Talbot House – “All Rank Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here”
The first thing we saw at Talbot House was the garden. It was spacious and green, with beautiful flowering shrubs all over the grassy lawn. Butterflies flitted everywhere. It felt like a haven, and I let out a nice exhale. In my first five minutes there, I saw why so many soldiers from the Great War and the nearby Ypres Salient found peace at Talbot House. As Sgt. Jacob Bennett of the Scots Guards wrote of his own visit – “In April 1916 I spent two happy days at Talbot House, and in that Garden, where all was Peace in the midst of war.”
The story of Talbot House is a very moving one, and I stumbled on it by chance while researching for my WWI historical-fiction novel. In an interesting coincidence, we also stumbled on the place itself by chance in Belgium. While my husband and I explored Ypres, I saw a sign for Poperinghe, only a few miles down the road, and I immediately thought of Talbot House. Since we had a car, we decided to make the side track. And wouldn’t you just know it? For both my husband and me, the impromptu visit to Talbot House proved one of the highlights of our trip.
Nicknamed “Toc H” by the British army, Talbot House came into being in December 1915, thanks to a British Army Senior Chaplain, Rev. Neville Talbot. He wanted to provide the British troops in Poperinghe with a place to escape the horrors of war, yet also stay clean from the evils of vice. Rev. Philp B. Clayton, a chaplain from the 16th Brigade known affectionately as “Tubby,” was tapped to run the new establishment.
People didn’t only praise him for his rounded gut. Reverend P.B. Clayton also won ample admirers for his complete lack of military decorum. Instead of a stuffy uniform, he preferred breeches, puttees and his signature blue blazer. He had a casual air and sense of humor that drew in scores of war-weary trench boys. He displayed a deep and personal interest in their welfare, and he didn’t only care about them finding religion. Boys found they could talk to him about anything.
One soldier, Signaler Henry Whiteman, remembers the profound effect Clayton had on him during his one visit with the reverend – “I had memories of battles, bombardments, blood and hate…I sat glum and filled with hate for the Germans and the whole set up. I was alone and just bottled up all this… Up came a Padre, who turned out to be Reverend PB Clayton. “Come soldier,” he said, “nothing is too sour but it can be sweetened.” He sat with me awhile, and… said a simple prayer… All that he said changed a hateful heart to a grateful one.”
Whiteman’s charming tale is one of many about the compassion of Reverend Clayton, and he didn’t keep his work confined to Talbot House. Clayton often packed up his memorable portable organ and traveled to the most dangerous parts of the front. He especially loved visiting boys who had visited his Poperinghe sanctuary, and he played them hymns on his organ. He never minded the danger to himself, he only wanted to bring a touch of home to a place where hell reigned deep.
With Clayton’s dedication, by 1917, Talbot House provided a home away from home for countless people on the Ypres Salient. The “every man’s club” didn’t stop short at soldiers either. It had also opened its doors to nurses from the nearby hospitals, and even some of the local children found comfort within its walls.
Talbot House catered to so many because of its famous creed – anyone was welcome, and rank counted for naught. Military hierarchy and barking orders were not welcome in Talbot House, a strict rule evidenced by the adjusted Dante quote Clayton hung above his office door (see title of this article!) The protocol created scores of friendships among men and women who wouldn’t normally associate with one another. Captains and privates sat together for tea parties. They huddled together at the maps in the foyer and spoke of the places they had been and the battles they fought (today, their fingerprints remain visible on those maps). They played the piano and sang rousing numbers together in the “Canteen Room,” which had ample supplies of fresh tea, cocoa, and cakes. The garden was also a popular place to mingle. Its lush grounds were a sight for many sore eyes that saw only ripped up ground, mud, and death.
Other rooms in Talbot House boasted many other delights. A room in the nearby hop barn had been converted to a theater, where soldiers put on their own entertainment with music, show numbers, instrumental bands, and comedy sketches. Clayton himself participated in many of these shows. Those not in the mood for theater could retreat to the reading room, stacked with mountains of books, magazines, and periodicals. Soldiers borrowed books in exchange for their hats, so, the room always had a humorous heap of army hats at any given time.
The writing room sat just off the reading room, and soldiers corresponded there with sweethearts and families back home. They could also leave a note at the “Friendship Corner” to connect with friends and family. Almost like a WWI-era Twitter feed, this large parchment on the wall downstairs, where soldiers left messages and contact information for loved ones, helped many people reconnect. Clayton witnessed many teary reunions in Talbot House Parlor between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, and long-lost friends that hadn’t seen each other since the war broke out.
One of these reunions involved Lance-Corporal Quin, who visited Talbot House and saw his brother’s name scrawled on the Friendship Corner parchment. Quin hadn’t seen his brother since 1914, and the note showed he had visited Talbot House just the day before. When Clayton inquired after the brother through all the military channels, he learned his battalion had been moved out of the area. The boy, the military said, could not be spared.
Clayton took matters into his own hands. He writes of the incident – “…I took a Signal Form and (with an element of connivance) drafted a most official wire to the Adjutant of the brother’s battalion, demanding that Private Quin should be sent back immediately to the Town Major’s Office. No reason was vouchsafed… sure enough, it worked, and the two brothers met in Talbot House that very afternoon… this was the sole occasion when I deliberately deceived the British Army, making no bones about it.” And a good thing he did so too, because just a few weeks after their reunion at Talbot House, one of the brothers was killed in action.
But out of all the rooms at Talbot House, one of the most remembered and revered was the upper story chapel, or the “Upper Room” as most called it. Located at the top of a perilous set of stairs, it consisted of a simple makeshift altar and a few wooden benches. Clayton provided regular services in the chapel, but the doors remained open at all hours for anyone in need of prayer and reflection.
One visitor, Clayton’s own second cousin Frederick Lambart, described the sensation of stepping into the most sacred room of the house – “…I climbed the first stairs and then the ladder that led to the Upper Room. Here I saw one officer and three men kneeling at benches. I knelt down myself and prayed, as I had never prayed before… At first came quiet, a sense of peace, confidence revived. I felt as if an overwhelming burden had been lifted from me and that I was free and strong once more…”
The Upper Room became a well-known sanctuary in Poperinghe. In 1917, people packed it to the gills for Easter services. Multitudes of soldiers got baptized and confirmed there. Many a Tommy also received his first communion from Clayton in this room, and for a tragic number of them, like Corporal Archie Forest, it was also their last. “Archie stands alone in my experience – no easy thing to do,” Reverend Clayton later wrote in his diary. “After a few testing visits to Talbot House, Archie Forest had summed up Christianity, and found it greatly to his liking; after a week he had presented himself for baptism, a month later he was confirmed, and made his first communion, the week following he was killed a little past midnight at St. Jean on his way back to safety…” Since Clayton had steered Archie through his spiritual journey, Archie’s death deeply impacted him, and the memory of the bright-spirited boy never left him.
Neither did the spirit of his entire mission at Talbot House. When the war ended, P.B. Clayton returned to England and tried to start a second “Every Man’s Club” in London. Meanwhile, Maurice Coevoet, the original owner of the house in Poperinghe, moved back in and the visible signs of Talbot House fell away… for a time. Coevoet sold the house in 1929 to Lord Wakefield of Hythe, who turned it over to the “Talbot House de Poperinghe” association. They restored it to its WWI style and opened the doors once more for tourists and WWI pilgrims in 1931. Just like before, all were welcome.
This summer, I became one of those pilgrims. Talbot House has always held a special place in my heart, and seeing it with my own eyes was a very special treat. A very kind resident priest guided us through the many rooms. Somehow, they all felt familiar even though I’d never been there. I knew my way around the Canteen Room. I somehow “remembered” when soldiers packed the now quiet reading and writing rooms. I heard the laughter and hoots of soldiers in the empty theater room. The Upper Room especially felt like a place I had been before. Because of the many pictures I have seen of it? Or was it the sense of “home away from home” that Clayton worked so hard to provide? Perhaps that spirit remains even after an entire century, because I felt so welcome within those walls.
And that alone made the trip to Talbot House stand out. I don’t know about my fellow history buffs, but sometimes, it’s hard for me to feel like I fit in. My friends often tease me that I must belong to another era, and perhaps they’re right. Yet, like thousands of soldiers and war personnel before me, I found a place in “Pop” that took me in. P.B. Clayton is long gone, but the resident priest who greeted us so warmly and showed us around the house had charming echoes of him. We struck up a bond and he talked of many things, just like I imagined Clayton would have. He even asked us to stay for tea and scones in the Canteen Room (“real British tea,” he assured me. “Not that Lipton rubbish.”)
So, that’s how I sat in the famous Canteen Room at Talbot House and enjoyed tea and scones with the priest there. The piano that hundreds of WWI Tommies played and sang on sat right behind me. The window showed a splendid view of the sunny garden, and I could the “Friendship Corner” on the opposite wall. I sipped my tea and smiled. For once, and just like P.B. Clayton wanted, I felt right at home.
Talbot House Museum
“A Touch of Paradise in Hell” – J. Louagie
“Nurses of Passchendaele” – C.E. Hallett
“Passchendaele” – L. MacDonald
“The First World War” – J. Keegan
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from Belgium, click here
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