By Steve Smith
The original Talbot House – which opened its doors in Poperinge on the 11th of December 1915 – was almost certainly the best-known soldier’s rest club of the First World War. When Toc H was reborn in 1919 it quickly established new Talbot Houses, the Marks that I have written extensively about, in London and across the Dominion. However whilst many of the men who used these hostels may have been ex-servicemen, the Marks were by no means servicemen’s clubs.
As we shall see shortly, though during the inter-war period Toc H did dabble with clubs that catered for the needs of those in the armed forces, it would take another major conflict for the Movement to really return to its roots. In the late 1930s with war looming, Toc H turned its thoughts to how it could help the men and women who were donning uniforms in readiness for what was to come. This article discusses the birth and growth of the new and extensive network of clubs run by Toc H to serve the needs of servicemen and women. The most common name for these clubs would become Toc H Services Clubs but they are also known as War Services Clubs, Servicemen’s Clubs, Services Clubs, Canteens, Talbot Houses, and more. As we will see, most conformed to a simple standard (A canteen, a reading and writing room, a chapel, and accommodation) but there were variations due to restrictions of the venue, the staff available, or the specific needs of the locality. At the end of the blog is a link to a register of as many of the clubs that I have thus far located.
Let me open with what was said by Toc H itself:
It was natural that the first demand which came upon Toc H was to do all it could for men of the three Services. In some places where Militia camps and R.A.F. stations were springing up before the war, Toc H was already planning to meet their needs. The embodiment of Territorial Army and the steady growth of the number of men in training multiplied this need from comparatively few places to a very large number of towns and villages. The blackout, the taking over of buildings, the placing of numbers of men in billets, all added to the need and at the same time increased the difficulty of meeting it. In many places Toc H responded with a will. The first effort was often to open the Toc H room so many nights a week, members taking turns to act as hosts. Frequently this was soon crowded out, larger premises had to be taken and a Toc H Services Club begun. Many such are now firmly established. In other places through the initiative of Toc H, a Community Services Club been set up in which Toc H members work in partnership with other organisations. In others again, where the premises of existing organisations sufficed, Toc H has found its work in supplying part of the constant stream of helpers needed to man them. In all there are now over 200 known places in which Toc H units have opened or are largely responsible for the manning of clubs and centres.Annual Report for 1939
But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves because Toc H went back to its roots a little earlier than 1939. Toc H in Malta really got underway in 1925 mostly due to the efforts of George Potter RN (whom we met on Tubby’s This Is Your Life and in my Portsea blog. The navy men that Potter gathered around him rented a little house at Sliema as a branch room. In 1932 Admiral Sir W.W. Fisher liked cut of their jib and helped them engage in social work. His wife helped establish a Leper Colony on Malta which Toc H visited weekly. They acquired a new leader in the Rev Charles Paton RN, chaplain to the destroyer flotillas. The House soon became more than just a Toc H branch room and proved to be somewhere that the navy descended upon whenever the fleet was in town. It was a Toc H Club providing for the physical and spiritual needs of the Royal Navy.
The Alexandria Fleet Club in 1936 (Fox photos)
In Alexandria too, the local branch assisted the navy by setting up an information bureau on the landing quay when the fleet was in and showing the men around town but the men, several of whom knew the House in Sliema, were looking for more. When the Abyssinian crisis of 1935 arose, and Paton was posted from Malta to Alexandria he established the Fleet Club at Claridge’s hotel in Rue Fouad, opening in November 1935.
For a year it was a great shore centre, a home from home, for 20,000 sailors. It was owned by the Royal Navy but Toc H, particularly Tubby himself and Fred Welbourne, did most of the running. Alexandria Toc H member Richard Dines and his wife, Ethel, soon took control. Dicky Dines was a dental mechanic from Chelmsford who moved to Africa in the late 1920s. He was based in Alexandria and doing much for the Navy even before the Fleet club opened. The Dines soon became the driving force behind the Fleet Club (Dicky would later be awarded the MBE for his work). By July 1936 the crisis had abated and most of the navy had returned to their home ports. The Fleet Club was closed and the building returned to its occupation as the Hotel Claridge.
Talbot House, Malta
In January 1937 the Dines moved to Malta where, after using some temporary loaned houses on Point Street then at 106 Strada Ridolfo, funding was provided by an anonymous donor to purchase a house at 39 Mrabat, Sliema and opened on the 20th March 1937. It bore the name Talbot House, a tradition which many of the forthcoming Service Clubs would also uphold. It would later move to Tigne Street.
The revived Fleet Club in Rue de l’Hopital Grec
Come June 1939 though, the imminent war meant that the Alexandria Fleet Club was once again required and in the autumn the Dines returned to run it along with Alan Spender, a naval chaplain. This time it was based in the former hospital of Saint Sophronios, founded by the Greek community in the 19th century. It stood in Rue de l’Hopital Grec (What similarity that address bore to the Old House!) and it was quite a place compared to other Service Clubs since it contained a restaurant, beer garden, shops, and beds for 200. It wasn’t just the navy who patronised the club either. The RAF stationed in the Western Desert travelled two or three hundred miles there when they got a weekend off or a few days leave. The army too, were finally given some leave and visited the Fleet Club.
The second Alexandria Fleet Club in 1940
Finally, in this section we must mention Gibraltar. Harington House – named for Tim Harington, a WWI army officer, Governor of Gibraltar, and Toc H stalwart – was opened in late 1938 and served until it was totally destroyed by enemy fire in late 1940. After some temporary accommodation including stables, a new house opened at 186 Main Street in the spring of 1941 with the now legendary Jock Brown in charge. In April 1945 there was a House at 13 College Lane though this is possibly the same place as 3 as the roads intersected.
Harington House, Gibraltar
The entrances to two Gibraltar Clubs
To complete the Gibraltar story, in April 1951 a Leave Camp run by Jock Brown opened in Little Bay. It closed in 1955. Then later in the fifties Toc H were offered a set of vast, stone Moorish gun emplacements on the South bastion and Jock reopened a Leave Camp. On the 1st April 1959, Toc H needed to close the camp so Jock Brown took it on as a private venture. Later still there would be a Toc H house near Referendum Gates which became a famous back-packers hostel.
So the revival of clubs for servicemen was started in the Mediterranean but when did it become apparent that something also had to be done in the UK? Even before war was declared refugees were coming into the UK and Toc H of course responded. Several Marks took refugees in and Mark VII in Fitzroy Square, London together with the Youth Council on Christian and Jewish Relationship opened a club for non-Aryan refugees in London. By September 1939 some 450 refugees had passed through with English classes being the most popular service.
And once war was inevitable the military started organising themselves and camps opened in certain parts of the UK along with RAF bases, particularly on the east side of the country. Toc H recognised this and immediately set up a response.
Sleaford opened a club in Carre Street in February 1939 which was particularly used by RAF since the training college at RAF Cranwell was close by. Initially it only opened at weekends.
Gibraltar and Malta were declared Houses for the Services (The office was at 7 Tower Hill, a building once known as the Interpreter’s House which you might recall from a previous blog. Joining these two was Portsmouth.
Inspired by Malta, 13 Union Street in Portsea, that suburb of Portsmouth known so well to Tubby (See here) opened in April 1939 as a House for the Services. ’No. 13’ was set up and used by a handful of Royal Naval members of Toc H including ‘Skipper’ H W Thomson and Charlie Brownjohn, a naval writer who had been involved with the club in Malta.
It wasn’t actually the first club in the district because in the summer of 1938 the Emsworth branch were running the Fly Inn Airmen’s Club at The Hermitage, although this was a more simple, prototype affair. In January 1940 Emsworth went on to open a full-scale Services Club on the junction of the High Street and North Street. A former car showroom with living accommodation above, the building was owned by the Portsmouth and Gosport Gas Company who leased in to Toc H for the duration.
That same month, with Toc H’s war efforts now well established, Portsmouth too leased a larger house. This was at 32 High Street, Portsmouth under the wardenship Rev F.E. ‘Bobs’ Ford (Released from duty as headquarters’ Administrative Padre). This was a fine old building in a historic part of the city but was destroyed by enemy fire in December 1940. The Church of Scotland then lent St Andrew’s Hall, in St Michael’s Road to Toc H which immediately opened as a Services Club until they reopened their own premises at 12 High Street in April 1941. This latter house was John Felton’s old abode, a man famous for murdering the Duke of Buckingham in 1682. I doubt this historical connection went unnoticed by the history loving Tubby.
Entertainment in a Plymouth Club (Photo Toc H Archives)
We may as well complete the Portsmouth story. In March 1942 Bobs Ford was sent to Hull and succeeded by Rupert Bliss, an ex-navy man who had travelled to India with the London Missionary Society before becoming warden at the Toc H Services Club in Woking at the outbreak of war. In October 1942 Toc H discussed plans to move the Portsmouth Services Club into a new building and they moved to Gibraltar House, Wood Path, Elm Grove, Southsea. This property was later sold so they moved to 21 Wimbledon Park Road which they renamed Gibraltar House and where they still were in November 1946. It became home to two Toc H units and a Toc H (Women’s Section) branch.
Women’s Rest Room at Gosport (Photo Toc H Archives)
Mention must go to Gosport – across the water – who in July 1942 opened Bourton House in Elmhurst Road. Portsmouth women also had their own club, Flint Lodge, at 2 Villiers Road. It was opened on the18th November 1943 by Lady Little, wife of the Commander-in-Chief of Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Charles Little. It’s first Warden was Mrs H W Hutton and it catered primarily for Wrens of which there were more in that area than anywhere else.
So back to 1939, and with war now decidedly on the horizon, the June edition of The Journal suggested some simple ways that Toc H could help the new militiamen during their time of service. It was recognised that barracks and camps would “soon be filling with young men brought together from all over the place and that Toc H must hold out a hand of friendship”. Clearly, the article said, the camps could not just be invaded by parties or individuals so the Toc H leader should contact the officer or adjutant in charge and explain how anxious Toc H is to be of assistance to the troops during whatever spare time they might have. There is the possibility that Toc H units with permanent headquarters might open them up every evening, and if they have no permanent quarters then to gather local interest into acquiring some. Toc H, it said, should take the initiative in forming local committees to provide facilities for the men.
Suggested ways to run a club
It was further suggested in the Journal of September 1939 that branches take note of the parties of men camped around searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and barrage balloon stations and approach the officer or NCO in charge of the station. The men could be invited to the branch or to the homes of members for some creature comforts especially now that the winter months were approaching. Toc H acknowledged that the YMCA was starting to operate mobile units and encouraged co-operation with these, however the idea of opening branch rooms up from 5pm every day to provide some entertainment for the men was reiterated. And where the posts were isolated perhaps Toc H men could fetch the troops and transport then to the rooms. It must, the article continued, be remembered that Toc H is out to help the stranger, to make the other man feel at home and to encourage the spirit of friendship.
The branches certainly took this call seriously and several began to open up their branch rooms, find a dedicated venue to start a club, work with other organisations to form a Community Services Club, or simply provide volunteers to other canteens.
Some of the earliest clubs opened in 1939. Selby converted and opened their branch rooms in Ousegate on 1st September, two days before war was declared; Woking also opened in York Road sometime shortly after the outbreak of war with Rupert Bliss as Warden; Perth opened in the St Ninian’s Cathedral Hall on the 27th October; Rochdale opened a Talbot House in the Butts in November; Hull opened their branch HQ in South Street to servicemen on the 20th of that month meeting soldiers arriving at Paragon Station to tell them about it; Ealing opened late in the year similarly serving Northfield station; Exeter opened in late 1939 and would remain open for seven years having provided 84,000 bed nights when it closed in August 1946; Falkirk’s Little Talbot House opened in December; and Sheffield reopened their old branch rooms in Christchurch Road (closed since the summer though plans to relocate were delayed by the war) on the 13th December.
I’ve deliberately omitted Louth in Lincolnshire from the above list as their war effort deserves a special mention. The first Services Club in Louth was a joint venture with the YMCA and opened in October 1939 at 16 Market Place. Originally Toc H hoped to set up a canteen and rest room of their own with the support of the Louth Mayor, Alderman Lill. However the premises they had their eye on belonged to Sir Montague Burton – founder of the famous menswear shops – and he had already given the YMCA an option. When the YMCA scheme to set up a club fell through due to lack of support, a joint effort seemed the sensible compromise. The opening was carried out by Group Captain Clark, an RAF officer, who reflected the high number of RAF personnel stationed in Lincolnshire. This club Closed December 1945 and arrangements for disposing of the building began in January 1946. In May 1946 Red Cross took over the building as their HQ.
It wasn’t the only Toc H Services Club in town though and on Saturday 17th August 1940 Louth Toc H opened a second canteen, making it the first small town to have two clubs. Talbot House at the Eastgate Union Church schoolroom in the Ramsgate area of town was opened by Brigadier Copeland-Griffiths. Interestingly, during the opening ceremony, the Brigadier referred to the original Talbot House noting that it was now destroyed by bombing (A common belief at that time). He also mentions the three houses in France (See below) which he seems to know personally. He laments the German army overrunning the house in Rouen as the BEF left 70lbs of sugar there! The first Warden of this Louth Talbot House was J. W. White. It closed in December 1945.
Cinema advert for Louth film
There was a third club in Louth. A women’s Services Club opened above Moncaster the butcher in Mercer’s Row in February 1941 and closed in December 1945. But what perhaps makes the Louth clubs memorable is that they made a very short promotional film about them which is available to watch online here.
Woodwick House, Orkney
In the autumn of 1939, and much further north, a major piece of Toc H war work began. The Orkney story (including Tubby’s pre-war visits) is one day going to be a blog in its own right, so I’ll stick to basics here. At the suggestion of Patrick Sutherland-Graeme, a former chairman of the Central Executive and a resident of Orkney, Tubby and Peter Le Mesurier – his ADC and cousin – along with Donald Cochrane and the Gen (Arthur Pettifer) – set up a hut for the navy for whom Orkney was an important base. They later opened a house at Kirkwall and in time had a small estate of clubs and rest homes on the islands including Wakefield House, Hankey House, and Pilgrim House (aka Woodwick House). As I say I will write more of Orkney next year but you might also want to read this guest blog by Peter Russell
Late in 1939 things were getting more organised and the War Office formed the Committee of Voluntary War Work (CVWW). Eight organisations including Toc H were asked by the government to create rest centres (The others were the YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, Church Army, Methodist Church, Church of Scotland, and the Catholic Women’s League)
It is sometimes difficult to name where all the early clubs are because Toc H self-censored reports. Sometimes they even made up names to obfuscate things; Westwater was one such imaginary Services Club described in the Journal. The early reports were also woolly and vague and it’s not clear if they were reporting on a real club or just a fantasy ideal. They talk of a cathedral city in the West Country where the branch have revived an old church as a club but offer no clues as to which city; and of three rooms above a shop near a station to the north.
Later this censorship was relaxed and Toc H began to mention the towns and cities starting clubs. The newspapers also reported on them. Not all of course – they were opening up thick and fast. By February 1940 there 142 Clubs opened by branches for troops and a further 43 for civilian workers. Most were managed by local branches but HQ has also opened nine houses in their own right. A War Services Committee had been sent up and was appealing for funds to carry out the war work of the movement. Paul Slessor had a key role in this fund-raising.
An undisclosed club (Can anyone identify the banner?)
War Service Clubs were not the only war work Toc H was carrying out. There were also clubs for evacuated mothers and, as previously mentioned, refugees. Also, with so many men called up for service, the home front needed volunteers to lift potatoes and such like. But service clubs were Toc H’s new speciality. It really was going back to its roots. Sometimes just a simple rest room near a railway station was all that was required. Here men could catch a few hours sleep before embarking to their next destination. Wisely, Toc H staff were given a key piece of advice: “Never wake the wrong man for the wrong train”
Next we turn our attention to overseas clubs and inevitably the first of these were for the British Expeditionary Force sent out to France in September 1939. At this time Talbot House – the original – was stood ready and waiting and its locally appointed caretakers Rene and Alida Berat (The last British Warden having been evacuated in August), eagerly awaited the British troops. Most of the force was stationed further south or deeper in France and the visitors book for the spring of 1940 contains only about 50 names, so Talbot House didn’t really come into play as a War Service Club at this end of the war.
That doesn’t mean that Toc H were idle though. An intriguing and suitably vague snippet appeared some newspapers via the Press Association on the 1st November 1939 claiming that a Church of England Padre with the RAF was had established a new Talbot House in the French village where he was staying. He was providing a canteen where men could get food and play games.
Talking to branches at much the same time, Barclay Baron proclaimed that Toc H intended to set up “half a dozen or a dozen major ventures, built on the same lines as the old House in Poperinge, and a much larger number of Little Talbot Houses like the one in Ypres.”
It would be early 1940 when permission was granted by the CVWW, for certain organisations including Toc H, to open centres for the troops in France. A January 1940 letter from a Toc H member in the RAF reported that some work had been done in Paris by four RAF members and some Padres who had found a small room over the Café de la Gare where servicemen could relax, find some fellowship and avoid the temptations of the beer tent. This was probably little more than a branch room though subsequently, a further letter from France describes two centres for British troops that had opened under the auspices of various organisations of which Toc H was one. This would be the BEF Club, a ‘Social Centre’ for British Soldiers in uniform at 28 Avenue des Champs Elysée set up by the British Colony Committee. It was hosted by several different organisations such as the British Legion and the Standard Athletic Club. Toc H ran it on Wednesday and Sunday nights.
It was on the 2nd February 1940 that Toc H send their first small team of Pat Leonard, Rex Calkin, and Grahame ‘The Dean’ Hamilton to France. The Dean spoke French like a native and was conversant with French culture. Leonard was at the time Vicar of Hatfield and was given three months leave by the Bishop of St Albans. He had strict instructions to be back by Whit Sunday (12th May).
For the first time, Toc H men were issued a military style uniform and would be recognised primarily by the Lamp of Maintenance on their cap badge.
In the New Year of 1940 Reg Staton was Warden of the Southampton War Services Club but was anxious to serve abroad. Shortly after the first team had left for the continent, Reg received his orders from HQ and on 27th February headed for northern France. The next evening he was with Pat, Rex and the Dean. On February 29th they visited a house in Lille which was already equipped with furniture and fittings. A former doctor’s house, it was a townhouse on one of the main streets of Lille. It was to be the first new, official Toc H Club in Continental Europe and was designated Mark I BEF. It seems this House was made possible by Leigh Groves, a wealthy Toc H member from Northumberland who had previously bequeathed the Salford Mark (Mark XIV) to Toc H.
A team of English women living in Lille gathered round to help. These included Mrs Gudgeon, the Consul’s wife, Mrs Harrison, Mrs Lane, Mrs Norman, and Mrs Crothers. Mr Crothers and Mr Lane were also roped in. Mr Lane acquired a Renault van on which Pat painted a Toc H lamp.
Location of the actual and planned BEF clubs in 1940
On 11th March 1940 the Toc H banner was hanging outside and the House was opened with a service in the chapel at 7.30am. The chapel had largely been furnished by the congregation of Pat Leonard’s home church in Hatfield. At 2pm two British soldiers were collared on the street and brought in for a cup of tea and a tour.
It took a little while for it to become known but the trickle of soldiers enjoying the comforts of home soon became a torrent. Food was supplied by the NAAFI but Toc H augmented it with fresh pastries, bread, butter, and ham from local shops. The French shopkeepers were intrigued by the House – they particularly liked the very British habit of paying as you went and not expecting credit – and were invited to Yorkshire tea. In turn they presented the house with fresh flowers.
Though only open for a matter of weeks, they became popular. Friendly rivalry was established with Padre ‘Pop’ Sheppard who ran the Church Army canteen nearby. Many staff officers including Colin Jardine paid visits. The visitor’s book was a matter of pride for the team who were devastated when it had to be left behind later.
Pat was charged with writing reports on their progress and one, in the form of letter, was read out by Henry Willink at the Central Executive meeting in April. The following are extracts from the letter,
The first house is doing its job well. Mark II BEF is about to open. Three more houses are in active preparation. The demand far exceeds supply. If provision can be made there will be at least three more houses, making eight.
Many members are taking their pals to their own Toc H meetings in all sorts of places. Many other soldiers and airman ask: ‘What is Toc H? Why haven’t we struck this before?’ They will find the first part of the answer in the Houses out there – their temporary homes.
Grahame Hamilton had to leave, his appointment had always been only temporary. His knowledge of France (and French food) was sorely missed. Meanwhile Padre Ben Dakin of Mark I in Notting Hill and Hugh Pilcher – Warden of the Toc H Services Club at Fleet – were getting ready to join the team as Mark II BEF had already been identified and more staff were needed. Hugh Bonham-Carter from Toc H Poona was recruited and Padre Austen ‘Appy’ Williams, a hosteller at Mark VII was ear-marked to go over. Williams arrived 4th May with Bonham-Carter about the same time. Pilcher and Williams joined the original team in Lille whilst Dakin started the house at Rouen (Mark II BEF) and was joined by Padre Norman Macpherson, Warwick Jackson, and Jock Steele with his wife. Bonham-Carter was to help Rex Calkin get a third house started in Douai. A fourth was also planned for Albert.
In April Pat wrote this letter to Leigh Groves
My dear Leigh,
I am sure that you will be interested to have news of the House your generosity has made possible in France. In many ways it is reminiscent of Mark XIV – it has the same feeling of stability, of honest workmanship and homeliness. It belonged – as Mark XIV had – originally to a doctor. It’s a town house, opening on one of the principal streets of this large city. On the ground floor are three large reception rooms where we serve tea and have noise and games and the radio. Up a broad oak staircase to the first floor where we have a large lounge furnished with arm chairs – an almost unknown luxury to 99% of our visitors – a quiet room, a writing room, a bathroom and a Chapel. Above are bedrooms where we can put up about a dozen casual visitors in addition to “the staff”; i.e. Reg Staton, Hugh Pilcher and myself.
By general consent Mark I, B.E.F., is the best show in the Forward Areas and it is the envy of all the other ‘philanthropic bodies’ – Church Army, Y.M.C.A., Church of Scotland Huts and Salvation Army.
The House is generally pretty full but at weekends it’s packed out, and we are hard put to it to make tea quick enough and to cut sandwiches for our hungry visitors. The proof of the pudding is the fact that every one that comes once, comes again, bringing his pals with him., I wish you could see your House – I think you would be proud of it and feel that your cheque was instrumental in bringing a little brightness, a little comfort, and a touch of home into the rather drab, monotonous lives of the lads who are serving our country out here.
It’s a long time since I saw you but I’m proud to have had a part in bringing Mark I B.E.F. into being,
My kindest regards to Mrs. Leigh and with a heart full of gratitude for what you have done.
Shortly afterwards Pat needed to return home to fulfil his promise to the bishop. He made it out just before the storm broke. Germany attacked from the west on the 10th May 1940 invading the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
This extract from his private biography, written by his son-in-law Philip Leonard Johnson describes his escape.
However, he made his way to the nearest port, only to find the quay strewn with dead bodies. The Germans had got there first. By immense good fortune he obtained a taxi to the next port, where the very last ship to leave France was about to sail. He was in uniform but had no papers, and as soon as he tried to board the ship he was arrested as a suspected deserter. A frantic search followed for a staff officer who could identify Leonard. This was virtually impossible as the German onslaught had begun and communications were almost all cut. However, someone was at last found and papers were given. Leonard sailed home in the company of a King’s Messenger and the artist who had up to the last minute been painting a portrait of the General – so ‘phoney’ was the War at that stage, Leonard arrived in Hatfield on the Saturday evening, to take the Whitsunday Services the next day – to the considerable relief of those responsible, he having (albeit reluctantly) obeyed the bishop’s order to the letter
Reg Staton says it was around 15th May when things began to happen around Lille. The town was quickly overrun by civilians and troops fleeing the advancing German troops. French refugees, bombed out of their houses and who had lost everything, turned up at the club looking for food and shelter. The Toc H team of course obliged.
Calkin and Bonham-Carter had been spending some time in Douai setting up the House and they were there on 16th May but on 17th went to Lille to collect Pilcher and travelled to Poperinge to look into reopening of the Old House. They likely found some refugees at the House as the Imperial War Graves Commission were using it for an evacuation point as they tried to get their people to Le Havre. If there were troops in the area Pilcher was going to stay behind to run the house with the help of Rene and Alida Berat but since there were no troops Pilcher didn’t stay. Rene was confident the British troops would arrive and had stocked up with cigarettes! Calkin stopped in on Padre Ralph Dye in Ieper that day. They dropped Pilcher at Lille and went on to Douai.
On 18th May Staton, Williams, and Pilcher convened to discuss their future. They elected to remain. Minutes later a lorry turned up filled up with Roman Catholic nursing sisters and their civilian charges. Toc H fed and nurtured them as best they could before sending them on their way.
Meanwhile Calkin and Bonham-Carter were told to evacuate Douai by the Town Mayor so packed their car up and returned to Lille where they spent the night. A Church Army Padre (Probably Pop Sheppard) reported seeing all five together in Lille on Sunday 19th May. That day was when the pair decided to try their luck in Douai again and returned. Having found the town in dire straits (The House there was eventually destroyed by bombing) they collected some more stuff from the club and headed once more to Poperinge. They spent the night in the Old House but still with no troops to service they decided to collect the others from Lille and head to Rouen. Before they left they spent some time in the chapel. Baron later said that when he returned to the House in 1944 the last entry in the Padre’s log showed, in Rex Calkin’s hand, that Calkin, Bonham-Carter and Pilcher had taken prayers there on May 20th.
Following this they arrived in Lille later in the day where they informed the others they must be ready to move within an hour. Despite being full of troops the Lille House was rapidly closed. Calkin, Bonham-Carter, and Williams set off in one car and headed for Poperinge. Staton and Pilcher along with their cook Madame Clemence and someone called Platts took the Renault van and headed for Rouen where they were to join the others at the House there. Staton and Pilcher left at 11am and joined the long line of refugees fleeing Lille. They only got as far as St Pol when the car broke down. It was repaired but broke down again the following day (21st) just 20 kilometres later with the Germans close by. They stayed hidden for a few hours but eventually surrendered to the Commander of a German Anti-Aircraft battery near Vieil-Hesdin
Calkin, Bonham-Carter, and Williams also set off the same day but finding the roads blocked by refugees near St Pol, they turned up a side road and ran straight into a German motorised column. They were immediately captured.
Staton & Williams at back with (l-r) Bonham-Carter, Calkin and Pilcher seated
Of the Rouen team Jock Steele had returned to the UK on the 18th May to take his wife home – British women were ordered to be evacuated – with the intention of returning which of course was denied. The next day Dakin was sent on Tubby’s orders to Cannes re the establishment of a club down there, thus he was in safe territory when the Germans rolled through. Norman McPherson, George Bramall and Warwick Jackson remained at the Rouen house as long as they could but set out on the 21st May by foot, train, and car to travel 250 miles to Nantes successfully avoiding the invading army.
Poperinge too was overrun, first by refugees, then retreating allied troops and eventually the advancing Germans. On 24th May the town was bombed for the first time. About 250 people died in that first air raid and many more were injured. As allied troops were evacuated through the town different reports reached England. Some said Talbot House still stood whilst everything around it was rubble, others said it was gone. Toc H member Sergeant John Summerfield called on the House on the 28th May and was given blankets by Rene. He was the last visitor British person to visit the House pre-occupation because the following day, the 29th May, the Germans arrived in Poperinge.
Over the winter of 1940/41, with little information getting out, many Toc H members resigned themselves to the fact that the Old House was destroyed. Thankfully, contact was eventually made with Rene and Alida Berat, the housekeepers, and a different truth was unveiled.
Meanwhile at the end of May 1940 Operation Dynamo began the rescue of the troops remaining in France and Belgium surrounded by Germans. This culminated in the famous Dunkirk evacuations but it was too late for the five Toc H staff who were already in German hands. Toc H only returned to France and Belgium after D-day.
Returning to the Home Front and the path forward for Toc H was becoming clearer. Initially it was believed that most service men and women would be in France but after Dunkirk it soon became clear that many thousands and thousands would be based in UK camps; War Services Clubs in the UK were to be the new focus.
Branches that wished to open a Services Club had been told that they would have to fund it locally as any headquarters cash was to be directed to the BEF clubs being set up. After the fall of France HQ funded a few special clubs in the UK. Many branches took up the challenge with fortitude. This was achieved by grants from war funds, simple fundraising, and donations-in-kind of items required. There were concerts, dances, whist-drives, and many other events.
In 1940 the Toc H War Services Fund was registered under the War Charities Act 1940. It was entirely separate from other Toc H finances and when the clubs closed several gave any excess cash away to other local charities working with Service men and women rather than to the local branch or Toc H HQ. The defined purpose of the fund was:
That all monies raised or received by Toc H Incorporated for the purposes of its war-time activities in organising, providing, equipping, administering and staffing for the benefit of H.M. Services and others occupied in war work, Clubs, Hostels, Canteens, Rest Rooms, and other forms of hospitality and in affording the benefits and amenities usually afforded by Toc H to be paid into a separate Bank account to be known as “Toc H War Services Fund” Account and that all expenditure in connection with such activities be charged against said Account.
There were national appeals, most notably on the 4th August 1940 when Sir Colin Jardine made an appeal on BBC Home Service’s Week’s Good Cause, and on the 3rd Aug 1941 when Henry Willink broadcast a similar radio appeal. Later, a film about Toc H’s camps in Burma was made and shown in cinemas before the main film. The Group of Oil Companies were generous to Toc H war work.
In 1944 the first Toc H Gift Book was published by Frederick Muller Limited. Compiled and edited by Hilda Hughes, a respected figure in publishing circles, it was a collection of essays and stories by well-known authors such as J.B. Priestly, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare. All the proceeds went to the Toc H War Services Clubs Fund. A similar second edition appeared in 1947.
In Australia a photographic exhibition of seventy photographs showing war damage in the UK that had been sent to the Courier Mail by the London Press Club and the British Ministry of Information was held in Brisbane City Hall basement in November 1941. Proceeds from the exhibition were to aid funds for the Toc H Services Club.
At its peak there were said to be around 300 clubs in Britain of which 12 were for women. Thirty-six were run by headquarters, the rest locally. Some were opened for workers – as opposed to service men and women – under the Ministry of Labour. One example of this was Cotton House in Rugby School which opened in October 1941. The premises were requisitioned by the Ministry of Labour and run by Toc H as a hostel for war workers who didn’t live in Rugby. It was run on the same lines as the Services Clubs. The Warden was W. James Richardson, a member of Toc H HQ staff. Toc H also ran the Old School House as a hostel for conscripted or transferred women workers (Mostly in munitions factories).
Most – but not all – took the name Talbot House. Some only opened in the evening; others were open all day. Most had a warden though some were run by a committee. The League of Women Helpers (Renamed Toc H Women’s Section in 1943 in recognition of their war work) often ran the canteen (as well as their own clubs) and other organisations, in particular the WVS and the Scouts, sent volunteers to assist. This was most necessary as many branches lost up to 80% of their men to war work. Guests and visitors were encouraged to attend local branch nights and, if they wished, to join Toc H – many did!
An unspecified club for service women (Photo Toc H archives)
The clubs typically had sleeping accommodation, a canteen, a chapel, lounges for games and relaxing, though the smaller ones lacked the bedrooms. Like the original Talbot House, their aim was to provide all the comforts of home. One club provided 50 pairs of bedroom slippers, again harking back to an Old House tradition. Some clubs went a little further. Men who arrived with soaking feet were stripped of their socks and had their feet plunged into a bowl of warm water. Their socks were dried and returned along with a brand-new pair as a present. Tubby could not have helped but notice the allegory of Jesus washing the feet of Mary Magdelene.
As one newspaper reporter remarked about the Club at Reading:
Once again war has revealed, under the friendly roof of Talbot House, the fascinating diversity of occupations and sectors of life represented by men in the services.
A soldier’s review
Another journalistic description of an unnamed club in the south of England,
The gramophone was being played, the radio was pouring out dance music, darts were being thrown, cards were being dealt, magazines and books were being read, coffee and cakes were being consumed…in other words Talbot House got off with a flying start
And nothing was too much trouble as one Scottish member wrote:
A naval chaplain (Toc H Padre) blew in to see a member. After the first greeting he said, ‘Can you provide meals for forty young seaman who haven’t been ashore for five weeks?’. The Club certainly did and added a jolly singsong into the bargain.
We have already looked at some of the earliest clubs, now let’s take a look at a just a few of the others.
Bedford is a typical example. In late 1939 a local builder, George Langley, offered the branch three houses he owned in a terrace on Bromham Road (31, 33, & 35). In February 1940, with the help of the local Rotary Club, Toc H opened the houses up as Talbot House. The Reverend John ‘Jack’ Palmer came from London headquarters to get it up and running. It was immediately successful and later in the year Langley let them extend it into three more houses in the terrace. Palmer was posted to the Chilterns in October 1941 and was replaced as Warden by the Reverend Robert McRoberts. They faced a setback early in 1942 when a fire destroyed their library and 300 books were lost. John L’Anson was overcome by fumes and had to be rescued by fireman but fully recovered. The club closed in August 1945 as the need was diminishing but they were also struggling with staffing issues.
There was also a Servicewomen’s Club in St Mary’s Street late on in the war. It opened in March 1944 under the wardenship of Mrs A Davies although in 1945 she was replaced by Elizabeth Fenton. The club closed later than the Servicemen’s Club and its swansong in June 1946 was a party where Land Girls served a meal up to the Toc H volunteers. Its fixtures and fittings were auctioned off at the end of the month.
Bedford though, differed from most towns in one respect. In 1951 it revived a Services Club in Greyfriars Walk, off Midland Road, to serve troops stationed around Bedford. There were very few post-war clubs in the UK.
Like Bedford, Chester was fairly typical. After temporarily setting up a club in Sealand Road, one David Hughes lent a house at 18 Upper Northgate Street – known as the House of Spring – to Toc H for the duration of the war. The 12-bed property started operating as a War Services Club in November 1940 but didn’t open officially until the 8th February 1941. Lady Gordon-Finlayson opened the House and afterwards there was a dedication in the Refectory of Chester Cathedral where Light was taken. Tubby, bound for Orkney, was due to appear at both but running late – not an unusual state of affairs for Tubby – he arrived right at the very end. He was still able to give a speech.
The first Warden was Canadian Mr F Hayward, who later went on to be the Warden of Oxford Clubs. The coal cellar of the House was converted into a chapel – furnished courtesy of Lady Gladstone of Harwarden – and was dedicated by the Bishop of Chester in December 1941. An adjoining house was later taken over to expand the club which closed in November 1945 when the house was sold and Toc H’s lease ended.
Plymouth (Photo Toc H Archives)
Plymouth was of course, like Portsmouth, a major naval town but it was not until 10th October 1940 that its first club – named Little Chummy – was opened by Devonport branch. This was at Bayswater Terrace on North Road and was specifically aimed at troops waiting for trains at nearby North Road station. It was little more than a few mattresses placed on the floor. A much more prodigious club opened at 26 Union Street on Saturday the 1st February 1941. The club was a gift from the British War Relief Society of America and was named Toc H Service Club of America No. 1. It’s first Warden was Stuart Greenacre who I have written about here . Mrs Rex Benson represented the American relief organisation at the opening and Tubby was also present.
After Stuart was moved in May 1941, Bob Sawers, for years the Scottish Secretary of Toc H, replaced him. In September 1942 Toc H put on a special night for American and French soldiers and served hamburgers, frankfurters, corn on the cob, ‘real’ coffee and French mustard, all rarities in the UK at that time even without war-time rationing.
Those who know me well, will be aware I hold my ancestral home of Great Yarmouth close to my heart so I’m glad that I am able to reproduce this account of the Yarmouth War Services Club from an earlier blog about Toc H in that town.
The Yarmouth Branch decided to turn their HQ at 146a King Street into a club. It opened in October 1939 and was initially run by Inky Bean, later famous in Toc H circles as Warden of the Toc H Club for Seafaring Boys in Southampton. The club was centred round a canteen but also had two quiet rooms (for reading), a games room, and a chapel and was soon much used, not least by the older soldiers of the Pioneer Corps who found their billets in the summer chalets of the local holiday camps. In 1940 a journalist from the Yarmouth Mercury visited the Club. This is their report in full.
Thus I could see, almost right away after I had turned in through the doorway in Row 105 and had mounted the stairs that the house had that indefinable quality known as the “Toc H atmosphere”.
For one thing when I pushed through the canteen door-bearing the famous superscription, “Abandon all rank ye who enter here” – nobody stared at me inquisitively, and for another, someone came forward to talk with me straight away. Not curiously, for not for a moment did his manner imply that I was a stranger there, but rather as though I had been there many times before and was looking in again after a long absence. In truth I had not been in the building in my life, though from that instant I felt that I had known it for a great while. Now this is a great feat to achieve.
After he had shown me round the premises-a canteen, two reading rooms “quiet” rooms as they are called, a games room and a chapel, he told me how Toc H had been born and had grown up here.
He was a member of the original Toc H and remembered the Rev. ‘Tubby’ Clayton taking Communion [in] the loft of a farm.
Since those days Toc H had spread to many countries, Germany and France included, and recently its 300th branch started work in Iceland.
After the war, Clayton wrote to Inky and one or two other men in Yarmouth and in 1920 they held their first meeting in a room in a warehouse. They were a small group to begin with.
“We have never gone in for much publicity,” he said, “and it is surprising how many people think we are a boys club. They don’t realise we are a movement for men, and that we have a women’s organisation, the League of Women Helpers as well.”
Toc H now has a house for its headquarters. This is important, because the idea of a house – one of the earliest needs of mankind is essential in Toc H, and one which outsiders must grasp [to] understand the movement.
..it will be seen how important it is to have a house. Yarmouth Toc H, then, found itself a house; originally it was a condemned building. Paper was hanging from the walls in moist and musty festoons. The floors were unsound, the paint bad, and overall was [a] coating of dirt and decay. Upon this unpromising material the members hastened with the enthusiasm only possessed by those who are working for an ideal. Day by day, week-end by week-end, the house changed. First came the cleaning, then the alteration and decoration, then the furnishing. The women helpers, for instance, painted and papered the quiet room, other members converted other rooms to new uses.
“Where did you get the pews?” I asked as we stood in the chapel. “Well, I don’t really know,” Inky replied, “We needed them. Someone said, “I think I can get some.’ They came. Most of Toc H happened that way.”
Just about a year ago Toc H decided to open a Forces Club in Yarmouth. The peace-time activities of the branch had been hit by the war and so in October 1939, the branch took the step of returning to the original Toc H conception. It was to be a house where members of the Services could do as they pleased; there would be food; there would be companionship; both human and spiritual. It is an arduous undertaking and could scarcely have been the success it is had it not been for the help of a small group of members, and the League of Women Helper, who with relays of voluntary workers run the canteen. They serve 3000 cups of tea and coffee a week. Often there are 300 visitors at the week-end. Then, too, the club has compiled a list of friends who are willing to provide a bed for a man who may have a day or two of leave. The notice board is a reflection of Toc H activities as well; it bears the addresses and little street plans showing where a score of branches are in the British Isles. The board reveals too, the desire for human companionship “C Mathieson of Aberdeen would like to meet someone from the same place’ ran a postcard that was pinned up.
Someone is in the club – “on duty” is the wrong word to describe such a presence – to talk with men who come in and make them feel at home. Sometimes it is Inky, who comes in his overalls straight from his work, at other times it is his brother, an ex-Guardsman, or maybe another member; but the point is that there is always someone.
An incident that happened a little while ago illustrates the Toc H spirit at work.
Up at one end of the canteen was a group of four or five young soldiers, aged eighteen or thereabouts, in very obviously new uniforms. They all looked thoroughly miserable and rather scared.
“What’s the matter?” asked Inky.
“Oh, we’re fed up.”
“Fed up. What’s the trouble?”
“We don’t know what to do. We’ve never been away from home before; we hate the army.” Was the plaintive and rather pitiful reply.
“I know, I know” says Inky “I was 18 when I was in the Army. I know what it is like. I’ve had the feelings too. But you want to see things straight.”
He began to talk to them-fatherly, friendly gradually drawing them out.
“See those fellows over there,” he said, pointing, “they were new three months ago, just like you, but they have shaken down well enough.”
Inky took them into another room, one of the reading rooms, brought them cups of tea, nursed them almost, and began to get them to talk. By the end of the evening they were getting on well with other men in the room and had lost their shyness. They came nearly every night after that for weeks.
“As you know,” he said to me, “the basis of Toc H is religious. We do not ram the religion down men’s throats. We don’t urge them to go to church. We hold services and if they want to stay away they do; if not they come. We try to interest men in their spiritual welfare, but we go to work gradually.”
“I remember there was a group I was talking with one night. I said that we were having a service in an hour and if they cared to come they would be welcome. ‘Oh no’ they said, we are going. They had not much use for church or parsons anyway. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘Still, don’t you think it’s good to a little thought now and then to more serious matters in life. Isn’t it perhaps because we haven’t done so that the old world is now in such a mess?’
“That started a bit of a discussion. Anyway, an hour later they were still there, so I mentioned that the service was going to begin and went out. Some of them attended; it was quite informal, and afterwards they came back into the room arguing and talking with the padre. Afterwards, some of them came quite regularly.”
The difficulty, Inky told me, was partly that men on the whole are a little suspicious and think that a parson is going to put a fast one over on them, but an even greater difficulty is to find a good padre. Too often a strain of patronage creeps in; it may be quite unknown to the parson concerned, but its effect shows immediately, for he finds that he is avoided by all but a few.
Needless to say there is no class distinction within the walls of Toc H. The degree to which this bugbear spirit can be exorcised was shown one day when the house was undergoing transformation at the hands of a working party. Those who were there included a bank clerk, a printer, a cattle market attendant– all on an equal and friendly footing.
As Inky said “there’s nothing like papering a room together to break down class distinction!”
As I went downstairs, past the smaller quiet room much used as a study by N.C.Os., and past the chapel where a sailor comes time and again to play the organ in the darkness, I reflected that the papering process, seemed to be working well within these walls.
I remarked as much to Jack, my companion who had been with me at the beginning of the evening, but had slipped off to talk to people while I was chatting with Inky.
“Yes, you’re right,” he replied. “I found that out when I was talking with some of these fellows. It’s a pity more paper-hanging isn’t done outside Toc H.”
Across the Yare in Gorleston, there were also clubs. In 1940 Gorleston men’s branch ran a club on Pier Plain but when, in April 1941, they lost the use of those premises, they reopened the canteen in the Minor Hall over the Coliseum cinema in the High Street where it remained until the end of the war. Here servicemen could get tea, coffee, sandwiches or a fry up by Mrs Nichols. Members of the LWH served at the counter and were assisted by the partially sighted Cyril. Ruritanian Mountain scenes were painted on the walls by a soldier who had been a scene painter for Ivor Novello productions (and remained on the walls until the Coliseum was demolished).
Later a house in Palmer Road was used for baths and upstairs was a small library and rest room where there would be gramophone recitals on a Sunday. Toc H Gorleston also provided distinctively painted (In Toc H’s black and orange colour scheme) bicycles at the railway stations for the use of troops; they were always returned. At the end of the war in Europe surplus furniture was sold off and the proceeds helped provide a canteen in Malaya for the men still fighting the war in the Far East.
Hampton Hall, Coventry
Coventry is also worth noting because its first club, Talbot House at 4 Middlesborough Road, was destroyed by enemy bombing when the city was devastated in November 1940. A large detached residence with a pleasant garden, it was originally a six-bed house up and running by November 1939, though far from complete. Arthur Foster, from London, was installed as Warden. It was improved in August 1940 and the beds increased to 15. At this point Mr & Mrs Charles Young were Wardens.
Plans to open a replacement club in the Summer of 1942 failed to come to fruition, however in late 1942 a club for Servicewomen opened at Hampton Hall, 157 Warwick Road, the home of the late Dr John Bradley. It was officially opened on the 28th January 1943 by Lady Louis Mountbatten with a guard of honour drawn from the ATS and the WAAF. The hostel had accommodation for 22 girls. Lady Mountbatten spoke of her personal experience of Toc H clubs in Malta and elsewhere where they looked after the Royal Navy.
South Shields, or rather Westoe village, is another interesting one. It has its roots in a Community House set up in 1938 using a grant under the Oil Companies Special Area Scheme – a government initiative to help certain areas during the 1930s Depression. The house, named Trinity House, had strong Toc H connections in that Ronald Wraith who was Toc H Eastern Area Secretary became first Warden on the 1st September 1938, and Richard Newcombe Craig, Toc H Padre in South Shields was one of the prime movers.
Westoe Village (South Shields)
Perhaps inspired by this the branch then opened a Toc H War Services Club – initially at the Seaman’s Mission in Mill Dam – and later in Dr Gowan’s old house. The latter opened on Saturday 24th May 1940 with Ian Caldwell as Warden. Talbot House was officially opened by Mrs Chapman, wife of Colonel Robert Chapman. In August 1944 a scheme to turn the club into a War memorial to enable it to continue its work in peacetime was launched and it did continue as a Toc H club.
Westoe opening May 1940
Whilst the West Midlands were quite well covered, Birmingham strangely seemed to lack a War Services Club until the 2nd of December 1943 when Georgian House at 9 & 10 Easy Row opened as an Officers’ Club. If this seems somewhat at odds with Toc H’s non-elitist practice, it was because the club had been opened before but failed. Toc H, whose success elsewhere was well documented, were now asked to run it. It was situated in one of only three Georgian buildings remaining Birmingham at the time. The Rev Ken G. Bloxham was very involved with the fundraising and the House Committee.
Smuts House, London
Thus far we haven’t mentioned the War Services Clubs of London. Surprisingly there were not that many. Smith Huis was a Union Defence Force Institutes Club (See below for explanation of the UDFI) at 49 Princes Gate, South Kensington whilst Clarendon House was a slightly unique Toc H Club nearby at 20 Queensbury Place. This was for married service couples (One or both of whom had to be in the services). It had sleeping accommodation for 50, a restaurant (not a common canteen!) and the usual lounges. It was opened on the 14th December 1943 by Lady Clarendon. Mr & Mrs Bob Sawers (See Plymouth and York) were Warden/Housekeepers when it opened.
Clarendon House, London
If there was a flagship club in the UK then it was St Stephen’s Westminster. The government had decided to release for the war effort, some buildings it owned. The St Stephen’s Club was a private member’s club in Westminster, London, founded in 1870 and frequented by Conservative MPs. It was on the corner of Bridge Street and the Embankment, today the location of Portcullis House. It closed shortly after the outbreak of war and in early March 1940 it was handed to Toc H to run as a War Services Club, it’s mission to provide hot food and accommodation for soldiers returning from or on their way to France.
Barclay Baron, outside St Stephens (Photo Toc H Archives)
St Stephen’s opened on Wednesday the 10th April 1940 with Barclay Baron as host supported by Howard Dunnett, who was previously Warden in Bicester, and later Cambridge, Iceland, Alexandria and finally Italy with the mobile units. Joining them was Arthur Foster, who had been running a Toc H house for industrial war workers in the Midland, and Gilbert Williams who was padre and crucial to its success.
Lever Brothers and Unilever gave £500 to get it underway. The old American Cocktail bar was converted into a chapel. There was a tunnel between the club and the House of Commons, which MPs had formerly rushed through to vote when the Division Bell rang. This was turned into a kit and rifle cloakroom. With 200 beds St Stephens was no small affair. 160 of the dormitory beds were allocated by the War Office in advance but 40 beds in twin rooms were spare for ‘walk-ins’ at one shilling per night. Breakfast cost 8d, dinners 11d, and supper 9d.
Off duty at St Stephen’s
On the 19th April, shortly after it opened, the BBC broadcast a short service from the chapel conducted by Herbert Leggate.
The French at St Stephen’s
However there was a sudden turnaround in the early summer. Despite the rapid and massive success of the Club, from the 1st June 1940 it was closed to British soldiers. This twist came about in late May when the German Blitzkrieg led to the mass evacuation of France. With just 15 minutes warning to the Toc H night staff, a group of 170 exhausted French soldiers arrived at the club directly from Boulogne. The next day they passed on but hours later some French sailors arrived having rowed out from Calais under fire until they were picked up by a British trawler. Then some French civilians arrived and it seemed Toc H at St Stephens had been unofficially elected as a French specialist rest house.
St Stephen’s occupied by the French
After that it was an obvious step to turn St Stephens into the HQ of De Gaulle’s Free French government (Whose emblem coincidentally included the Cross of Lorraine, so familiar to those of Toc H) and thus the tricolour hung from a balcony overlooking Westminster Bridge. On July 14th (Bastille Day) there was a massive celebration.
In late July De Gaulle moved his Free French Committee to Carlton Gardens and by autumn St Stephen’s was back to a general services club. It was quieter now the allies were out of continental Europe in that time between Dunkirk and D-Day, and comings and goings between the continent and Britain were much reduced.
The flag of the Free French
Although perhaps quieter is the wrong word. The Blitz was upon London and Baron wrote of a night when the bombing of Westminster was heavy and those soldiers and airmen in the club were forced down to the basement. Civilians caught out in the raid arrives at the door of the club and joined the troops downstairs. There was a huge explosion as a parachute mine landed on the terrace of County Hall across the river and St Stephen’s Club had its windows blown in. Dust engulfed the upper floors. The all clear finally sounded and the next day the staff team cleared up the dust and debris. Another day began.
St Stephens closed on the 12th April 1944 and was taken over by United States Army authorities (This may have been in relation to D-Day).
And so that’s just a few of the British Clubs. A fuller list can be found in the file at the end of this blog but let’s close this section with a few little facts and statistics.
Worthing claimed to be biggest Toc H War Services Club outside London
Cambridge’s original Warden was Howard Dunnett but he was joined by Inky Bean and the Reverend Murray Gawn, giving the club the hilarious line-up of Bean and Gawn and Dunnett!
Stoke proudly announced their club had No Colour Bar (which begs the awkward question, did any have a colour bar?).
Stoke (Photo Toc H archives)
In Burnley, Toc H suggested a club and were prominent in running it though it was a United Services establishment.
The Leeds Servicewoman’s Club was opened by the Princess Royal – later Queen Elizabeth II – in Sep 1944.
I believe there was a club at Ilminster which would make sense as they were one of the branches that ran Clubs/Canteens for Show people at County Fairs before the war. This and Toc H’s support for Fairground people is on the list of future blogs.
As with anything, it was not all plain sailing. Apart from the destruction of some clubs by enemy action, Minehead was destroyed by an accidental fire though a replacement club was up and running four hours later! There were thefts of cash and objects from several clubs but more seriously there was an incident at Worthing in January 1946 when two sailors assaulted Margaret Hastie, the Warden at Worthing. And on the 5th February 1945, at the same club, Royal Marine Commando Charles Dewberry slipped and hit his head in a bath. He died almost immediately. Somewhat less tragic was the battle for the Town Hall at Ottery, perhaps a little redolent of Dad’s Army. Toc H were using the hall as a Services Club but this led to a light disagreement with the Auxiliary Fire Service who also wanted to use the hall as a shelter.
Finally, before we head overseas, what of the Marks? The war hit them badly with most houses losing more than half of their Marksmen to the services. Some, like Liverpool, Salford & Putney, simply changed into a War Services Club whilst others reinvented themselves in different ways. The London Marks were designated ‘havens’ for off duty Officer Cadets; Mark XXII in Denmark Hill held special meetings for Continental members following a meeting there of Charleroi and Brussels members now exiled in the UK. The Seafaring Boys Club in Southampton – not actually a Mark – housed naval ratings. In February 1940 there were twenty Marks open of which nine were doing special war work.
So far – clubs with the BEF prior to Dunkirk excepted – we have spoken about the Toc H Clubs in the UK only. Toc H took up the challenge all over the Dominion. As well as clubs, branches were formed where ever Toc H men gathered and a new concept, Circles, was created to bring men together without the formality of a branch. This probably needs exploring further but now is not the time.
As it was there were really two kinds of War Services Clubs overseas; those set up in the home countries to serve the needs of that country’s troops on leave or awaiting postings; and those clubs and canteens that travelled with the troops into the theatre of war.
Australia of course falls into the first category and with Toc H being so strong in that land it is no surprise that branches soon answered the call. I believe Brisbane was the first when a club on the first floor of Desmond Chambers at 303 Adelaide Street was officially opened on the 6th October 1940 by Sir Leslie Wilson, the Governor. It provided hot and cold Showers and other services and was open from 9am to 11pm daily. It was still open at Christmas 1945 but had stopped serving hot meals and finally closed on the 31st March 1946.
Three weeks after Brisbane, on the 25th October, Perth opened a club at Locksley Hall, 79 Stirling Street with Pop Whyte as Warden. It was a 21-room house but even so in October 1941 they took a lease on the next-door premises to extend the club. From the 1st June 1946 it was a Toc H hostel specifically for discharged servicemen in the city to take rehabilitation courses and by 1947 was a Toc H centre that closed completely in 1951. Perth also had a Women’s club at the Queen’s House opposite Lockley Hall. This opened in the autumn of 1942 with Beatrice Penrose as House Mother. It closed on 31st January 1946.
Fundraising Badges in Australia
In Sydney in October 1940 a club was opened on the second Floor of 12 Loftus Street, Circular Quay. Melbourne’s club was opened by the Governor on the 20th December 1940 though didn’t provide accommodation until December 1941. Shortly after that, in early 1942, they added a second property in Little Bourke Street to provide additional beds. It was known as Little Talbot House. At around the same time Toc H also opened some mobile canteens in Collins Street. The main club closed in April 1946. Adelaide and Cairns also had clubs but one last Australian club worth a mention is Townsville in North Queensland which opened on the 5th June 1943 with Eric Smith as Warden. Later that year the Club was privileged to receive a visit from Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President of the United States of America to thank everyone there for all they were doing for American Servicemen.
Though not in the Dominion, one overseas club became almost legendary in Toc H circles. The seed the Toc H War Services Club in Reykjavik, Iceland was sown in September 1940 when Rear Admiral Scott, a Toc H Vice President, put a notice in Force Orders asking that all men interesting in establishing Toc H in that country should attend a meeting (It’s a little talked about fact that the British invaded the neutral Iceland in May 1940 for fear that the Germans would occupy it as they did Denmark). The notice led to a few meetings in the Borg Hotel then in a room lent to Toc H by the Salvation Army. On the 22nd October a visiting Tubby spoke at a big meeting and it was decided that a Club should be formed. It opened at Tungata 6 on the 9th December 1940 with little ceremony.
A very old house, there was a chapel, designed by Sgt (Later Lt) Stevenson, in a separate outhouse. Initially run by Alec Churcher and Geoffrey Johnson), Warwick Jackson and then Howard Dunnett would take over later in the war. As well as the normal home comforts for the troops they established a male voice choir, and a sketching club which held exhibitions of artwork by members of the armed forces. The 1941 World Chain of Light started here. The club closed on the 17th May 1942. and the chapel furnishings were transferred to the nearby naval camp. However it left behind a Toc H branch, a Rover Scout group, a literary group, a Tic Tocs concert party, and much more. In late 1941 a second Iceland club opened and Warwick Jackson moved from Reykjavik to run it.
So now back to different climes and the Dominion once again. The approach in South Africa was totally different. Rather than operating independently through their existing network of branches, Toc H were asked to join forces with the YMCA.
In July 1940 the Chief of the General Staff of the Union Defence Forces (The combined armed forces of South Africa from 1912-1957) asked the two organisations to visit East Africa – where the majority of South African troops were deployed against Mussolini’s Italian Fascists at that time – and explore ways and means they could extend their work to the troops in that theatre of war. The decision was that both organisations should be banded together to form a military unit known as the Union Defence Force Institutes (UDFI).
UDFI Cap badge
The first club opened in Nairobi on Christmas Day 1940. It was initially planned to open three Talbot Houses in towns, seven huts in camps, and several mobile canteens and cinemas. This latter solution was particularly suited to the conditions in East Africa. When the troops moved forward to Egypt there were twenty fixed establishments in Kenya, Somaliland, and Abyssinia along with fourteen mobile canteens, and nine mobiles.
UDFI mobile cinema
Although most things were badged UDFI (YMCA – Toc H) as a simple rule of thumb Toc H provided the Talbot Houses in towns close to camps, the YMCA provided huts within camps, and the LWH provided clubs for women of the army and airforce. The mobile units tended to be mostly, but by no means wholly, YMCA. The nature of the cooperation makes it very difficult to accurately ascertain just who provided which facilities.
Mersah Mutrah UDFI for convoys crossing the desert
Over 1941 and 1942 the UDF front spread through North Africa and further, stretching from Tunisia in the west to Aleppo in the east. By 1943 the UDFI had 58 fixed establishments and 54 mobile units.
There were some South African clubs that fell outside the remit of the UDFI and were simply started by local Toc H branches. The club at Potchefstroom was one of these and it laid claim to being the first Toc H War Services Club outside Europe. Given that it opened on February 9th 1940, this might well be a valid claim. In Salisbury, after the branch failed to secure premises for a club, Mr & Mrs Barbour of Baines Avenue offered their house to Toc H for the duration. It became a Talbot House.
Wynberg, South Africa
And on the North African and Middle Eastern front Toc H also served many of these areas independently. Their clubs in the Middle East, particularly in that area bordering the Mediterranean, were especially well known.
Non European Club in Alexandria
We have of course already mentioned Alexandria because of the Fleet Club but that prestigious place was not the only Toc H club in the city. A second club with 80 beds opened 18 Rue Samboul in December 1940. Alan Cowling arrived on New Year’s Day 1941 to run it but shortly afterwards set off with Dicky Dines to Cairo to open a Talbot House at 27 Shaira Solomon Pacha (aka Soliman Pasha Street). Like Plymouth it was part funded by British War Relief Society of America and opened in February 1941 with Cowling in charge.
The housekeeper in Cairo was Mrs Gould. Under her guidance the house was perfectly run, the dining room described as “a special joy with its snow-white table cloths, serviettes, flowers, and glistening cutlery”. In a letter home one RAMC Corporal wrote:
In Cairo there is the most elaborate Talbot House I have met yet. I spent three wonderful evenings there just before Christmas. The dinners were excellent, with real roses on the tables – it was so like a bit of England amidst all this turmoil
From Cairo Services’ Guide
One regular visitor was RAF Flight Sergeant, Clifford Harker, who set up the Music For All club in Cairo, an Egyptian organisation that promoted concerts. He founded a male voice choir, directed a choral society, conducted the Egyptian premiere of Messiah in the old Cairo Cathedral and toured the Palestine Symphony Orchestra around the region. He said: “I was one of the few people to be disappointed when the war ended.” Unsurprisingly, Harker had a very successful music career after the war.
In 1943 with Rommel halted and the frontline pushed further north, Cairo became a busy leave town. So much so that the canteen at Talbot House could only cope with the hostel residents. For the itinerant troops on New Year’s Day 1944 the local branch opened a new canteen, the Hole In The Wall, in the cellar. It was an immediate hit and quite legendary. Talbot House in Cairo closed in 1947 but it’s fittings and furnishings including the chapel were moved to the Canal Zone and a new club at Fanara (See below).
Meanwhile back in Alexandria, in Passage Cherif in 1941 a special club for young naval ratings opened. Called the Under 20 Club – as that was whom it catered for – it was reputed to have the best chef in Egypt. Despite this, its unofficial motto was “You don’t pay for the food, you pay for the service”. It was run by Padre David Booth in late 1941 but Howard and Mrs Dunnett were wardens between 1943 and 1945.
Also in Alexandria was the Springbok Club run by the UDFI. Cairo too had a UDFI club called Smuts House where the Friday night Toc H meeting was always well attended.
The Springbok Club in Alexandria
There was a club in Jerusalem from 1941 until it closed on the 10th April 1948. The World Chain of Light began there in 1942. Arthur Savante (See below) was Warden there for some time but moved to run the club at Fanara.
Outside Talbot House Jerusalem on VE Day
Another club in what was then Palestine opened in Tel Aviv in 1941. It was almost certainly the only Christian house loaned by a Jewish resident, run by an English padre with an American and two Polish refugees! A worker in the house at Tel a Viv reported:
“There seems no end to the groups, circles, wings, call them what you will which have sprung up in the name of Toc H all over the Middle East. Wherever Toc H members find themselves they have kept alive a desire to meet together, bring in their pals and keep alive the fellowship.”
A news sheet, Tales from Talbot Houses in the Middle East 1939-? made at least one issue. I have no idea if copies survive.
In North Africa, west of the cluster of Talbot Houses in the Middle East, the best known club was probably Reading House in Algiers. So named because it was largely funded by the Services Club in Reading, England, it was set up by Jimmy Allen before he went off to Malta to run one of the clubs there. John Boyle was a Warden but the secretary was John Mallet, a very well-known Toc H man. Arthur Savante also had a spell as Warden before heading to India. Primarily serving RAF Maison Blanche, the chapel of Reading House acted as the camp chapel. When it closed the fixtures and fittings were transferred to Gradisca.
Reading House, Algiers
The entrance to Talbot House in Addis Ababa
The Eight Army also spread to Italy and Sicily. The first club on this front was in Bari which started after a visit by Tubby in August 1944. It set up a special Toc H Tanker Hospitality Service to provide for the personnel of oil tankers and other merchant vessels entering the port.
Later in the war, Toc H started to open clubs in the Far East, South East and East Asia. Not just Service Clubs but rest and leave camps. There were also many mobile units in this theatre. A leave camp on the beach at Elephant Point in Arakan was particularly appreciated by troops who could not go back to the UK on leave this far from home. At one point it was also used for treating men with malaria. The club closed just before the monsoon season began in May 1944 but reopened when the dry season returned.
There was another camp at Chiringa in Arakan which opened in early 1944 and was initially just a canteen for West Indian troops with the British section of the club opening later. Captain Ronald Littlewood wardened this club.
Staff quarters Meiktela (Photo courtesy Andrew Wilson)
Heather Bell was a South African Toc H member who went to work in the Clubs in Burma. She gives this account of one place – Meiktila – that she worked:
“The club I ran in conjunction with the Warden was ideally situated on the tree-fringed shores of a lake which stretched for some three or four miles and afforded excellent boating and swimming. Legend has it that this artificial lake was built over 2,000 years ago by the grandfather of Gautama Buddha. The story maybe a myth but the lake is reality and an absolute godsend in a place where the temperature hovers between 1090F and 1120F! Into this lake flow the waters of Mount Popa which the Burmese believe is inhabited by gnats or evil spirits. They are superstitious people, and I remember once, while on a visit to the southern Shan State, coming upon a procession marching through the village to the accompaniment of gongs, bells and cymbals. Climbing out of the jeep, we joined the procession which finally assembled at the base of two huge wooden towers, some squatting on the ground, others standing around in small groups and all wearing the lovely Shan hats with their conical crowns and wide brims. As we watched, fascinated, a sudden shout arose from the crowd while a series of rockets went soaring through the air leaving a trail of grey smoke in their wake. It was fortunate that our visit should have coincided with that of the British Resident, the only European in the village apart from ourselves, who acted as interpreter and explained that as the chief and his family were ill, the rockets had been fired to ward off the evil spirits which were said to have assailed the village with sickness and misery.”
George Measures and Heather Bell, Welfare Officer (Photo courtesy Andrew Wilson)
One of the more notable Indian clubs was Deolali. Rupert Bliss (Formerly of Portsmouth and Woking) was its first Warden. He arrived expecting to find a ready-made club but instead found a plot of land. A well-equipped bungalow was eventually built with a hall at the centre along with the usual reading and writing room, a games room, and the canteen. The canteen was deliberately equipped to look like an English café rather than an army canteen. There was no need for accommodation given it was on a camp.
It must be noted at this point that there appeared to be some very un-Toc H like segregation in this arena, with separate camps for officers, other ranks, and British and Indian troops!
It’s difficult to single out Wardens as so many made amazing contributions during the war years but Uncle Arthur deserves a special mention. Arthur Servante was considered a fixture of the 25th Division. From India he went with them to the Arakan Coast, where ran the rest camp at Elephant Point, then the Club at Maungdaw, both nearer the fighting line than any clubs had gone before. As the Division advanced through the Burma jungle, Servante became mobile taking his equipment with him across the Irawaddy and, at the end, in the Malay landing. The 25th Division is disbanded and Servante move to the Middle East becoming a Commissioner in Palestine post war. He was awarded an MBE for his work.
A camp in Burma
As mentioned earlier, an appeal film entitled When I Was In Burma narrated by Commander A.B. Campbell was shown in cinemas to raise funds. Toc H members with collecting tins stood outside the cinemas where it was shown.
We have mentioned mobile units a few times and I’ll be honest here – trying to accurately and comprehensively write the history of the mobile units would take more time and access to more detailed records than I have, assuming those records even still exist. This next section is little more than overview. The list accompanying this blog contains a number of the mobile units.
In short they were trucks and vans converted into mobile canteens that either operated within a certain area or travelled alongside troops on particular fronts. In the latter case they would normally be attached to a particular brigade or other military unit.
One of the mobile units designed for the Western Front
One of the first – possibly the very first – mobile Toc H canteen was in Alexandria and comprised of two three-ton trucks which carried supplies but also four marquees which could be erected to create a temporary Services Club. They worked with the 7th Armoured Brigade in Egypt (aka The Desert Rats) and went with them when they transferred to Italy in April 1944.
Later, special units were designed to work on Western Front and the mobile canteen concept was carried through to Toc H’s work with BAOR which will be covered in another blog.
Miss Bourhill, the first woman driver to cross the channel after D-Day
Now, in this partially geographical, partially chronological look at the Toc H War Services Cubs, let us return to Continental Europe and the period following D-Day. As we learned earlier, Toc H left the Continent after the German Blitzkrieg of May 1940, those captured as POWs or forced to live under occupation in Poperinge excepted. They returned a few weeks after the D-Day landings as the allied troops advanced through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and into Germany.
Talbot House back in service
Talbot House itself was liberated when the Polish troops rolled into Poperinge on 6th September 1944. As soon as was possible Toc H staff came out to check on the house and start to restore it. It was used briefly as billets but reopened as a club for troops on the 8th December. If you want to know more about this period then I highly recommend Jan Louagie’s book Talbot House in the Second World War, which was published earlier this year.
Outside the Leave Centre in Brussels
The first Toc H club to open in liberated Europe was actually the Leave Centre at 28-30 Boulevard Waterloo, Brussels which opened in September 1944. A three-storey building with well-proportioned rooms, it was actually three houses knocked into one and originally used to house Belgian Officers. During the occupation it was used by German NCOs. Toc H took it on and installed H Molland, formerly of Bicester and Wrotham, as Warden.
Next was the club at Mechelen (Malines as it was known in French at the time) in Belgium which was also the first to close when it was no longer needed in mid-1945. These were followed by Belgian clubs in Antwerp – an ornate building on a cobbled street, with a balcony and steep roof ; Uccle in Brussels – a former communal school on Avenue Houzeau with 300 beds where J Pett was installed as Warden; Roulers – the nearest to Poperinge where Shaun Herron was Warden; and De Hanne – which was described as a seaside convalescence home.
There was also a club in France at St Omer but with the allies advancing east, the need was greater in the interior, thus Germany was next. By June 1945 – one year after the D-Day landings – there were eight Toc H Clubs in Germany. In November 1945 Toc H War Services work was superseded by Toc H Services work which would continue for several decades. Toc H with the British Army of the Rhine is to be a separate blog, probably very early next year so let us just look briefly at those first clubs.
The first Toc H Club in occupied Germany opened at Suchteln in the spring of 1945. Formerly a tavern called the Krefelderhof on Hindenburgstrasse, Harry Ashton was installed as Warden. Interestingly a special token was created to spend in the Club, something that would be continued later. It didn’t last very long – the army was advancing rapidly – and was soon moved to Bad Salzuflen.
Tokens were introduced for the troops
A second club opened at Nienburg near Hanover but by July 1945 had moved to Hanover itself. Gottingen opened mid-1945. The others were at Fallingbostel, Herne, Lubeck, Soest, and Berlin (Spandau)
Finally, we’ll take a brief look at a few clubs that opened either at the very tail-end of the war or during the post war period. The most interesting of these was Kowloon – in Hong Kong which was of course still British, but on the Chinese mainland. Opening on the 19th October 1945, the building they planned to use had been badly damaged by Japanese troops. When sorting through the rubble the Services Team found a piece of stone with a Toc H lamp on it. It turned out to be part of memorial carved in honour of Toc H member Terence Ellacott, a civil engineer responsible for getting a road built to the local orphanage the local branch supported. Hong Kong fell before it could be completed and Ellacott sadly died. The Services Team were able to finish constructing a memorial to him.
In 1947, under the wardenship of Jim and Jeanne Stevens, moved from Kowloon to a house at 50 McDonnell Road on the island itself. This Talbot House was finally handed over for the branch to run in 1950 and it closed in 1954.
In Egypt, British troops were withdrawn from the cities and garrisoned around the Suez Canal. The UK was desperately trying to protect its economic interests and were faced with constant attacks from nationalists. It was, by all accounts, a very unpopular posting. A club opened at Fayid in March 1947 and as we saw above, the Cairo club moved to Fanara. Arthur Savante became Warden but the real prime mover in this area was Frank Coleman Cross. The club closed in 1954 so was gone before the Suez crisis really broke out in 1956. There was also a canteen at Adabiya near the southern end of the canal.
Frank Coleman Cross
There was a Talbot House in Nicosia, Cyprus.
And we are almost at the end of our journey now. The majority of UK clubs were closed by late 1945 although some kept going into 1946 and Chichester pushed on until 1949. Many staff from the UK clubs were released to serve at clubs in Germany or other theatres where troops were still active. That part of Toc H’s work was done and now they had a role to play in rebuilding the country.
Earlier we mentioned a revival of the Services Club tradition at Bedford, and there is one final club that needs to be listed. At Wendover in Buckinghamshire Toc H built and opened a special club to primarily serve the men of nearby RAF Halton. Its need was identified and an appeal was launched in 1946. The Foundation Stone was laid in 1947 by Lord Cottesloe and the completed club was opened on Saturday the 19th June 1948 by Lord Tedder Marshall of the RAF. Decorative gardens were added in 1950 and opened with a Garden Party on the 22nd June. The first Wardens were Cecil and Nancy Starbuck who had been running a Club in Palestine. The canteen was adopted by Reading Services Club who provided equipment.
Apart from the fact it was a rare post-war Services Club, it would later become significant to the movement. The Club closed on 31st May 1959 and was leased out as offices but in the early 1970s when Toc H sold their headquarters on Tower Hill the Wendover building became first the Administrative HQ and then the main headquarters of the entire Movement. It remained as such until Toc H needed to downsize at the beginning of the 21st century.
Men from the Wendover Club
So that’s pretty much the story of the Toc H War Services Clubs. This link opens a PDF document containing a list of all the clubs I could identify with a few details about them. It is not comprehensive and as always I welcome any additions, corrections, or amplifications.
Register of Toc H Service Clubs compiled by Steve Smith Sept 2022
Talbot House in the Second World War by Jan Louagie MBE (Talbot House)
War Record of Union Defence Forces Institute 1936-1946 by T.R. Ponsford
Bishop Pat Leonard DSO – A Memoir by Philip Leonard Johnson (This privately published memoir was made available online here by Moonbrand Publications with the kind permission of Philip Leonard Johnson.
With the 12th Army in Burma by Heather Bell
Thanks are particularly due to Jan Louagie, Mark Eccleston and the Cadbury Research Library, and to Andrew Wilson