Toc H

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Talbot House at Poperinge, Belgium

Toc H (TH) is an international Christian movement. The name is an abbreviation for Talbot House, 'Toc' signifying the letter T in the signals spelling alphabet used by the British Army in World War I. A soldiers' rest and recreation centre named Talbot House was founded in December 1915 at Poperinghe, Belgium. It aimed to promote Christianity and was named in memory of Gilbert Talbot,[1] son of Edward Talbot, then Bishop of Winchester, who had been killed at Hooge in July 1915. The founders were Gilbert's elder brother Neville Talbot, then a senior army chaplain, and the Reverend Philip Thomas Byard (Tubby) Clayton. Talbot House was styled as an "Every Man's Club", where all soldiers were welcome, regardless of rank. It was "an alternative for the 'debauched' recreational life of the town".[1]

In 1920, Clayton founded a Christian youth centre in London, also called Toc H, which developed into an interdenominational association for Christian social service.[2] The original building at Poperinghe has been maintained and redeveloped as a museum and tourist venue.[1] Branches of Toc H were established in many countries around the world. An Australian branch was formed in Victoria in 1925[3] by the heretical Rev Herbert Hayes.[4] Another was formed in Adelaide the same year.[5]

Toc H members seek to ease the burdens of others through acts of service. They also promote reconciliation and work to bring disparate sections of society together. Branches may organise localised activities such as hospital visits, entertainment for the residents of care homes and organising residential holidays for special groups.

The organisation suffered a progressive decline in membership and closure of branches during the later 20th century. In 2008, continued operation was ensured by dispensing with paid staff. In the 21st century, Toc H trustees have planned for it to become a stronger, voluntary movement still guided by the ethos of the original Talbot House.


Foundation in World War I[edit]

At the outbreak of World War I Neville Talbot, a senior Church of England chaplain in the British Army, sought to recruit chaplains who would minister to the battalions on the front lines. One of his recruits was the Reverend Phillip Byard Clayton, who was assigned to the East Kent and Bedfordshire regiments. In 1915 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), Poperinge (or "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 Neville Talbot to set up some sort of rest house for the troops.

Clayton chose the Coevoet house – temporarily vacated by its owner, a wealthy local hop merchant - to use as his base, paying rent of 150 francs a month. The house had received significant damage from shellfire, especially the hop loft and the garden. Repairs were begun in September by the Royal Engineers. It opened on 11 December 1915.

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 Lieutenant 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.

View of the Upper Room at Talbot House
The Upper Room at Talbot House, Poperinge

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.

The focus of religious services and devotions was a chapel created in the attic, known as the "Upper Room". After the war's end, in 1918,

the interior of the Chapel was sent to London, and temporarily displayed in the crypt of All Hallows-by-the-Tower. From the concise guidebook Clayton compiled for its visitors, we learn why precisely these objects had to be taken home, and why they would return to Poperinge in 1929.[6]

For most of the Great War Talbot House offered an oasis of sanity to the men passing through Poperinge. Clayton tried to produce a ‘home-from-home’ effect by doing the house out in rugs and, in what must have been a curious sight for soldiers used to the mud of the trenches, as many vases of flowers as was possible. 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 Talbot House promoted a special feeling of fellowship with those who rested there awhile.

Interwar years[edit]

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 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.

At the same time as the Marks were being established (there were already three in London by early 1921) other Foundation members were setting up branches across the UK and elsewhere. The first outside of London was in Cheltenham. Starting out as a group, bands of men would awarded a Rushlight and later would be elevated to a Branch and granted one of the famous Lamps (which were introduced in 1922).

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.) . George MacLeod was one of Toc H's first chaplains but left in the early 1920s as Toc H would not come out strongly for intercommunion. He went on to form the famous Iona Community. Another key figure in the early days and a chaplain amongst many other things was Martin Patrick Grainge Leonard, commonly known as Pat. He accompanied Tubby on several of his trips around the world promoting Toc H.

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. This area of work greatly expanded when Toc H took over the Cavendish Association, an organisation formed prior to World War I to involve public schools in social work in slum areas. Significantly, Toc H acquired the Cavendish Association's secretarlhindle wakes y - Barclay Baron - along with the organisation. Already a Foundation member from his time with the YMCA in Flanders, Baron would become a stalwart member of Toc H editing its monthly publication, The Journal, for many years.

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 11/12.

In 1922 Tubby became the vicar at All Hallows-by-the-Tower where he was incumbent for 40 years. This led to the church become Toc H's Guild church and to Tubby's long-standing interest in Tower Hill. This move also marked a change in role for Tubby who had been driving the movement forward since its inception. Wishing to allow Tubby to step back from this role, the Movement installed former British administrator from India, Peter Monie as Honorary Administrator of Toc H.

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 BELRA (British Empire Leprosy Relief Association) which later became 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. The Movement also continued to attract or produce many well known thinkers and crusaders such as Alan Paton.

World War II[edit]

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.

Postwar years[edit]

When the Second World War ended Toc H returned to its pre-war functions but continued an association with the forces. It set up some servicemen’s clubs with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) and elsewhere where British servicemen were stationed.

Another 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 American and British people.

Although a large movement in the 1940s and 1950s, Toc H struggled a little to attract younger members. To address this, the Project scheme was begun in the late 1950s: branches established a series of weekend, and sometimes longer, residential projects intended to attract young volunteers. Hundreds of projects were run annually, covering environmental work and other manual projects, play schemes, and work with groups such as the elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged children.

In 1962 the women’s movement introduced Martha, a motor caravan which travelled the UK carrying out community work. This included Operation Landlord where the women sought accommodation for overseas students. In Enfield, the first ever Talking Newspaper for the Blind was a Toc H project.[7] Toc H padre Chad Varah went off on his own to start the Samaritans and branches across the country set up flashing light alarm schemes in their boroughs.

The 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.


  1. ^ a b c Talbot House in Belgium Index page of Belgian Talbot House tourist site
  2. ^ Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable Cassell, London 2001
  3. ^ Toc H Australia at Norman House website
  4. ^ Hayes, Herbert Edward Elton (1882 - 1960) Founder of Toc H in Australia (at Australian Dictionary of Biography)
  5. ^ (6th) Birthday of Toc H (South Australia) Letter to the Adelaide Advertiser, 28 July 1931. At Trove, National Library of Australia
  6. ^ Exhibitions & Activities at Belgian Talbot House tourist site
  7. ^ Point 3 (The magazine of Toc H) Aug 2005 p11

See also[edit]

Toc H (R) Public School


  • Clayton, P. B. (1919). Tales of Talbot House 1915-1918. London: Chatto & Windus
  • Baron, Barclay (1946). The Birth of a Movement 1919-1922. London: Toc H
  • Rice, Judith, and Prideaux-Brune, Ken (1990). Out of A Hop Loft - Seventy Five Years of Toc H. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. ISBN 0-232-51895-5
  • MacFie, A.B.S. (1956). The Curious History of Toc H Women's Association. London. Toc H Women's Association.
  • MacFie, A.B.S. (1960). The Further History of Toc H Women's Association. London. Toc H Women's Association.
  • Toc H Royal Charter and Byelaws. 10 June 1971 (As amended 16 July 2002).

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]