As Dim As A Toc.H. Lamp

A PEACE OF FLANDERS




Talbot House, Poperinge, Belgium.

This piece is derived from a booklet by Bertin Deneire 1993, published by De Kalproos Editions, Klinieklaan, B-8630, Veurne, Belgium.

In 1997 I found out about Toc.H. and the lamp that I was classed as dim as; but surely I could not hope to be such a symbol as this particular lamp, I only wish I could.

Talbot House truly is a peace of flanders. A hostel, a rest-house, a club and a chapel, T.H. (or Toc.H. in Morse Code) was founded in 1915 in Poperinge in Belgium by two priests for the benefit of the allied troops in the area. The word troops meaning 'all-ranks', equally treated, and equally expected to treat each other in the same way. Rank was left at the door, but I'll let the extracts from the book speak for themselves.

Talbot House

The Full Facts

For almost the whole duration of the Great War the small Belgian town of Poperinge remained one of the few free towns in Flanders.

In the meantime it became a kind of garrison town, catering for and providing entertainment to the British Army that defended the Salient to the north and east of Ieper. This is one of the reasons why two enterprising chaplains founded a soldiers' club. On 11th December 1915 The Chaplains, Neville S. Talbot and Philip Byard Clayton, rented a gentleman's disused house in Gasthuisstraat and started to organise a rest and recuperation centre for the thousands of Tommies stationed in the area. It was called Talbot House after Gilbert Talbot, the promising young brother of Chaplain Neville Talbot, who was killed in a nearby village of Zillebeke. He became a symbol of the sacrifice made by countless young men defending the Salient.

Chaplain Philip "Tubby" Clayton

The hall, Talbot House.
The house was an instant hit and became a haven of peace and friendship for its thousands of residents and visitorsparticularly because of its "Everyman's" and "All rank abandon" atmosphere atmosphere devised by Chaplain Philip "Tubby" Clayton who steered the home from home atmosphere.

Talbot house eventually gave birth to a social movement Toc H. which is now a world wide caring society running all sorts of projects for deprived and needy people. The house itself is now a living museum and also serves as a self - catering guest house.

The foundation of the house still causes controversy. It's said that Neville S. Talbot who was a Senior Army Chaplain, and Philip Byyard Clayton, a minor padre, were approached by H.Q. to set up a club- slightly similar to Y.M.C.A. centres in the area to provide a refuge or R&R Centre (Rest and Recuperation.) It was named Talbot House after Gilbert Talbot, Neville's brother who was killed nearby. Eventually the house and society which evolved from it were nick named Toc H. after the signallers pronunciation of the shortened title T.H.

Two Other House Contributors.

Charles (later Viscount) Wakefield of Hythe bought the house and the "Pool of Peace" (Formerly known as "Lone Tree Crater") at Wijtschate and on 25th April 1930 gave them to the newly founded "Talbot House Association".

However it was Major Paul Adolphe Slessor who seemed to act as a front man for Lord Wakefield as it was Slessor whose name was used in the purchase of the house from Mr. Coevoet 20th December 1929. and in the donating of the house 27th October 1930, although it seems to have been Lord Wakefield who did most of the fundraising. Wakefield was an oil baron who owned the "Wakefield Oil Co" later to become Castrol, and was Lord Mayor of London in 1915.

Slessor was instrumental in the return of the treasures and furniture of the house after the Second World War and welcomed many visitors and tended the gardens and generally looked after the place until his death in 1949.

Daring Deeds

In early july in 1940, it became known that the Germans were to rquisition the house and, despite a curfew at 11-00 pm the Berat housekeepers, friends and sympathisers moved and hid all the treasures and souvenirs in their homes and gardens. All the furniture, including the piano was moved out and the Germans were said to be furious when they found the house deserted the next day. The altar plate was spirited away to the bank in the square where it was hidden in the vaults by the manager Mr Maurice Baert. The Lamp was buried in the garden of the Secretary of the Talbot House Association, Mr Arthur Lahaye who also hid some of the bigger pieces of furniture in his brewery stores and some people even had special hiding places built to conceal items. He pointed out to the German commander that the requisition had not mentioned furniture in the notice and he presumed some of the local people had taken items for their own use as they were in need.

The house was occupied from July 13th 1940 by the german navy, The Kreigsmarine, and later became a female Navy billet during which time some of the local lads took a very keen interest in keeping their eyes open on what was going on in their "beloved house".

The Germans left the house on the 6th september 1944 and it was at this time that the house was really in danger as they had wired the house for demolition on their withdrawal but it appears they didn't have time as they left only at the last minute. They did however start a bonfire in the ground floor but two locals ran into the house and put out the fire before it got a good hold. After the troops left the furniture and fittings reappeared as before complete with the valuables.

One item didn't reappear till 1983 when the warden Charles Swan was digging in the garden and unearthed the Cherubs head which was salvaged from the organ loft of St Martin's Cathedral in Ieper in the first world war and used to hang over a door post on the second floor.. It had lain hidden for over 40 years.

The Chapel In The Loft Or "The Upper Room".

Tubby Clayton used to say that Talbot House was upside down as it had its "Foundations" in the loft which of course was perfectly correct if one took the word foundations to mean a spiritual one. There were many soldiers who took the opportunity to be confirmed during the war and according to Tubby he mentions the figure of 800. Besides the British these included Jamaicans and some Chinese from Hong Kong who were in Belgium really as a labour corps and were non combat.

There are many artefacts still remaining in the chapel, including a small china font which was used in the upper room and a small portable organ or as Tubby would say a "veteran groan box" which was transported around in a sidecar for field services. The altar is very appropriate being an old, much used carpenters bench which he found in the garden shed. Men of The Westminster Rifles who he got to carry it up into the Upper Room to act as an altar were horrified that he was going to use such a thing but Tubby soon reminded them that Christ was the son of a carpenter so why not use a carpenters bench for an altar.

The simple oak cross on the wall at the side of the altar was the grave marker of Gilbert Talbot who the house is named after. He was killed at Zillebeke just east of Ieper on 30th July 1915 and the cross had been missing for many years and the mystery remains as to who had it all that time.

There are many, many more items to see at this haven of peace and you will certainly need more than the very short time we had to look round but do take the time to drop in to visit and DO buy some of the books and cards before you leave as it is so important to the income of the house and so worth while to be able to perpetuate the memories which are here so fresh.


Talbot House is available as 25 single bedded accommodation (in units of 2 to 5 per room) between mid February and Mid December. This is on a self catering basis using a self contained well equipped kitchen. Cost at June 1997 was :

1 night 500BF Per Person.
2 nights 450BF Per Person Per Night
3 nights Plus 400BF Per Person Per Night

 


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