Wartime ‘Haven in Hell’ brings inspiration to a recession hit country

IN THESE austere times of rising inflation and unemployment pass a thought perhaps to the time when our parents or grand-parents were attempting to find light in a world hit by the First World War.

Four years of war brought unimaginable pain with families, villages and communities decimated. We are often reminded of the 1916 destruction at The Somme, but the worst hardship for the British Army was felt around the Ypres Salient. It was here that in the autumn of 1917, fighting valiantly through the mud, we suffered 310,000 casualties. The generals called it The Third Battle of Ypres, the ranks and press would know it simply by the name of a small village that they were trying to liberate – Passendale.

A few short miles from Passendale there is a somewhat larger town called Poperinge. It was here that the British Army had made the base for its war machine. In the middle of ‘Pop’ a large family home was taken over by a colourful, diminutive chaplain by the name of Tubby Clayton for the purpose of providing the troops with a ‘home from home’. Regardless of rank or religion he would welcome men who had escaped from the lines for a few hours or days and give them some human comforts. Cocoa was constantly being made, biscuits were distributed freely. Men would come and find a quiet place to read, engage in a chess or bridge tournament, be given ministry in the upstairs chapel, write a letter home or be entertained by a travelling music troupe. They could escape from the sights, sounds and odours of the war. The house was named Talbot House (after Gilbert Talbot, the brother of a senior army chaplain, who had been killed in Belgium in July 1915 and the great, great uncle of adventurer and hero ‘Bear’ Grylls) and it became a haven in the hell of the Western Front. Tubby Clayton quickly became a legend and the house became known simply as TocH – ‘Toc’ being the army signallers’ code for the letter ‘T’.

Telling the story of this inspiring man and house and recreating the atmosphere that was felt within is the wonderful play with music 'Talbot House – a home from home' which can next be seen at The Stroud Subscription Rooms on Friday, March 21. Call 01453 760900 for more details.