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The Times: "Talbot House, The Tommies’ Sober Refuge, Is Finally Facing Defeat"

soleil

War Hero
"Poperinge, or “Pops”, was the Belgian town where British soldiers leaving the trenches around Ypres could lose themselves in a stupor of booze, card games and mesdemoiselles.

However, as army commanders grew increasingly concerned about drunken fights and venereal disease, two chaplains, Philip “Tubby” Clayton and Neville Talbot, believed they could offer an alternative. They would lure Tommies away from the vice dens and trouble spots with the promise of comfortable chairs, a nice cup of tea and a pleasant garden.

As Simon Louagie, manager of Talbot House, the club house they founded, says: “It sounds like a very hard job to do, but they really succeeded, and it was the birthplace of an international movement.”

Now Talbot House, which was saved as a home from home for British visitors as a result of correspondence in The Times in the 1920s is again in need of help after falling into financial difficulties.

Talbot House was opened in December 1915 in a hop merchant’s house and named after Talbot’s brother, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, who had been killed in action earlier that year. It was to be an everyman’s club where military orders and distinctions of rank were prohibited and soldiers resting behind the front line could have a hot drink, write a letter home, sit in the garden or play the piano.

Clayton, then 30, who was described as having large, black-rimmed glasses, a short, substantial figure and a kindly face, bought books, comfy chairs and a billiards table. A hop barn next door provided space for concerts, film screenings and debates, while there was a simple chapel in the attic.

His hope was that guests could forge new friendships and, for a brief moment, forget the war. To this end he hung jovial signs on the walls, including one showing pessimists the way out and another urging: “Never judge a man by his umbrella — it may not be his.”

The egalitarian ethos was central. Clayton recalled one tea party, which comprised of a staff captain, a general, a lieutenant and a Canadian private, all talking about football. “Even the Prince of Wales [the future Edward VIII] came very regularly and he was just an ordinary bloke in the house, had the same cup of tea as anyone else,” Mr Louagie said.

Moreover, the (dry) canteen was run on the “Robin Hood principle” whereby officers paid more for their tea and privates had theirs free.

It all proved enormously popular. The club house welcomed half a million soldiers from 1915-18. It was so successful that after the war 500 Toc H clubs (“Toc” deriving from wartime signals code for the letter T) sprang up in Britain and overseas for ex-servicemen.

After the armistice, the original house in Poperinge was returned to its Belgian owners but it wouldn’t be for long.

In 1929, Clayton visited the site of several massive mine craters created during the Battle of Messines, and wrote a letter to The Times calling for one of the craters to be purchased and preserved. He described how one crater had become a “pool of rare perfection” edged with whispering rushes, while others had been filled in for agriculture.

Sir Charles Wakefield, founder of Castrol, responded and purchased the crater known today as the Pool of Peace. After this was arranged, Sir Charles also insisted on buying back Clayton’s beloved Talbot House. Since 1930, it has been owned by a small charity and run mostly by volunteers.

After reopening in 1931 it has functioned both as a living museum, preserving many of the club’s original features, and as a guesthouse for people visiting the sights of the Western Front. Rooms start at €45 a night, including breakfast (with HP Sauce and PG Tips).

Despite attracting a stream of battlefield pilgrims, the Talbot House Association says the property is now at risk of permanent closure due to the loss of most of its projected annual income. It has had to close its doors for the first time since the German occupation of the Second World War due to the coronavirus lockdowns.

This comes after a “lousy” year last year, with visitor numbers down following the end of the Great War centenaries in 2018. This happened after the association borrowed and invested savings to create a new permanent exhibition, showcasing 500 artefacts from its collection, which has yet to open.

Mr Louagie said: “A major investment in our new permanent exhibition and the forced closure due to the corona outbreak, has left us without an income, which is no less than a financial nightmare. A historic house that is more than 250 years old requires almost constant maintenance and renovation.”

The association has launched a Go Fund Me appeal to save Talbot House. This has so far brought in over €25,000 of the €100,000 target, from donors who will receive rewards including invitations to a “liberation party” when it reopens.

Mr Louagie added: “When in the spring of 1918, our founding father Rev Tubby Clayton was about to be evicted due to the advancing German forces, he didn’t give in without a fight. Several eviction orders followed, to which he invariably replied ‘Shut up!’, before he was eventually forced to set up a new club in a few huts in a meadow among the cows. Incidentally, the hut he lived in is part of the new exhibition. Talbot House doesn’t close quietly.”"

 

soleil

War Hero
Talbot House.png
 

Grownup_Rafbrat

LE
Book Reviewer
Stayed there during the Panther Owners Club Salient tour a couple of times. Brilliant spot, full of history, but run in a ramshackle way. Seems like the finances have been run equally sloppily.

I would have though RBL could step in with funds as they are responsible for Remembering. Subject to someone who can deal with the finances properly being appointed to the management team.
 

Grownup_Rafbrat

LE
Book Reviewer
Whenever I visited Po it was closed - even during opening hours displayed on the doors.
Run by volunteers who also have paying jobs, unfortunately.

Edited to add we saw a vacancy for the live-in caretakers and considered it seriously as I was just about to retire, and Mr. GRB was retired already. It would have been the perfect job for us.


UK based grandchildren did for the idea, but it's a big 'what if?' moment in my life.
 

stantheman

Old-Salt
I have stayed at Talbot House many times and think it is a fantastic place to base yourself for an Ypres Salient tour. Wonderful atmosphere, good breakfast and some decent pubs in easy walking distance down in the town. It was always easy to book up,and I have phone number to contact them direct which I have used. The wardens who were usually Brits were a great bunch. It will be a real shame if it closes and I for one will be sending a donation to try and ensure that it stays open. What I wouldn't give now to be there for a few nights, touring round the Salient, and having a few Hommel Beers in the square in the evening!
 
I have to wonder at the efficiency of the operation. The Ypres area gets a terrific amount of business from 'battlefield tourism'. If anything, the popularity of this has increased considerably in recent years. I'm certain that Toc H must get its share of the spoils.
 

stantheman

Old-Salt
I think it probably does, but the info about the museum expansion and its high upkeep due to it being such an old building, possibly makes it an expensive place to run. Pop is a bit out of the way I suppose being 8-10 miles west of Ypres . It has always been run a bit amateurishly which sort of gave it its charm. I am optimistic that once this appeal becomes a bit more widespread it will reach its target amount.
 

Joshua Slocum

LE
Book Reviewer
Both of my Grandfathers visited there
and a few years back I took my parents long
2 more generations
I like the ramshackle feel of the place
and i think its very important that it survives, and will be sending some dosh today
I also visited the pool of peace last year with my younger brother, and one tree cemetery
sobering indeed
 

Grownup_Rafbrat

LE
Book Reviewer
I think it probably does, but the info about the museum expansion and its high upkeep due to it being such an old building, possibly makes it an expensive place to run. Pop is a bit out of the way I suppose being 8-10 miles west of Ypres . It has always been run a bit amateurishly which sort of gave it its charm. I am optimistic that once this appeal becomes a bit more widespread it will reach its target amount.
Hardly out of the way, as the train gets you to Ypres in 15 minutes and there are many roads around, all of which have little cemeteries and places of interest along them.
 

Joshua Slocum

LE
Book Reviewer
I think the biggest problem is that Wipers get all the main tourists
Poperinge and Bethune were two of the main towns that soldiers visited for R and R
Both got hit a few times, but not blitzed as badly as Wipers
I like pop
and I was to have visited Bethune last weekend for my 40th wedding anniversary, I was even going to take the wife !!
ah well perhaps next year
 

Grownup_Rafbrat

LE
Book Reviewer
I think the biggest problem is that Wipers get all the main tourists
Poperinge and Bethune were two of the main towns that soldiers visited for R and R
Both got hit a few times, but not blitzed as badly as Wipers
I like pop
and I was to have visited Bethune last weekend for my 40th wedding anniversary, I was even going to take the wife !!
ah well perhaps next year
Congratulations on the Ruby Wedding, however you celebrated.
 
When I was in Poperinge, I called at Talbot House - I also visited another place in Poperinge, which was a much sadder place to be.


It seems rather inappropriate that a place of execution gets 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor. I understand why but it still seems a bit odd.

If any of us siblings did something stupid my father would usually tell us we were "as dim as a Toc H lamp". Took me years to find out what that meant.
 
Stayed there during the Panther Owners Club Salient tour a couple of times. Brilliant spot, full of history, but run in a ramshackle way. Seems like the finances have been run equally sloppily.

I would have though RBL could step in with funds as they are responsible for Remembering. Subject to someone who can deal with the finances properly being appointed to the management team.
I would not put much hope on TRBL as they seem to have their own financial problems at present, all their respite homes closed just before Christmas and various rumour's of parsimony with individual requests for assistance. The current virus will hit TRBL milking VE/VJ + 75 for dosh. Be interesting to see the effect in November on the poppy appeal and Remembrance Day, there was talk last year to include all emergency and public service deaths 'in the line of duty' as part of the day. May be more of NHS day this year?

Having said that I would hope that some sort of crowd funding will save the day for Talbot House. How much do they need?
 

Joshua Slocum

LE
Book Reviewer
It seems rather inappropriate that a place of execution gets 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor. I understand why but it still seems a bit odd.

If any of us siblings did something stupid my father would usually tell us we were "as dim as a Toc H lamp". Took me years to find out what that meant.
My Grandfather a Mons veteran himself used it on me a great deal !
he also used to say ( when he thought Nan was not around) the biggest F*** up since Mons

and theres only 2 sorts
the quick and the dead, before clipping my lughole

Oddly I still use the Toc H insult on young people today, they have no bloody idea what I am on about
 
When I was in Poperinge, I called at Talbot House - I also visited another place in Poperinge, which was a much sadder place to be.

Those cells are really forbidding and you can feel the cold on the hottest day! Very depressing, I would not like to be in there with the door closed!

As to Talbot House, what a marvellous place this is, and really should be on everyone's tour of the Ypres Salient. I hope it makes it through this crisis.
 

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