Toc H

toc h

This sign still stands outside 43 Gasthuisstraat in Poperinghe, where Toc H survives as a museum

Soldiers out of the line from Ypres might head 10 miles west to the busy Belgian town of Poperinghe. There at 43 Gasthuisstraat they would find Talbot House, an unusual haven known by the gunner's signalling code of Toc H. Abandon rank all ye who enter here warned a sign at the door. This was one of the few places in Flanders where friendship could cross class.

Toc H was set up in 1915 by an unconventional army padre called Tubby Clayton, who sang chorus songs, resisted hierarchy and created a place soldiers actually wanted to visit.

As veteran Harry Patch later explained, 'The house was as homely as Tubby could make it, with flowers in vases, pictures on the walls, carpets and rugs on the floors, a piano and comfortable chairs to sit in, and open fires.

You could have a cup of tea there and a bit to eat if you wanted. There were games going on, and you could join in, or, if you wanted to borrow a book, you could, and the price of a book was your cap, which was returned to you when you brought it back.'

Upstairs was a chapel, out back was a lovely garden and next door was a concert hall. It was a refuge from army discipline, with rules spelled out by light-hearted suggestions such as If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, please spit here.

Unsurprisingly, Toc H proved popular. By the summer of 1917 its seventeen staff were serving thousands of cups of tea each day. The concerts were packed, so were the services upstairs, where Tubby Clayton sought to console troops soon to be caught up in Passchendaele. Yet the house remained within range of the big German guns and Harry Patch remembered a deep shell hole in the middle of the garden.

Back in London on leave, Tubby Clayton met up with Dick Sheppard, vicar of St Martins in the Fields. Sheppard was busy turning that stately church in Trafalgar Square into another classless oasis for troops: feeding bodies with a café in the crypt and feeding minds with lectures of an often radical perspective. Clayton rushed back to start such talks at Toc H. Though many soldiers preferred the more sensual R&R available elsewhere in Poperinghe, crowds still flocked to 43 Gasthuisstraat with its remarkable blend of peace and inspiration.

After the war Clayton set up Toc H as an organisation, Christian and often socialist, with strong links to the services. Dick Sheppard went on to create the Peace Pledge Union. Today you can still visit the original Toc H in Belgium. It's a museum, well kept. While you're there, walk upstairs to enjoy some quiet in the chapel. You'll sit where the soldiers once sat. It's another way, and a good one, to approach their experience.

Museum info...

Video of a recreated concert party show at Toc H...