby was a shrewd man and knew that no soldier would dare report for duty without a cap so he always got his books back. There was a large kitchen where much tea was consumed, a beautiful walled garden where men could sit and forget about the war for a while, and eventually, in the attic hop loft, a chapel where regular services were held. It was this chapel or Upper Room which became a focal point for many and was known as the ‘heart’ of the House. Some had their confirmation here and many attended their first communion in this special place. Sadly, for many, their last communion would be held here.For most of the Great War Talbot House offered an oasis of sanity to the men passing through Poperinge. Not only could they socialise but Tubby also organised debates and concerts. Men could post messages for their missing comrades and hope they too might stop at Talbot House and see them. What was clear though was that the Talbot House promoted a special feeling of fellowship with those who rested there awhile.
When peace came, Tubby was sent to England to find premises for a Test School for soldiers who wished to be ordained (eventually settling on the old Knutsford jail). However, the Fellowship of Talbot House was strong in Tubby’s heart and in 1919 he finished his work at Knutsford to return to London. His dream was to open a new Talbot House where the fellowship and camaraderie of the original house could be rediscovered. Gathering around him many of the men who had passed through Talbot House during the war, he set about his plans. The first committee met in November 1919. They decided to drop the name Talbot House as there was already such a place in South London, so they adopted the soldier’s nickname of Toc H as the new name for their movement. All those who had visited Talbot House during the war became the Foundation Members (including a small handful of women).
Acquiring a house in Queensgate Place, Knightsbridge, Tubby opened the first of Toc H’s hostels which was to be home for men coming to London for work and having nowhere to stay. The house quickly proved too small and within a few weeks they moved to a larger house in Queensgate Gardens which was named, army fashion, (Talbot House) Mark 1. Within the Mark, men could share the fellowship that Tubby so wanted to rekindle. Soon, the Marksmen, as they became known, took to carrying out some form of service in the community near the Mark and so two primary aims of Toc H, Fellowship and Service were being fulfilled. As men left the Marks (there were already three in London by early 1921) and returned to their home towns, they set up groups of Toc H to carry out service locally. After a period of probation a group would be elevated to a branch and (after they were introduced in 1922) granted one of the famous lamps.
The earliest statement of the aims of Toc H was drawn up by Tubby with the Rev ‘Dick’ Sheppard of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Alexander (later Sir Alexander) Patterson early in 1920. It was revised in 1936 and again in 1967. It is known as the Four Points of the Compass and is now summarised thus:
Four Points of the Compass:
1. FRIENDSHIP: To love widely. To provide members with opportunities to develop a spirit of understanding and reconciliation.
2. SERVICE: To build bravely. To enable members, with their varying gifts, to serve their fellows.
3. FAIRMINDEDNESS: To think fairly. To bring to members the knowledge and experience of others.
4. THE KINGDOM OF GOD : To witness humbly. To work for a better world through the example of friendship, service and fair-mindedness.
Toc H grew quickly and attracted the patronage of many well known thinkers and socialists of the time (Alexander Paterson, Henry Willink, G. K. Chesterton etc) . As well as delivering a variety of social service, Toc H also debated the great issues of the day. Through Tubby,s influential contacts it got its foot through the door of many great schools and used this as a means of showing young people the Toc H way. The Prince of Wales was an active supporter and appeared at many annual festivals to light the lamps of new branches and also promoted Toc H when he toured the Dominions.
In 1922 Toc H was granted a Royal Charter and in 1925 Toc H Australia held the first World Chain of Light, a 24 hour vigil where lamps are lit around the world. This still goes on today on December 11th/12th.
Although Toc H was only open to men, there were a few women who had been nurses in the war and had known Talbot House. Under the leadership of Alison MacFie they established the League of Women Helpers to support Toc H’s work. They would gradually take a more active role in the work of Toc H particularly during the Second World War when many of the men were away. They later became Toc H (Women’s Section) and eventually merged fully with the men’s movement in the early 1970s.
In 1930, thanks to the generosity of Lord Wakefield, one of Tubby’s dreams came true when the original Talbot House in Poperinge was bought for the movement. It remains in the hands of the Talbot House Association, an Anglo-Belgian organisation.
By the 1930s there were many thousands of members across the world and many hundreds of branches. The work was varied. Tubby was very closely associated with LEPRA and many Toc H men went to work in the leprosy colonies of Africa. Toc H was also one of the key organisations involved in the birth of the National Blood Transfusion service. The Toc H Showmen’s and Stockmen’s tent became a regular sight at fairgrounds and agricultural shows. It was not just a place to get a cup of tea but also share some of that fellowship Toc H was famous for. Toc H started providing commentaries of football matches for hospital radio. There was little enforced guidance on the branches as to how their service should be expressed and so the variety of work was immense.
However, in 1939 things were to change. Like most organisations, many of Toc H’s members were called to fight. Those who were left (along with The League of Women Helpers), turned their attentions to helping the war effort by starting Service Men’s Clubs both at home and abroad in the theatre of war. For many future members this would be the way they came to Toc H.
When the Second World War ended Toc H started to get back to its bread and butter work. Nevertheless it continued its association with the forces and set up some highly popular servicemen’s clubs with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) and elsewhere where British servicemen were stationed.
Another innovative scheme started soon after the war was the Winant Clayton Volunteers named after Tubby and John Winant (the American Ambassador to Britain during WWII), this is an exchange programme for young Americans and young British people.
Although a large and powerful Movement in the 1940s and 1950s, Toc H struggled a little to attract the younger member. So in the late fifties the Project scheme was begun. This asked branches to establish a series of short (weekend) and longer residential projects to which young people could be invited to volunteer. So began another golden period with hundreds of Toc H projects being delivered each year. It included environmental work and other manual projects; play schemes; and work with the elderly, blind, disabled, carers, deaf, those with mental health problems, disadvantaged children and others through existing institutions and organisations or by providing holidays.
In 1962 the women’s movement introduced Martha, a motor caravan which travelled the UK carrying out specific community work. This included Operation Landlord where the women literally knocked on people’s doors seeking accommodation for overseas students.
The branches did not slack either. Whilst some may have adopted the ideas of others and collected spectacles for the Third World or knitted clothes for premature babies, others were more innovative. In Enfield the first ever Talking Newspaper for the Blind was a Toc H project.
Toc H padre Chad Varrah went off on his own to start the Samaritans and branches across the country set up flashing light alarm schemes in their boroughs, the homespun precursor of the systems used by many old or vulnerable people today.
The early 1970s was a period of change for Toc H. In 1971 the men’s and women’s movements merged and a new Royal Charter was issued to reflect this. The project scene was thriving, the BAOR Servicemen’s clubs were doing very well and there were still several hundred branches. However, by the end of the twentieth century things were starting to change.
Membership was in decline as people grew older and branches were closing. Increased legislation made it less attractive for branches to organise projects. Historically Toc H staff had supported the membership but now activities became increasingly staff led. There were efforts to win contracts to run services for local authorities and attempts to make the fairly extensive property portfolio profitable. However, this was a fundamentally different way of operating for Toc H and though there were successes, ultimately it failed to compete adequately in this way. After several tranches of redundancy, Toc H trustees and members finally accepted that a radical rationalisation was required. This is underway and Toc H expects to emerge from a period of disarray to become a stronger, voluntary Movement still guided by the original ethos founded in Talbot House almost a century ago.