Talbot House: A shelter amidst the storm

Talbot House in Poperinge is one of the most evocative First World War sites.

For almost the entire duration of World War I, Poperinge, close to Ypres, remained one of the few unoccupied towns in Flanders. Located ten kilometres behind the front line, and with a good railway connection to Ypres, it was a natural destination for soldiers looking to find some rest and relaxation.

Occasionally it was shelled by a long-range German missile, but for the most part it was untouched. It therefore soon became a bustling town full of shops, cafés and restaurants catering to the needs of war-weary troops. “Shall we pop into Pop?” became a popular catchphrase amongst British soldiers.

The importance of “Pop” soon became apparent to two British Army chaplains serving with the 6th Division: Philip “Tubby” Clayton and Neville Talbot. They saw the need to open up a soldiers’ club, and began looking for a suitable site.

Coincidentally, a property owned by local hop merchant Mr. Coevoet-Camerlynck became available. After his house was damaged by a stray German shell, he decided to move out of Poperinge with his wife and children.

Negotiations started between him and the British Army, and a monthly rent of 150 Belgian Francs was agreed for the duration of the war. After some repairs and minor modifications, on 11 December 1915 the house opened its doors to British soldiers for the first time. It was named Talbot House in remembrance of Neville’s brother Gilbert Talbot, who had recently been killed at Hooge.

Right from the start it was a different type of soldier’s club: warm, cosy and inviting. The sign – “Every Man’s Club” – still hangs outside, indicating that Talbot House was for the normal soldier, not merely an officers’ club.

talbot-house-sign
Talbot House is open to the public Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

Soldiers could come to Talbot House and relax. It was just an ordinary house, where ordinary soldiers could feel at home for a day or two. They could have a cup of tea, buy postcards or soap in the small shop, or write a letter home.

Talbot-house-soldiers-relaxing1

They could read a book in the library, sleep here overnight, or sit and smoke with their mates in the garden.

talbot-house-garden
The Talbot House Garden in 1915
talbot-house-garden-today
The Talbot House Garden today

Tubby Clayton himself summed up the philosophy of Talbot House, and of the TOC H movement that he later started: “It was a place where friendships could be consecrated, and sad hearts renewed and cheered, a place of light and joy and brotherhood and peace.”

First World War veteran Harry Patch was also fond of Talbot House: “A lot of us used to call it ‘the haven’ because that’s exactly what this place was to the men – a place of peace where you could relax, and the only time you could forget the strains of war for a couple of hours.”

talbot-house-soldiers-relaxing2

In 1916 the House became too small for the number of soldiers visiting it. The first floor of the neighbouring hop store was converted into a Concert Hall, where a series of debates, movies, concerts and shows were given. Talbot House with its Concert Hall grew to become one of the most important institutions of the British Army.

H All Ranks Abandon
“All rank abandon, Ye who enter here”: Everyone who entered the Chaplain’s room did so as a human being, and not as a soldier or officer.
talbot-house-chaplain's-room
The Chaplain’s Room in Talbot House
talbot-house-chaplain's-desk
The Chaplain’s desk

At the end of the war the original owners returned to Poperinge and Talbot House reverted to a family home, but for thousands of old soldiers, Talbot House remained in their memory. In 1931 it was purchased by Lord Wakefield of Hythe who donated it to the newly formed Talbot House Association, which still owns the building today.

During the Second World War Poperinge was occupied by the German Army. Fearing that the historically valuable items inside Talbot House might be at risk, a team of local people secretly emptied the complete contents of the house. They split the collection throughout the town and found a hiding place for each single painting, book or piece of furniture. The house became a German officers’ mess. With the liberation of Poperinge in 1944 every single item was brought back to Talbot House.

The authentic interior has been excellently preserved.

talbot-house-general's-room
The General’s Room, so called because at one time it was the only bed in the place that had real sheets!
talbot-house-dining-room
View through the hall and into the dining room

In my opinion, the  unique spirit of the place can perhaps be best experienced in the loft. Previously used for drying hops, the loft was converted into a chapel and became known as the ‘Upper Room’.

talbot-house-chapel

On the initiative of the soldiers the chapel was furnished with an altar made from a carpenter’s bench found in the garden shed. Candlesticks were made from bedposts. A portable organ was brought in for musical accompaniment.

talbot-house-chapel-organ
This is the original organ that would have accompanied the religious services 100 years ago

Wooden benches were made or acquired from damaged churches. From the early days of its creation the chapel in the ‘Upper Room’ offered a peaceful haven for thousands of soldiers.

Visiting or even staying overnight in Talbot House is a truly unique, almost magical experience.

For me, two perfectly preserved mementos brought home the stark reality that although Talbot House was a wonderful place of refreshment after the rigours of war, it could only ever be a temporary shelter; a brief respite before the trudge back to the trenches of Ypres or Passchendaele.

At the wooden prayer stools in the Upper Room, numerous young soldiers would have knelt and prayed their final prayers before returning to battle. And in the hall, the visitors’ book displays their shaky signatures.

For many, it would have been the last time they signed their name.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Opening hours of Talbot House are here.

For a truly unique experience, you can stay in Talbot House overnight as it’s also a Bed & Breakfast facilty.

All the images are copyright Talbot House and used with permission of Talbot House. Many thanks to Gertjan Remmerie for his kind assistance in providing the photographs.

 

14 comments

  1. Thanks Denzil, I had heard of Talbot House but didn’t know much about it. I have forwarded your post to Miriam’s godparents who will visit me in April, mainly so we can go up to Ypres etc as Pat’s great-uncle died in a village nearby in 1915. So I think they may well be interested in visiting Talbot House and maybe even staying the night! Hope all is well with you and the family…..I am sure you are looking forward to the birth of your first grandchild and I trust all with go smoothly for Lois. Love to all Catherine

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “As dim as a TOC H lamp” was a term my friend’s father used to use. Here is the TOC H lamp. http://www.10sqnass.co.uk/37-demo-section/what-s-new/329-as-dim-as-a-toch-lamp.html

    I first came across TOC H while working on the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. I was being paid to do some of the fun stuff. The people from TOC H were doing some of the less glamorous work fantastically well and as volunteers. Its a great organisation.

    Liked by 1 person

I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s