Reg Smith

By Steve Smith

This shorter and more visual biography is really just an excuse to illustrate some Toc H membership cards from over the years. By chance I acquired on eBay a set that once belonged to Reg Smith. Reg had caught my eye on many occasions during my research, firstly because he shares my dad’s name and secondly because he comes from Norwich. He also embodies the Toc H staffer sent from place to place to do a job although in Reg’s case he ended up back in his native city.

Born in Norwich in January 1906, Reg became a branch member in that city (Member number 13529) then in 1936 joined the staff. He was posted to the West Country and became the Western Area Secretary. He returned to Norwich in 1938 and married Joan Barley. They were to go to Australia where Reg was to take up a staff position there.

However, the impending war intervened and the posting was cancelled. Instead he was posted to Yorkshire and became Area Secretary there living in Harrogate. He became involved in the Service Clubs and from 1940 his address was given as Brotherton House, the Leeds Mark, although whether he and Joan lived there or it just his correspondence address is not clear.

In May 1941, his membership changes to the Western Area and this is likely when he became Western Area Secretary living in Clifton and Bristol until at least October 1949.

By April 1951 though he has returned to Norwich and is living on Constitution Hill and employed as East Anglian Area Secretary.

He and Joan also organised Toc H holidays to Farnham Castle, a former Bishop’s Palace and then (and now) a conference centre.

He was posted to the West Country again, living in Exeter but returned to Norwich on his retirement in 1972. He was living in Drayton on the outskirts of the city when he died in September 1993.

Toc H Pilgrim Guides

By Steve Smith

Having recently acquired a copy of one of the few books missing from my Toc H collection, namely In Flanders Fields (qv), I thought I’d put together a short, mostly visual blog about Toc H and the early pilgrimages to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Salient, and of course, to Talbot House.

The pilgrimages began before the war had even officially ended. Travel restrictions were lifted in July 1919 and civilians – mostly women – wanted to see where their loved ones had fallen and were buried. On the 1st and 2nd of November 1919 – still 10 days before Armistice – on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, thousands of French families travelled on special trains to the battlefields to visit the graves of their loved ones and commemorate all the dead. A trickle became and stream and the stream became a river.

At first most of the tours were organised privately, often by motor car. They did give employment to some former soldiers. Before long they were commercially attractive enough for companies such as Thomas Cook to get involved. But as these tours were often out of reach of the working class, charitable organisations also began to arrange pilgrimages. The Canadian Red Cross brought several Canadian widows and bereaved mothers to London in January 1920 before taking them on to France and Belgium; the Salvation Army took over their first party in April 1920; and St Barnabas, began opening hostels on the Continent and would soon begin their own trips, the earliest of which were arranged with the full support of Toc H before they began their own independent pilgrimages with their members.

And to accompany these tours, a number of guide books began to appear. The earliest are probably the The Illustrated Michelin Guide to the Battlefields series which began publication in September 1919 with Marne, Amiens, Soissons, and Lille, and were followed in January 1920 with Ypres and Rheims.

A Short Guide to the Battlefields by the Revd. J. O. Coop, D.S.O., T.D. Senior Chaplain of the 55th Division was published in April 1920 and then in July, Toc H got in on the act with The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Ypres Salient

The author’s copy once owned by Rex Calkin

Officially the follow-up to Tales of Talbot House, The Pilgrim’s Guide was clearly launched to both promote and raise funds for the fledgling Toc H. It was printed by Herbert Reiach Limited of Covent Garden, and an editorial note says that it was put together entirely by ex-servicemen. The names of the contributors include Charles John Magrath, a YMCA colleague of Barclay Baron who joined forces with Tubby at Talbot House (and Dingley Dell) in 1918; Captain Hugh Pollard, the firearms specialist later credited with starting the Spanish Civil War; Boyd Cable, the pen name of wartime propagandist Ernest Andrew Ewart (who also wrote Front Lines and several other titles about life in the trenches); and several others. Illustrated with sketches and maps, it is a lovely work and was often overlooked until reprinted by Talbot House. You can buy a copy of the reprint from their website. The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Salient (2019 reprint)

Original order form leaflet for The Pilgrim’s Guide

Other early guides include Lieutenant-Colonel T.A. Lowe’s The Western Battlefields. A Guide to the British Line. Short Account of the Fighting, the Trenches and Positions and the Ministerie des Chemins de Fer’s Aux Champs de Gloire Le Front Belge de L’Yser.

The market was soon flooded so the rest of this blog will focus purely on those tomes connected closely to Toc H. It is worth mentioning the mentions in Henry Williamson’s Wet Flanders Plain, the relevant extract was published here previously.

The next pertinent book was originally published as a supplement to the December 1930 Journal. The Old House was described as a Handbook for Pilgrims to Talbot House at Poperinghe. Remember, it was around this time that, finally exasperated by the constant knocking on the door, M. Coevoet Camerlynck succumbed to Lord Wakefield’s offer and sold Talbot House to Toc H (through the specially formed Talbot House Association).

The guide, which is available either as a thin hard cover book if you can find it (as pictured in the group picture) or the paper cover supplement, is a lovely descriptive record of the House and area with many photos, sketches and maps as well as extracts from notices and a list of all the books once held in the Talbot House library.

The acquisition of the Old House led to renewed vigour in the pilgrimages though now smaller groups went and stayed in the House itself. This prompted two new publications. Firstly, Tubby and the Rev. Geoffrey Harold Woolley issued the sparse booklet The Salient Facts under the Bangwent Series (Other titles included the thumbnail sketch of Pettifer and Tubby’s Fishers of Men). Woolley was an officer of the Queen Victoria Rifles who served in the Salient and was ordained after the war and joined Toc H. Little more than a pamphlet – Tubby describes the 16 page booklet as a ‘miracle of compression’ – it adds little to the reader’s knowledge but should be part of any serious collector’s library.

In 1935, Toc H republished The Old House in a condensed booklet called Over There – A Little Guide for Pilgrims.

The final booklet in our round-up was Barclay Baron’s In Flanders Fields, published by Toc H in 1954. Another small offering subtitled A little companion for the visitor to Poperinghe and Ypres, it is precisely that and perfect for popping in one’s pocket. Which is the perfect place for us to pop off and finish this short blog.

Talbot House Seafaring Boys’ Residential Club

Ray Fabes (c) 2008

Today’s blog is a guest post by Ray Fabes, a former Toc H staff member and academic with a special interest in youth work. This article is a paper written in 2008 about the Talbot House Seafaring Boys’ Residential Club in Southampton, for many years a classic piece of Toc H work with young merchant seamen.

Unfortunately the article has only survived on paper so has been scanned in (thanks to Ray’s daughter Nicola for that) and rather than retype it, I have decided to post it as a series of images. I hope this doesn’t detract from the writing in any way.

See here for a little info about the building

The entrance to Talbot House in the early 50s


By Steve Smith

During the Coronavirus outbreak, many communities have started schemes that are varieties of putting something – a coloured card for instance – in your window if you need help. Nothing new here! Such schemes go back at least seventy years. However Toc H were one of the prime-movers in developing these simple systems in such a way that it altered how Social Service departments worked and is still integral to care in the community today. This is the story of the Toc H Flashing Light.

No one should claim that Toc H were the instigators of the Emergency Call schemes as so many similar ideas seemed to appear at much the same time. In the late fifties numerous such projects sprung up. There is anecdotal evidence that the church started the ball rolling by getting old and vulnerable people to put a Christian Fish symbol in their windows if they were lonely or needed a visit. However, I have uncovered no factual evidence to suggest these schemes predated the more general ones here.

The earliest examples I can find include some Worthing neighbours who in July 1951 had an agreement to put some paper on the landing window if they needed help; in September of that year vulnerable people in Shoreditch were issued cards (The report doesn’t say by whom) with SOS in 4” red letters on them to use if they needed help; and in 1957 the WVS in Uxbridge were issuing cards with an ‘H’ on them to all elderly people living alone.

By early 1960 one Toc H instigated scheme in South London had a name, Lifebelt, and the emblem on the card was indeed a lifebelt.

New Addington branch are cited as being pioneers though it spread to branches at Beckenham, West Wickham, Shirley and Penge, and, in the February 1960 Journal, it was rumoured that Croydon Branch was soon to initiate the scheme in other parts of the County Borough.

However, all systems up to this point were ‘manual’. The biggest flaw was they required the vulnerable person to get to their window and place the card somewhere where it could be seen. The second drawback was that a card sitting in the window hardly drew attention unless you were actively looking for it.

Although identifying the very first flashing light variation of the scheme across the country is very difficult, we do know that in the Redbridge district of Toc H, they became pioneers. Switching out the card for a flashing light and putting a button near the chair or bed the vulnerable person for them to operate revolutionised it. They went on to design the system using parts you could find around the house, or at least at the local car-breaker’s yard. The original utilised a car battery, a car indicator light, some bell wire and a simple switch. The indicator light was fixed up in the window, the battery stood on the floor and the bell-wire was taped around the wall and connected to the switch by the bed (or chair). Importantly the bell-wire was only loosely taped so if the person fell down in the middle of the room they only had to get to the wire around the wall with their hand or stick and tug it. It would come away from the wall and they could pull the switch towards them.

Of course this was only part of the system. Integral to the scheme working was publicising it the local area. Neighbours and passers-by alike needed to ensure that if anyone saw a light flashing in the window they both knew what it meant and what to do. So Toc H created letters, posters and cards and flooded the local area and the press.

The second thing was even more of a genius idea. Toc H branches set up regular maintenance calls, not just because the equipment needed to be checked but because it meant the isolated individual was benefitting from some company. A check that could have taken a couple of minutes often lasted an hour.

Very quickly the systems improved and the more technical members created custom built components rather than junkyard scraps. Car batteries could be replaced by small batteries inside the unit itself. They also engaged with schools and other organisations to build the units. Schematics and instruction manuals were created and distributed.

As early as 1964 the National Council for Social Service had put together a booklet, Emergency Call Schemes for the Housebound, to promote the various projects then in July 1967 Toc H issued a booklet in association with the London Borough of Redbridge. Toc H even set up a separate organisation, Lend-A-Hand, to manage it. In 1968 they were filmed by Pathe News. Toc H even persuaded Ever Ready to design and make a special bulb and bracket for the system.

Nearby in West Essex Loughton branch also make huge strides and soon became the undisputed champions of the scheme. They made their own film, Emergency, in 1968.

By 1973 Loughton had installed 132 units. The scheme had spread locally to Barkingside (100 units), Hoddesdon (100 units), Woodford (25 units), and Buckhurst Hill (5 units).

In the early seventies, Mitcham branch in Australia had even wired up a 12 story block of 207 flats for older people. In New Zealand the scheme was known as Lightline.

According to a 1982 survey, Toc H were involved in at least 66 schemes (Not all branches returned questionnaires so the figure may have been higher).Not all went for the flashing lights; a buzzer was also popular (both occasionally) and some just used cards. Some branches ran the scheme alone, others worked in partnership with other organisations. Perhaps most interestingly, several schemed initiated by branches were taken over by the local Social Services department.

Ultimately, this is what happened. Social Service departments across the country took over the schemes and as electronics improved rapidly in the seventies and eighties, systems that could be worn as pendants or on the wrist took over from the buttons and bell-wires. More radically, the flashing light buzzer was replaced by a system that could dial an emergency telephone number. Still further developments continued until we arrive at the telecare systems we use today – which are largely down to the innovative work of Toc H in East London.