By Steve Smith
Out of everything he did in his life, Paul Slessor will always be remembered for the work he put it in to ensure Talbot House became a jewel in Toc H’s crown. When Lord Wakefield agreed to fund its purchase in 1929, Slessor was the man who went out to Belgium to carry out the negotiations. He was an inaugural member of the Talbot House Association and was President at the time of his death. He helped get the house to its initial readiness for a new wave of pilgrims when it officially opened in 1931 and was responsible for the washhouse that bears his name in the gardens. Slessor was one of the first out after Poperinge was liberated in 1944 to check, not just on the House, but also on his Belgian friends. And he turned the largest room in the house, the garden that he doted on, into the work of art it is today.
Paul Slessor was actually born Paul Schloesser, son of the German born Carl Schloesser and his wife Marian Salomans; both were Jewish. Carl was generally known as Adolph Schloesser, probably to avoid confusion with the artist Carl Schloesser. An accomplished musician in his native Germany, Adolph’s own father Louis was a talented violinist and composer and a friend of Beethoven and Liszt. Schloesser came to England in 1853 and settled here as a Professor of Music, eventually becoming a Naturalised British Citizen when he married in 1960. He taught piano at the Royal Academy for 22 years.
Our Slessor was born on the 6th June 1871 whilst the family were living at Devonshire Terrace by Hyde Park. They were still there in 1881 but by 1888 had moved to Maida Vale on the large, leafy Sutherland Avenue half a mile south west of Lord’s Cricket Ground. By now, the nineteen-year-old Slessor was a Stock Exchange clerk. The family later moved to the Paddocks at Bookham in Surrey. Slessor inherited some of his father’s musical prowess and was a reasonably accomplished violinist.
They were not a particularly conservative middle-class family though. In 1888 Slessor’s mother was a member of The Women’s Protective and Provident League, a Friendly Society who sought to unionise women and ensure that women in the workforce had a fund on which they could draw if they were unable to work.
Her son meanwhile, was finding his own feet in the Stock Exchange and in his spare time had joined that great City of London volunteer force, the London Rifle Brigade, as a cadet. By 1892, aged 21, Slessor (still Schloesser at this point) was a Private in the brigade but was also showing off his creative talents as he acted in a farce the regiment put on at a Ladies’ Concert. He would also play violin at various musical events.
In July 1894 he qualified as a trainer in Army Signalling and – showing the first signs of a lifetime propensity for administrative roles – became secretary of the brigade’s music society.
Meanwhile in his day job, clerking at the Stock Exchange had clearly given him a taste and in 1895 he was admitted into the Exchange as a stockbroker. So now the boy clerk was a fully-fledged broker and then on the 14th December 1898 the boy soldier was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant (Supernumerary) and posted to Q Company. Signalling remained his strong point and he continued to lead training classes and drills. The following March he was appointed Signalling Instructor to the entire Regiment.
In 1900 he made full Lieutenant and the following year was made up to temporary Captain whilst seconded to the East London Brigade Signalling Company (which comprised various other regiments). When this secondment concluded in the spring of 1903 he reverted to Lieutenant but on the 4th July 1903 he resigned his commission though he remained close to the regiment and continued to attend annual dinners.
Much had changed in his life over those last few years. In particular in 1899, on the 14th June, Slessor married Eveline Birnbaum at the West London Synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street near Marble Arch. Miss Birnbaum was the daughter of Bernard Birnbaum of Devonshire Place. Robert Kennerly Rumford, a well-known Baritone singer (married to very famous Contralto Clara Butt), was the best man. The married couple honeymooned in Switzerland.
Paul and Eveline would go on to have three sons: Evelyn Henry Paul Slessor born 1902; Hugh Andrew Paul Slessor born 1906; and Phillip Bernard Paul Slessor born 1910.
A further change had come the following year when Slessor entered into a business partnership with Charles Englebert, a Swiss Jew, and they became hugely successful and wealthy stockbrokers with premises at 11 Copthall Court in the heart of the City and stand no.14 in the Stock Exchange.
In 1901 Slessor and his family were living on Gloucester Terrace, Paddington but by 1906 they had moved out of town to the stockbroker belt of Kent and were living at Fieldhead, a large house in the private Leafy Lane, Keston. Evelyn must have been away at school but the two youngest boys lived with their parents and no less than five domestics as well as a coachman (Chauffeur) in George Henry Kimble. Slessor was clearly a successful man.
On the 4th May 1909 Slessor applied, successfully, to become a Freeman of the City of London when he joined the Livery of Musicians. Though a City businessman in his own right, his admission to this particular Guild was probably through the route of Patrimony, the fact that his father was a member of the Guild. He was admitted at a dinner at Manor House along with his business partner Charles Englebert.
At the time of his admission he was still using the surname Schloesser but the following year, when their third and final son was born, his name was listed on the registration as Slessor. That birth was something of an anniversary present to Slessor’s parents who celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1910.
Additionally, in May 1912, Slessor was initiated into the United Grand Lodge of England (though he resigned in March 1915). So in these years when war was not quite on the horizon Slessor and his family were living a stable and satisfactory life but in 1913 all this changed in the most dramatic fashion. The year didn’t start particularly well when in January Slessor’s brother Frank died suddenly of pneumonia. Frank, who made a fortune on the Kimberley diamond rush and lost it all during the South African wars, was well known about town and wrote books and articles about cookery. However, a greater disaster would befall the Slessors in the early summer.
On the 6th June 1913 – which happened to be Slessor’s 42nd birthday – his business partner Charles Englebert, in full evening dress, left his home in Meopham Park, Hildenborough, Kent to drive some 3 or 4 miles to Tonbridge station to pick up a friend over from Germany. He never arrived. The friend, having waited some time, eventually made his own way to Englebert’s home. The police were notified and all night Englebert’s wife, three young children, and the friend fretted. Next morning when it was light a search began. A damaged fence and buttress was soon discovered at Ensfield bridge over the River Medway at Leigh, just outside Tonbridge. Englebert was found still in his car at the bottom of the river. The inquest would conclude that Englebert was near-sighted, an inexperienced driver and the rain that evening would have contributed to him running off the road. A verdict of accidental death was returned.
On the Monday afterwards, Slessor, on his own as his partner was deceased, faced the ignominy of being ‘hammered out’ of the Stock Exchange. Hammering is process by which a member of the London Stock Exchange who is unable to meet his liabilities is publicly declared a defaulter. It is so called from the fact that before the announcement is made, a hammer is used to attract the attention of the members present.
There was speculation that the firm hammered themselves for self-protection in the light of one partner’s death but more likely it was a coincidence. The firm were probably in trouble due to the recent fall in prices. Regardless of how it came about this must have been a dreadful time for Slessor and, to make matters worse, he lost his father on the 10th November 1913.
He had little time though to rebuild his life because the following year tension was building around the world. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 put a spark to an already volatile situation and on the 28th July 1914 the First World War officially began. Slessor, now 43, re-joined his old unit being commissioned on the 10th August 1914 (Gazetted 22 Sep 1914). He joined the First Battalion of what was now renamed the 5th City of London Battalion, London Regiment though was still more commonly known as the London Rifle Brigade.
The first Battalion assembled at Crowburgh and embarked for France on 4th November disembarking at Le Havre and joining the British Expeditionary Force the following day. Slessor was one of eight lieutenants with the battalion.
One of the riflemen in Slessor’s Brigade was Henry Williamson, the writer. I have previously published extracts from one of his books where he talks about visiting Poperinge after the war. On the 19th October 1914 Williamson wrote a letter home which included the following insinuated slur:
We have a German officer as an officer in the LRB: naturalized it is true: but nevertheless a German. Incidentally he spends two months every year in the Fatherland I wonder?
The office in question was of course Slessor. Interestingly, Williamson refrains from making any remarks about Slessor being Jewish, which given Williamson’s later support for Oswald Mosely and the British Union of Fascists, suggest only that he held his tongue on the matter.
Slessor’s service on the front line was short-lived and he left the BEF on the 22nd December 1914 being seconded to the General Staff. Most likely his fluency in several languages and his proven adeptness at administration and business matters ear-marked him for such a role. One source claims that he worked as an Intelligence officer but officially he was just listed as a Staff officer. Given this military career it was unlikely he knew the Old House during the war.
On the 9th Aug 1915 he was promoted to temporary Captain and was to remain seconded to headquarters’ staff. And on the 1st June 1916 the temporary promotion was made full though sadly this moment was doubtless marred by the death of his mother just three days earlier.
He was made a Brevet Major in December 1918 and then on the 20th September 1919 General Staff Officer 3rd Brevet Major P A Slessor of the 5th London Rifles relinquished his temporary appointment. However, his military service was not over. From the 20th January 1920 – around the time the Treaty of Versailles came into force – until the summer of 1922 Slessor was on a Special Appointment in unoccupied Germany (Dusseldorf). This included him making frequent visits to occupied Germany. In July 1922, shortly after his return home, he wrote to the Times endorsing the Lord Chancellor’s position that it was time to stop being moralists and to become business men and economists. Slessor clearly felt that an ongoing repression of Germany was detrimental to long-term peace and that new relationships had to be built.
And so, free of the army but using the title of Major, Slessor settled into early retirement. Though he often gave his address as 40 Dover Street, Piccadilly this was the address of the Arts Club and hotel that he used as his London pied-a-terre . The family were by now living at Oakwood in Keston. This was still a very nice property if not quite so desirable as Fieldhead so his business failure had not reduced the family to poverty.
Slessor settled down to rural village life. In 1924 he was the secretary of the Scenery Preservation Society, a national campaign with local groups. It was somewhat superseded by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England which was formed in 1926. However it was in this capacity that on the 9th October 1924 Slessor gave a talk at the United Services Hall to the Keston Toc H group. Three months later, on the 1st January 1925, he was elected into Toc H. In late 1926 he was appointed branch secretary and he later became Honorary District Secretary of Bromley District.
His fluency in French and German proved useful for Toc H and in March 1928 he assisted Barclay Baron when the Quakers asked for Toc H’s assistance in billeting a party of German boys visiting London. Baron, in a rare rash moment, offered to take over the entire programme of the students from the Kaiser Friedrich Real gymnasium from the working class Neukoelln district of Hamburg. This was a good example of Toc H trying to build bridges with Germany, a passion that Baron and Slessor both shared and doubtless a good reason why they became firm friends.
In 1929 Peter Monie recognised Slessor’s worth and appointed him to the Toc H staff team in a paid role. In February he want on a mission to Malta and later in the year he went to Paris to talk to English men living there about establishing a branch.
He continued to be involved in village life and was chairman of the Keston Village Hall Fund organising – with the help of local Toc H members – a huge fete in June 1929 to raise funds to complete the hall. The branch also began to meet there.
He was also appointed Pilgrimage secretary and organised trips of Toc H men to the battlefields of Flanders. This was important to Slessor and he felt that memories of the war needed to be preserved. He even wrote to the Times asking that pillboxes be saved from demolition. It was during a pilgrimage in 1927 when he, Tubby and the rest of the group came across the St Eloi Crater, a remnant of the mines exploded along Messines Ridge in June 1917. The crater was filled with water and reflected the sunset inspiring Tubby to write to The Times himself urging its preservation. Lord Wakefield agreed to buy it and since Slessor spoke fluent French it was he who was sent to make negotiations for its purchase.
The Imperial War Graves Commission advised against St Eloi and instead Lone Tree Crater (now known to us as the Pool of Peace) was bought. When Slessor reported his success to Wakefield, Wakefield was pleased and asked if there was more he could do. Slessor, inspired, suggested buying Talbot House. Tubby says that Slessor handed Lord Wakefield a copy of the recently published Plain Tales from Flanders which mentioned that Talbot House was up for sale and asked if any British friend would care to endow it to Toc H and to the nation as a whole. Lord Wakefield immediately agreed to take up the challenge and Slessor was once again despatched to Belgium to commence negotiations. Slessor signed deeds of sale and for a short time Talbot House was owned by Slessor on behalf of Lord Wakefield then in 1930 Le Association de Talbot House de Poperinghe (Later the Talbot House Association) was formed to take ownership with Slessor as Chairman (Later President) and the Burgomasters of Ypres and Poperinghe on the committee which had to be two thirds Belgian. Along with the purchase price, Wakefield had included an endowment of £10,000 for the upkeep of the House and from the interest on this Slessor was allowed to draw a small salary.
At the same time as this appointment, Slessor was also appointed Secretary of Old House Committee for Toc H UK. He and the committee would have responsibility for all repairs and alterations to house and garden. They first focussed on urgent repairs to the building but in 1931 Slessor turned his hands to the garden. He claimed to have inherited creativity from his father and a love of nature from his mother, so the garden of Talbot House became his pride and joy. He tells the story in Gardens of Flanders, a Journal supplement from July 1935. As Overseas Secretary he suggested each Dominion send seeds from their countries. This happened and they were sent to Royal Horticultural Society & Kew to be cultivated. I wonder which made it to the garden and have survived?
Paul did much to get it fit for its first official function – when Tubby, Neville and 30 padres attended a conference that began 20 Apr 1930 – though it was not yet officially open. The last job he did – with Pettifer’s help – before Tubby and company arrived was unpack and arrange to chapel furnishings which, having been held in different places in the UK since the war were now returned to their rightful place in the Upper Room.
As part of making the House fit for a new wave of pilgrims, and at the suggestion of the IWGC, Slessor had a bathhouse built in the garden, paid for largely from his own pocket. The project involved the digging of 300 feet deep artesian well to supply water. The finished building that allowed visitors to carry out their ablutions before bathrooms were installed in the House remains to this day. It bears the name the Slessorium in honour of the man who had it installed and is used for exhibitions and events.
What most people will notice about the building is its unusual proportions; it is somewhat larger than you might expect. The story goes that the plans were drawn up in England using feet and inches and interpreted by the Belgian builders as metres. The issue was apparently not noticed until some unusually large bore plumbing was requested. The normally reliable Barclay Baron tells this story and and I always assumed there was at least some truth in it. However, extensive research by Jan Louagie at Talbot House reveals a different story. The Slessorium was designed by a Belgian architect – Gabriel Gits – and built by Belgian contractors entirely in metric measurements. Slessor asked Alec Smithers, a Foundation member and architect for advice and he came up with some alternate ideas which he sketched out. He said that though the building in his sketch might look bigger than Gits’ original, he had in fact kept the same measurements. In the end though the building turned out bigger than Slessor had anticipated which may have caused the story of mismatched measurements to arise.
So Talbot House and Poperinge – where he was known as Monsieur le Majeur – were central to Slessor during the 1930s but were not his only roles in Toc H. He was appointed Special Assistant to the Administrator and then General Secretary. In November 1930 he was back in Paris talking to the fledgling branch and the following month was one of the party at Talbot House – still not yet officially open – to start the 1930 World Chain of Light (See here for my blog on that trip which Slessor largely organised)
In January 1931 Slessor along with Barclay Baron introduced the concept of school visits to Talbot House, something that makes up much of the House’s work to this day. The first training trips for leaders were arranged for the 12th-15th April, days after the House opened, and the trips themselves began soon afterwards. He also represented Toc H on The Last Post Association.
And he was of course at the official opening of the House though he played a surprisingly low-key role in the event; an event that might not have happened without his diligence, energy, and passion.
The Old House aside, Slessor regularly gave talks to branches and to external organisations and, outside of Toc H, was still involved in village life. In October 1931 he was elected Chairman of new Management Committee for Keston Village Hall, being just one example.
Early in 1932 became Secretary of the Overseas Office and in the summer set up a conference at Talbot House to encourage more continental branches of Toc H. He then visited Amsterdam where a group was being established and also Rotterdam, Charleroi and Antwerp. Later that same year went to Naples to meet first Italian group of Toc H also called in on Gibraltar and Malta on same trip.
Early in 1934 Slessor left the Overseas Office and became Assistant Schools Secretary (to G K Tattershall) but remained as Overseas Correspondent. He also acted as Secretary to the Lone Units Committee. Late in 1937, along with Dallas Ralph, he became Secretary for the Services and helped form the initial Toc H reaction to how they could carry out wartime service when conflict looked inevitable.
In March 1939 Slessor introduced Baron Friedrich Von Der Ropp from Grunhelde, Germany to Toc H. A geologist and mining engineer in South Africa, Ropp was also connected to the school in Berlin which Slessor and Baron worked with in the 1920s and also the German Christian Stormtroopers of whom Von Der Ropp was their leader. A founder of the Anglo German Brotherhood, he spoke at a Toc H guest night in Tunbridge Wells discussing Christianity in Germany. Slessor said Von Der Ropp had been one of his greatest friends for many years.
On 11th June 1939 Slessor welcome the Fraternelle du 13th Belgian Field Artillery (Old Comrades Association) to Talbot House and later joined them in Ypres for a dinner. It was a special meeting requested by the regiment who were placed at the disposal of the Fifth Army in 1915 by King Albert and fought alongside the British in Flanders.
In the summer of 1939 Slessor took a small group of men to Talbot House to be trained in the post of Honorary Warden, one of whom was Arthur Denver. Denver was at the House in late August 1939 when, with war looming fast, Slessor recalled him to London.
At the time of the 1939 register Paul and Eveline are living at Dutch Cottage in Linden Road, Leatherhead with Paul’s sister Alice. He would shortly move to Swindon with some of the Toc H headquarters staff who relocated to Mark XVI (Redville) but when the expected bombing of London didn’t take place he returned to the main headquarters at Francis Street, Westminster.
Of course, by the spring of 1940 the phoney war was coming to an end and things were getting decidedly heated especially on the continent. In April 1940, a few weeks before the German invasion, Slessor visited Talbot House and ordered that the Carpenter’s bench and other items be stored in the cellar. When it was later thought the House had been destroyed, they hoped that they might later be dug from under the rubble. What they didn’t know for some time was that everything had actually been spirited away by the citizens of Poperinge to be returned safely after liberation.
In Feb 1940 the Central Executive appointed John Hawkey as Bursar – a post not previously in existence. His responsibility was to raise fund for the ‘war chest’, money to carry out special war service. Slessor – unable to travel to his beloved House and garden – was soon appointed his assistant and this became his main wartime role as he stepped aside from Secretary for the Services
War brought personal tragedy to the Slessors. Their eldest son Evelyn had enjoyed a tremendous career in the Royal Navy since 1926 as a naval pilot and in 1940 was a Lieutenant-Commander with the air staff on board the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. In June 1940 she was taking part in the evacuation of Norway whilst the bigger operation at Dunkirk was also underway. For reasons that are still not totally clear, the Glorious and her two-destroyer escort were separated from the rest of the convoy and picked off by German submarines. Hundreds lost their lives that day including Evelyn Slessor and the incident caused great controversy as the ship should not have been separated from the convoy and her captain was known to be something of a maverick. Evelyn died just two days after his father’s 69th birthday.
Later in the war Slessor relocated to Cheltenham for a time to try and set up a new Mark though this never happened.
And then Poperinge was liberated and Talbot House was returned to the Movement. In November 1944 Slessor and Barkis travelled out to join Charles Young in the clean-up operation. They remained there for 10 days and were joined by Tubby and others to start the World Chain of Light on the 11th December. They returned again on the 16th December for a further short spell.
1944 also saw a member of the Slessor family start what would become another institution. On New Year’s Day 1944, their youngest son Philip, a BBC presenter, opened the broadcasting – from Algiers – of the British Forces Broadcasting Service. He was one of three BBC staff involved in its formation. BFBS of course became a great favourite with forces families and civilians alike; Family Favourites filled many a home with music each and every Sunday.
Immediately after the war Slessor continued as Secretary of the Old House Committee and Assistant Bursar of Toc H. He retired from the staff in April 1947 but remained President of the Talbot House Association and Secretary of the Old House Committee.
Phillip took part in the 1948 festival when he announced some variety acts (including the well-known radio personality Sam Costa) during the celebrations.
In March 1949 Slessor and his wife were delighted when their middle son Hugh – who had long been established in New Zealand – came home to see his parents. On the 14th of June they celebrated their Golden Wedding and life was good. But then, quite suddenly on the 15th September 1949, whilst living at their home at Cliffway Cottage, Rottingdean, Paul Slessor died. At the time of his death he was planning and due to travel on another pilgrimage to the House.
The trip took place as planned on the first weekend of October 1949 and its first act was a Service of Holy Communion in the chapel to commemorate Slessor. A few years later a further commemoration took place at the House when on September 24th 1955 a brass memorial plaque was unveiled in the entrance hall. There was an event at the Town Hall afterwards. Philip Slessor spoke at it in perfect Flemish.
I want to close this biography by talking a bit more about Slessor’s incredible family. We have already seen how his father and grandfather were well-known in the musical world but Slessor had a brother Robert, who emigrated to Australia as a mining engineer. Robert’s son Kenneth Slessor became one of Australia’s best known poets as well as a journalist and war correspondent during World War II.
Slessor also had two sisters, neither of whom (Alice and Maud) married. Maud wrote occasionally for the Sussex County magazine and had several books of poetry published and also painted at her Rottingdean studio.
Slessor’s widow Eveline was herself a professional producer for a number of amateur dramatic companies. In 1957 her production of Hamlet, conceived for a group in Chelsea where she was then living, was even scheduled to be performed in Poperinge for Toc H.
Perhaps the most incredible story though is that of Slessor’s grandson Tim (Evelyn’s son). In 1955 he was one of six young men set out to make history by being the first to drive 19,000 miles overland from London to Singapore. After six months they finally made it, and a young BBC producer, David Attenborough, commissioned a TV series to share their incredible adventure.
Then in 2019, an 87 year-old Tim Slessor decided to do it all again and assembled a new team. At the eleventh hour Tim decided not to go himself but his team of youngsters, including his own grandson (Paul Slessor’s great-great grandson) did it again. Tim is still active today aged 91 and I was delighted to make contact with him during the research of this blog.
The Slessor family, it seems, were blessed with an enviable gene for success.
Thanks to Jan Louagie for his assistance with this blog