Toc H

Toc H is short for Talbot House. This was the name given to the former hop merchant's house that provided a rest home for British soldiers in World War I, in the Belgian city of Poperinge. The soldiers took to referring to Talbot House as TH, and the T was replaced by 'Toc', which represented the letter T in the signals spelling alphabet that was used at that time in the British Army.

Poperinge was one of only two Belgian towns that weren't under German occupation during World War I. It was used to billet British troops on their way to and from the battlefields of Flanders, and also provided a safe area for field hospitals. Known familiarly as "Pops", it was just behind the front line at Ypres, and it formed an important link for the soldiers and their families.

Philip 'Tubby' Clayton was born in Queensland, Australia, in 1885. His parents were English, and they brought him back to England when he was two years old. He was educated at St Paul's School in London and at Exeter College, Oxford, where he obtained a First in Theology. He was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and served as curate at Portsea, Hampshire, from 1910 to 1915, when he became an army chaplain.

Before long he was instructed by Neville Talbot, a senior army chaplain, to set up a rest house for the troops. Talbot was the son of the Bishop of Winchester, and his younger brother Gilbert had been killed at Hooge in July 1915, in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. Hooge was the site of the first use of flame–throwers ("liquid fire", as it was referred to at the time) by the Germans against British positions.

Talbot House was named in memory of Gilbert Talbot. For most of the Great War it offered an oasis of sanity to the men passing through Poperinge. Tubby organised a lending library, debates and concerts. The men could post messages for their missing comrades in the hope that they too might stop at Talbot House and see them. It was clear that Talbot House promoted a special feeling of fellowship with those who rested there.

After the war, Clayton was given the task of setting up a Test School for soldiers who wished to be ordained. He chose the old jail in Knutsford as his premises, but he soon returned to London to follow his dream and set up a movement that would replicate the spirit of Talbot House. The name Toc H was adopted officially, and the first hostel was opened in Knightsbridge. The demand soon outgrew these premises, and a larger hostel was opened nearby. By early 1921 there were three hostels in London, and as the men left to return to their home towns they would set up their own local Toc H branches.

The movement continued to grow in numbers, and attracted the support of many leading Socialist thinkers of the day, including G. K. Chesterton. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) was also a keen supporter, and in 1922 the organisation was granted a royal charter.  A women's league was established, and in 1930 the original Talbot House in Poperinge was bought for the movement.

Although now run entirely by volunteers, Toc H continues to carry out its work to this day; as well as in the UK, it has branches and members as far afield as Australia, Belgium, India, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Its mission hasn't really changed: it is to bring people together in reconciliation, and to reach out to those members of society most in need.

© Haydn Thompson 2017