The Prince and the Padre

As I have stated, this Blog is to be the home for a series of articles relating to Toc H. The first new essay will be published in December to coincide with the centenary of the opening of Talbot House. However, to keep things ticking over I am going to blog a few pieces that have previously been published. This first one was originally in August 2008 for the magazine of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor Society. I reprint it here as originally published without any additional editing.

The Prince and the Padre

In All Hallows church, almost in the shadow of the Tower of London, lays the tomb of Sir John Croke. Croke – a 16th century politician – bears no further relevance to this story except that his tomb is used as the base for an ornate and quite magnificent casket. Within the casket is an old oil lamp, similar to the lamps used by early Christians in the catacombs of Rome but with the double cross upon one of its ends. It is a Lamp of Maintenance, symbol of the charity Toc H, and the cross is actually from the arms of the Flemish city of Ypres. However, this particular lamp is no ordinary lamp for the Toc H movement. It is the Central Lamp of Maintenance, otherwise known as the Prince of Wales’ lamp from which all other lamps in the organisation were lit for the first time.

Toc H started in Flanders in the town of Poperinge. Situated six miles from the trenches around Ypres, Pops (as the soldiers called it) was a staging post. Its civilian numbers were always swelled by thousands of allied troops either bound for the front or having some well-earned rest away from the mud swamp that the Salient had become. In December 1915, the army commanded the 6th Division’s senior chaplain Neville Talbot to open a club for the soldiers to rest in. Talbot enlisted Padre Phillip ‘Tubby’ Clayton to run it for him. They acquired a lease on a merchant’s house in Rue d’la Hopital and planned to open it as Church House. However, Colonel Reginald May insisted that it was called Talbot House after Neville. Talbot agreed only on the proviso it was known to be named after his younger brother Gilbert, who had been killed at Hooge the previous July. Thus Talbot House came into being on 15th December 1915.

Different to similar clubs in the town, Talbot House knew no rank. Soldiers and officers mingled freely in the ‘dry’ canteen on the ground floor, the library on the first floor, or the chapel in the hop loft at the top of the house. Whether writing letters home to their loved ones or debating an issue of the day with the larger than life ‘innkeeper’ Tubby Clayton, the house was filled with hundreds of men. In the makeshift chapel with an old carpenter’s bench for an altar many men took their first communion, and many more their last.

The house was often called by its initials TH, and then, in the radio signaller’s jargon as Toc H (It would be Tango Hotel today). This was the name that stuck. It served the soldiers well for three years closing shortly after Armistice.

Back home in the UK, Tubby Clayton felt a driving need to continue the Fellowship that had been such a part of life in Talbot House. He gathered together some of the men who had visited the house and began a movement they called Toc H, after the soldier’s nickname for the house. After ambitiously trying (and failing) to establish a new Talbot House on Trafalgar Square, Tubby settled instead for a large house in Kensington which became Talbot House Mark 1, a hostel for men who were strangers to London. Here they could meet like minded souls and live in a community. In return for their food and lodgings, the men had to pay a reasonable rent but were also expected to carry out some form of charitable activity within the local community. Thus was born the Toc H tradition of Service. As these men left the hostels to return to their home towns they established local branches there. The growth of Toc H across Britain and the commonwealth in the early twenties was phenomenal.

Amongst those attracted to its ideals was a man who as a young officer in the Salient had visited Talbot House on several occasions. The Prince of Wales had already expressed an interest in the work of the Movement and in 1921 became its first Patron but his patronage would not just be a name at the top of their notepaper. Those Toc H members who had known the Old House during the war were entitled to the description Foundation Members, thus Edward bore this title within Toc H.

In the autumn of 1922 Tubby wrote to Sir Godfrey Thomas, the Prince’s Private Secretary, to report that although the Movement’s bank account was looking quite healthy they were getting little financial support from the City of London itself. The Prince responded by writing, on 30th October 1922, to Lord Revelstoke, head of the House of Baring, asking him to meet with Clayton. The meeting was arranged and helped Toc H acquire the support of many great London businesses.

Although not an organisation for soldiers only, it was inevitable at that time that most men in Britain had been in the war, and Toc H played an important role in remembering those who had not returned. Houses were donated as hostels by the families of those who had lost a son, and much of the ceremony and symbolism of Toc H reflected this remembrance. In May 1922 Tubby and Barclay Baron (Editor of the Toc H Journal) came up with the idea of using an oil lamp as an emblem, granting one to those branches who they felt were worthy of recognition. This became known as the Lamp of Maintenance. The lamps would often be bought by the family of – and dedicated to – a young man who had lost his life in the Great War. The Prince of Wales, donated a lamp to the Movement. – the Central Lamp of Maintenance. It was to become the most important of them all.

The Prince’s Lamp was first used at the Guildhall in London on 15 December 1922 (The seventh anniversary of the opening of Talbot House) at the first ever Festival of Toc H. It was a monumental month for the movement who had just received the Royal Charter from the the Prince’s brother, King George; appointed an Honorary Administrator to run its affairs; and now –in a magnificent occasion – saw the Prince of Wales himself use the lamp he had donated to light the first forty lamps given to Toc branches across the Dominion.

At that first ceremony the Prince was dressed in a Toc H blazer and tie with a pair of light flannels. His speech was greeted with great gusto. The following extract gives a flavour of how it went:

“…….we still stand tonight only at the outset of Toc H. Tonight is a great step in the early life of a great society, a society which will, we hope, remain young when the youngest of us here grows old……… ………..I am sure that all of you at least hope that Toc H today may go forward in its tremendous task of conquering hate and teaching brotherly laugh between fellows of every class. I can assure you that I look upon it as a great privilege to be your Patron, and to have been asked this evening to light these lamps. As I light them let our thoughts bear in mind many loved and honoured names.”

In the same speech he reflected on his pre-war friendship at Oxford with Gilbert Talbot, the young Lieutenant killed in July 1915 and for whom Talbot House was named; and the Prince also reflected on his fondness for the Old House in Poperinge. Edward would return almost every year to carry out the same ceremony until his accession.

This was not the only role he had in Toc H though. In 1925 whilst visiting South America as Prince of Wales, he took time to speak to fledgling Toc H branches there and kick-started the movement. It is interesting to consider what a role he may have played in Toc H if the circumstances had been different. As it was he set up the Social Service League during his short reign as king, which must have been inspired by his experience of Toc H.

However, his time as Toc H’s patron was to come to an end. Initially his accession meant more pressing calls on his time. He was unable to attend Toc H’s Coming of Age Festival in July 1936, and sent Albert in his place. However, he did send a message, extracts of which are below:

 “Hitherto, from the very earliest days, I have presided almost annually over at the Lighting of the Lamps of Maintenance. This year my brother, The Duke of Kent, brings to you all, in my name, my sincere greetings and congratulations. Toc H is now a Movement which has proved itself capable of good throughout the Empire……………..As Toc H stands tonight full grown it must be ready to lift those Lamps high to shed their light on the paths of the future. As your Patron I look confidently to Toc H to take its share, by fellowship, by service and by ever deepening thought, in solving the problems that lie before us, and I wish you God-speed in your task”

His abdication came two days before Toc H’s actual 21st birthday. Tubby wrote a moving sermon. They had lost a great Patron and friend.

Toc H’s founder and enigmatic figurehead died in December 1972 just a few months after the Duke of Windsor. The movement continued although today it is but a shadow of its former self.

Steve Smith

(c) 2008