Poperinge Part Seven – Talbot House Part One

Talbot House.  Some of you have been telling me for more than a while now that I must visit, so let’s see what all the fuss is about.

A pre-war view of Gastuisstraat, with, on the left, No. 43.

Built by a wealthy family of hop traders (there’s a hop museum nearby) in the early 18th Century just off the main square, and owned by a local banker when war broke out in 1914, No. 43 Gasthuisstraat, or Talbot House, as it later became, was rented by the British Army when the banker and his family left for safer pastures after the house was struck by a German shell in 1915.

Now, there is a lot written about Talbot House, and some of you almost certainly know more about it than I do – one of you worked there, at least one of you stays there – so I am not going to give more than the merest outline of the history of the house here.  Suffice to say that the building was procured in 1915 by Neville Talbot, Senior Chaplain to 6th Division, who instructed Chaplain Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton (inset above, from the Talbot House website – please don’t sue me) to organise it as a soldiers’ club as an alternative to the (dubious) pleasures of the town’s other clubs, cafés & estaminets.

And there were an awful lot of British troops in Poperinge throughout much of the war.  Here a column files past the town hall sometime in 1915, I would think, judging by the lack of Brodie helmets to be seen anywhere in the picture.

Map of Poperinge that I showed you in the first post of this series, the town hall marked in mauve, and, in the top left, an orange square marking the location of Talbot House.

Officially opened in December 1915, the house is today accessed by the likes of us from the rear, through a door down a side street, and there’s a nice little museum too (and a very helpful guy running the show), which I will ask permission to photograph next time I visit, before one finds oneself in the garden, at which point…

…here’s one of those marvellous Nels postcards from between the wars, showing the house from the garden in the 1930s.  Originally due to be called, rather unimaginatively, ‘Church House’, advice from a visiting colonel (‘Church House? Won’t do at all – enough to choke anyone off.’) saw it officially named Talbot House after Talbot’s brother Gilbert, who had been killed on 30th July 1915 (we have visited Gilbert Talbot’s grave, at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, twice before on our travels).

Anyway, today the way in for us is through the back door,…

…into the conservatory,…

…where, in the room immediately to our right, which once hosted the canteen and a small shop where soldiers could buy many items – toothpaste, soap, cigarettes and so on – that made their time in the front lines more bearable, the original Talbot House piano can still be admired, and I defy you, even if you can’t play a tune, not to tickle a couple of ivories (well one, actually, in my case).

Had we entered at the front of the house, as the soldiers would have done a hundred years ago, this first room on the left, now the sitting room, was originally Tubby’s parlour when the house first opened.  In 1916 it became a tea-bar, and, late in the war, the library (though depleted of many books) would be briefly re-established here.  On the small table to the left…

…’Not To Be Scrounged’.

Today a portrait of Tubby Clayton hangs over the fireplace.  The lower right of the four black & white photographs shows a very tall man and a much shorter man, Chaplains Neville Talbot & Tubby Clayton respectively, standing outside the front door of the house.

Looking through the sitting room doors towards the back garden, the dining room immediately beyond us (‘the airless room……was never wholly certain of its functions.  One month it was the shop, and then the card-room, and finally a narrow shrine for billiards’), and the conservatory beyond that.

In the hall, the original welcome board – note the mention of a visitor’s book.

Climbing the stairs to the first floor…

…these gongs – the Cadenza Chimes – were used to summon worshippers to the chapel on the top floor of the building; the brass plate gives the order in which the gongs need to be struck to play ‘The Westminster Chimes’.

Along with bedrooms – stretcher beds and blankets – the first floor once held the library, and the Chaplain’s room, over there on the right, around which the whole house revolved (not to be confused with its foundations which, Tubby would enigmatically say, were in the roof).

‘All Rank Abandon Ye Who Enter Here’.  Talbot House was a place of no rank and no orders.  Tubby insisted that all who stepped across the portal would be treated, and could expect to be treated, the same.  Quite why the British Army acquiesced to such fanciful notions is a moot point.  But they did.  Because, I suspect, they were British.

Tubby’s writing desk,…

…and the other artefacts you see are, of course, original……although possibly not Duchess, the Talbot House cat.

And continuing our recent theme, several deserters gave themselves up in this room, ‘in the childish hope’, Tubby recounted, ‘that I could in some way undo what they had done’.

A treasure not on display – the original visitor’s book (photo courtesy of Morag).  1,300 signatures in just the first four months!

Another set of stairs take us up to the second floor,…

…where the landing is bare, although the wall ahead decidedly isn’t.  Sometime in June 1916 in Ypres, Tubby Clayton purchased an unfinished oak carving of the Last Supper which he intended to place in the Talbot House chapel.  It never got there, mainly because he was so concerned that it would get damaged that he took it back to England with him soon after.  It did eventually find its way to Talbot House in 1930 and was placed here on the second floor, where it has been ever since, barring the Second World War years, when it was hidden for safekeeping.

Otherwise, there were more bedrooms on this floor, and one more set of stairs,…

…steep ones, these, and well-trodden,…

…taking us up into the Chapel, or Upper Room, on the third floor, and the reason why Tubby Clayton referred to the true foundations of the house being in the loft.

In the early days of Talbot House’s existence, it was the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, billeted nearby, who transformed this loft into a chapel,…

…as this plaque remembers.

Over the ensuing years, many thousands would come to the services held up here, often more than a hundred at a time,…

…during which the chapel often ‘rocked like a huge cradle’, the rickety floorboards groaning under the strain, necessitating frequent instructions for the congregation to stagger their movements, a most unsoldierly thing for the men to grasp, to prevent the whole thing from collapsing!  The two tall candlesticks in this shot were made by a Canadian R.G.A. driver, who fashioned them from the posts of an old bedstead and presented them to Tubby in the autumn of 1917.

The smaller, central, candlestick was donated by officers of the K.O.Y.L.I. in memory of one of their brother officers, and serves as a stand for the Winton Font.  A small china replica of the old black font at Winchester Cathedral, it was originally sent from England to Tubby’s mother in Australia in the early 1880s, and was used for Tubby’s christening in 1885 (Tubby was actually born in Queensland, Australia, to English parents who returned to England when he was two).  Once in France in 1915, he encountered any number of men who had never been baptized, and so on the opening of Talbot House, he requested the font be sent to Poperinge where he installed it in the Chapel.  More than fifty men, British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and British West Indians, were baptized here during three years of war.

The famous carpenter’s bench that Tubby Clayton found in the garden shed in 1915, and which served as an altar from then onwards.

Two wooden crosses flank the altar,…

…on the left,…

…the original cross that once marked the grave of Gilbert Talbot at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery.  The tale of its appearance at Talbot House is a curious one; at some point in the mid-1990s, so the story goes, a ring at the doorbell was answered, except there was no one to be seen, just a black bin-bag lying on the doorstep, and within the bag was Gilbert Talbot’s original wooden battlefield cross.

On the other side of the altar, another wooden cross,…

…that of an unknown British soldier.

Organ,…

…and what was known as the Groan Box.  This portable harmonium was brought back to Talbot House in January 1916 by a British major who would later be killed on the Somme.  Now I don’t wish to be a conspiracy theorist, but I have a major question about this particular harmonium, and it is as follows.  In 2000 a fine addition to the Cameos of the Western Front series of books was Paul Chapman’s ‘A Haven in Hell’, and I thank him for it.  However the photograph of an old harmonium that features in his book appears to bear little resemblance to this one.  Why would that be?

Before we head back downstairs,…

…a second wooden grave marker,…

…and tributes left by visitors.

Returning to the first floor, the Chaplain’s Room in the background,…

…the door on the right, and the detectives among you may have worked this out already, once leading to the permanent home of the library.  Tubby: ‘To imagine the Talbot House library you must conceive a very large cupboard, or a very small room, literally so crammed with books that the librarian himself could sometimes scarcely enter. To borrow one of these books you left your army cap in pawn, and took the volume to any part of the house or garden where you spied a comfortable chair or a corner unappropriated.’

Back to the ground floor and the hallway where, instead of showing you my signature in the visitor’s book in 2019,…

…I’ll show you Harry Patch’s signature from 2008.  And other worthies (thanks again Morag).

Friendship Corner.  ‘Nuff said.

‘Smile without a reason why’.

Tubby’s potted-history of Talbot House,…

…and his message to all.

Back in the garden – ‘the largest room of the house’, as Tubby referred to it – the building over there is the Slessorium (the what?), built in the 1930s, actually, and we shall have a look inside next post.  It was also here in the garden that tragedy occurred on 16th May 1916, when a German shell from somewhere on the Pilckem Ridge landed in the garden, the explosion blasting sideways through the conservatory, and killing an unfortunate Canadian sergeant who was writing a letter home.  That man was for many years believed to be thirty nine year old Serjeant G. J. M. Pegg, Canadian Army Service Corps, buried in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery, but it seems that recent evidence has now ruled him out.  Tubby mentions that the dead man was writing home with his brother (my italics), which surely, as we know the man’s date of death and probable rank, can’t make it too difficult to identify him.  Anyway, of the tens of thousands of men who crossed the portal to Talbot House, he was the only one who never left.

I started this post by saying that it would contain but the merest outline of the history of the house, and being true to my word, there has been no mention of the neighbouring hop store, taken over in 1916 when the number of men visiting the house became simply too large for the space inside, and which subsequently served as a place for larger church services, concerts, films, debates and lectures, as well as hosting poetry readings, comedy spots, magic turns, much of which was accompanied by the house orchestra – and still does!  Nor of the abandonment of the house for four months following the German Spring Offensive in 1918 as Poperinge suffered its heaviest shelling of the war, the remaining civilians were evacuated, and the town put out of bounds to soldiers.  Nor anything about the post-war years, although at the time I imagine that no one, apart from Tubby, had any idea that there would be any post-war years for Talbot House.

And thus over Christmas 1918 the house was finally closed, its contents transported to England, and the keys returned to the Belgian owner.  But Tubby had a vision, and in November 1919 he founded the Toc H* movement, promoting ‘friendship, service, fairmindedness and the Kingdom of God’ and spent much of the next decade spreading the word worldwide, but he never gave up hope that Talbot House would one day be reopened for pilgrims to the battlefields and for old friends to meet over a cup of tea, and, by the late 1920s, with a little luck and a generous benefactor, all this did indeed come to pass.  Even the hop store concert hall was eventually bought by the movement, but not until 1996!

*Toc – army signallers’ code for the letter ‘T’, as in Talbot, and ‘H’ for house.

Before we finish, a few extras.  Firstly, not only did Nels produce the postcard I showed you earlier of the exterior of the house, they also took their camera indoors; you can doubtless work out which room is which from my photos.

That’s how I usually read a book; standing up, casually, at a tilt, legs crossed, often near a doorway……

And second, a couple of montages of British troops, and the damage caused by German shells or bombs in Poperinge.  Unfortunately, images of the town in 1918, when it sustained its greatest damage, are impossible to find – hardly surprising because, as I mentioned earlier, the remaining civilians had been evacuated and the town was out of bounds to all troops at the time – but these pictures show that even in Poperinge, although a good eight miles behind the front lines at their closest point and never subjected to the devastation we have seen in towns and villages further east, you could just as easily be in the wrong place at the wrong time as anywhere else in Flanders.

Three of these postcards mention Furnes Street – now Veurnestraat, or if you prefer the N321 – which leads north from the main square in Poperinge and runs pretty much parallel to the old front line.  The German gunners seem to have got the range pretty well.

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13 Responses to Poperinge Part Seven – Talbot House Part One

  1. Morag Sutherland says:

    Blessings from a former warden….Scottish of course

  2. Steven Hearnden says:

    An amazing place. Must have been a bright light in very dark days.

  3. Morag Sutherland says:

    I forgot to mention that the original guest book has been digitised and is available on Talbot house website

  4. margaret draycott says:

    Brilliant post M have visited there twice but knew so little of its history and the people involved. Fascinating story about the wooden cross. It is a very peaceful place and you can see how it would be a great place for some soul restoration

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you M. The book that is mentioned is well worth getting, if you wish to read more – there’s one on Ebay for £6.22 free postage as we speak.

  5. Jon Trasler says:

    We visited this summer as part of our latest stay in Ypres. It’s an evocative, fascinating and moving place to spend some time in. The way it shows another side of the war and what it must have meant to all those who spent time there is something all modern visitors to the area should take time to experience.

    Excellent post as ever MF.

  6. Pete Jones says:

    A brilliant post MF; it’s probably 20 years since I was there and it looks reassuringly familiar; I’ve heard very good things from friends about staying there. If anyone asks me what is Toc-H I’ll be able to give the link to this article. And how poignant is Harry Patch’s signature?

    • Morag Sutherland says:

      Pete we were lucky that on our stint as wardens the new visitors book had been donated by a firm from Yorkshire from memory- I just looked back and there it was and my husband took a picture which I was more than happy to pass on the wonderful man who runs this site…….all the best for 2020

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Pete. I am hoping to return to Talbot House, oh, how about a week tomorrow. If plans pan out the way they should.

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