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As Dim As A TOC-H Lamp

Toc-H lamp. Upper Room, Talbot House. Authors image

The phrase ‘As dim as a Toc-H lamp’ you would be forgiven if, like many, you thought that this was a derogatory phrase describing someone as dim witted. Indeed, in the 1979 Thames TV series ‘Danger UXB about a Royal Engineer unit in Second World War London defusing unexploded bombs, an officer describes a sapper as being ‘dim as a Toc-H lamp.’ Another view, however, can be found from an article about the Toc-H movement in the Illustrated Chronicle, Leicester of 20 September 1963, the Secretary of the Leicester Toc-H said: ‘Our lamps may have a small flame, but our spirit is bright as ever… Actually, the saying ‘As dim as a TOC-H lamp’ is quite accurate. A lamp is our symbol. We always have one lit at our meetings. But those old-fashioned oil and wick lamps only have a small flame.


The Birmingham Post October 1965

An article in The Birmingham Post of 9 October 1965 ’50 years of TOC-H, by Margaret Cooper: ‘It is a movement which is difficult to define.… and unfairly, has been responsible for the cursory description of people whose wits are not all that strong—“As dim as a Toc H lamp.” …Small groups still meet regularly throughout the country and, what is more important, attract young people. They hold their symbolic ceremony of the lamps at the beginning. But this is kept short. The lighting of the lamp, a replica of those used by the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome, with the double cross of Lorraine on its handle, is the signal for all to stand in silence. “The Silence of Remembrance.” Then having shone in the darkness, so to speak, the light is darkened again. Just a short ceremony; anything more would turn Toc H into a senior Sunday school. Members do object to the “Dim as a Toc H lamp” simile because their lamp is not supposed to be as bright as a 100-watt bulb, only a light shining in the darkness.


The idea that the phrase is a derogatory term is used in a short story about the Hale and Rowley Foundry Prize Silver Band that was published in The Birmingham Post on 24 December 1970: … ‘Mid-verse, Albert paused, tapped the unemployed triangelist [sic] on the shoulder and said: “Off yer go, kid. Throw ’em a salute and wish ’em a merry Christmas and ’old out the box like I told yer.” Albert shook his head sadly before resuming his music: “Dim as a Toc H lamp,” he muttered. “And that’s not a bad idea, either. We’ll do the Toc H next, then the YMCA, then the British Legion, then the RAFA Club . . .


How it All Began

There are many who have written about Toc-H and given their interpretation of how it all began. My favourite version is from Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1925), by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons:

Authors image

TOC H: The War name for Talbot House, Poperinghe, “Toc” being the signallers’ vernacular for the letter “T”. The original “Toc H” was opened on December 15th, 1915, being named in memory of Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot of the Rifle Brigade, killed at Hooge in the previous July. A second “Toc H” was opened at Ypres in 1916. The purpose was to provide a place of rest and a social centre for all ranks; an institution equipped with a “quiet room”, library, attractive tea-room, a chapel, and a garden. Church of England in foundation and ideals, the resident chaplain and superintendent welcomed all new comers, of whatever form or belief, and the chapel ever stood open to all, regardless of creed, unobtrusively offering its restful consolation. Poperinghe, as the military metropolis of the Salient during upwards of two years, was visited by thousands of officers and men, for practically every one of whom “Toc H”, with its unique atmosphere and surroundings, proved alike a club and a home from home. [The writer of this entry, for one, well remembers tramping into Poperinghe one Sunday afternoon from Dirty Bucket Camp, and how at “Toc H”, with a book from the library on “English Cathedrals”, as he sat reading on the lawn, he experienced the first respite from war conditions he had been able to obtain for many months. For that he will ever be grateful for Talbot House]. After the Armistice, “Toc H” was transferred by its founder, the Rev. P. H. Clayton, to London, establishing headquarters as “Mark I” at All Hallows, Barking. There it maintains itself as an association pledged “to conquer hate and consecrate humour, its members drawn from all classes of society and devoting themselves to carry into everyday practice the straightforward standard of fairmindedness, unselfishness, helpfulness, and Christian outlook—termed the four points of our Compass”. Toc H. obtained its Royal Charter as a self-governing body in 1922. Its chaplains (padres) are of all Christian denominations. The Prince of Wales is patron, and its groups and branches have spread over Great Britain and are spreading over the Empire.

Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian 25 Nov 1933

In the Fraser and Gibbons version they say that the House is named after Neville Talbot’s younger brother Gilbert who was killed at Hooge in July 1915. In an interview with Neville Talbot that appeared in the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian of November 25, 1933, he states: ‘..Clayton and I planned to call it ‘Church House’ but Maj. May didn’t approve he said to me ‘During the six weeks while we have been busy getting things together for the house I have always in mind called it Talbot House.’  As regards my young brother, his name came in the whole matter later. He had nothing to do with the foundation of the house, nor was it, to start with, in any way named after him…. His name appears at the top of the Roll of Honour, which hung on the west wall of the Chapel, and my brother’s name came first, followed by names of some of Tubby’s lads in his old parish at Portsea… and when in 1920 he and others introduced the commemoration of those who had fallen, whom they called and call ‘elder Brethren, then my brother’s name was introduced as a typical and representative elder brother.’ The romance of the House being named after Gilbert Talbot has been the accepted view in many publications.


Remembrance and Pilgrims

Canadians and Guards at Toc-H

Thousands of troops visited Toc-H from 1915 to 1918 and they came from British as well as  Commonwealth units. The famous photograph in the ‘canteen’ at Toc-H of Canadian and Guards troops together springs to mind. The Canadians called the house a ‘soft drink establishment’ and Tubby wrote that  no one resented this, lapping up tea or cocoa or Bovril with thanksgiving.’ In the summer of 1917 it was recorded that: ‘In a single day 500 francs was taken in 1d cups of tea alone.’ Today, there is a selection of beverages available including a Hommel beer.


Falkirk District Delegates Witness the 1931 Hand Over of Toc-H

With the purchase and gift of the house to the Toc-H movement by Lord Wakefield in 1931 the house became a living memorial. Present at the handover of the House were two men who were delegates from the Falkirk District branch of the Toc-H movement. The Falkirk Herald reported on their participation under the heading ‘Delegates Report on Poperinghe Ceremony’ the meeting took in the ‘Better ‘Ole’ Midget Golf Course premises on Falkirk High Street. At the meeting the ‘..impressive Ceremony of Light was performed’ Speaking as one of the delegates James Whitton said that he and his companion were proud to have been selected to represent Scotland at the ceremony in Poperinghe. After meeting up with their English counterparts in London they crossed the channel to Dunkirk were they ‘boarded an old-fashioned French bus… in the party were some interesting personalities and some famous ones. ‘Tubby’ Clayton the founder padre of Toc-H was the leader, and a great leader he was… In the bus they made the journey to Poperinghe.. The many historical landmarks they passed on the road were explained to them by Tubby. Eventually they arrived at Talbot House. They were an hour behind programme, but still breakfast was not missed. After the meal they were met by a well-known Toc-H man, Mr Barclay Baron, better known as ‘Barkis’ By him they were conducted over Talbot House, and he explained to them all the different things about this famous home of Toc-H, including the chapel in the upper room. All that he could say to them was that it was beautiful and symbolic…


Later they went to Sanctuary Wood and visited the grave of Gilbert Talbot and various other memorials. In the afternoon was the Talbot House handover ceremony. The report went on: ‘Headed by a town band, they marched to Talbot House. Here the Earl of Wakefield formally presented the house to Toc-H, and ‘Tubby’ Clayton accepted… That night all the Toc-H men went to the Menin Gate Memorial. At this imposing pile, erected in the memory of their elder brethren, a simple yet impressive ceremony is performed every night at 8 o’clock… At 7.45 all was dark, but from each side of the memorial came two soldiers. They stopped  all traffic, and three minutes later a party of buglers emerged. On the striking of the hour the great memorial was thrown in striking relief by brilliant illumination, and the ‘Last Post’ was played by the buglers. Over thirty Toc-H men stood at each side of the street, and a great respect, reverence, and homage was paid. Immediately the notes of the ‘Last Post’ had died away, the words of the Ceremony of Light were repeated: ‘With proud thanksgiving let us remember our elder brethren. They shall not grow old as we that are living grow old. Age shall not weary nor years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we shall remember them. (Applause).


Pilgrims Guide

In those interwar years Toc-H set the tone for respectful battlefield tourism and pilgrimage producing the ‘Pilgrim’s Guide to the Ypres Salient, which was written by ex-servicemen and it aimed at ‘ those who desire to visit the Graves and Battlefields a dependable and comprehensive Guide to their actions….’ you can buy a facsimile copy in the Toc-H shop today. In the inside front cover the pilgrim is reminded that: ‘Yours is a pilgrimage in memory of those who passed this way. You will tread reverently, for it is holy ground. It is the shrine of those who won the right for us all to have a country of our own.’ A pleasing aspect is the increasing numbers of Belgian and Dutch visitors, a result of the marketing campaigns post-COVID, with Toc-H employing local volunteers to provide guided tours of the house to these visitors. The digital age has also been embraced with new guided tours using mobile devices and there are interactive displays in the museum. It is commercial reality that the home visitor market is the core of any visitor attraction, I know this from personal experience being a professional marketeer in a large Scottish visitor attraction however, the connection with the UK and commonwealth market has not been lost and the Toc-H team have been seen at UK trade shows.


A Home From Home

General's Room, Toc-H. Authors image

An entire tourist industry has been built around the relics of the war which are literally a part of the landscape, the concrete bunkers, preserved trench lines, craters, and the museums. Toc-H is not immune from this. It always was a stop on the battlefield tourist route with British tour guides arriving with their clients or school groups. Since the Centenary the house has become an integral part of the Flanders tourist product, a unique product, but a product, nonetheless. In embracing the new tourist landscape the house has managed to retain its core identity as envisaged by Tubby Clayton over a century ago and moved into the modern visitor attraction market. The welcome with a cup of tea, it still has to be paid for through donations or entrance to the museum, is still part of the tradition. Men ‘swarmed about the place from ten am to eight pm; wrote Tubby Clayton in Tales of Talbot House, ‘… and officers flowed in from seven pm till the leave trains came and went.’ Officers could stay in the house between leave trains  ‘From each officer we demanded five francs for board and lodging… For this sum the officers secured on arrival from the leave train at one am cocoa and Oliver biscuits, or before departure at five am a cold meat breakfast.’  You can book yourself into the house today on a B&B rate, one hundred years ago it was communal bedrooms with stretcher beds with blankets whereas today, you have a range of bedrooms and share the shower facilities. I regularly book the ‘General’s Room’ which was formally the dressing room of the house. Tubby recounted in Tales of Talbot House: ‘The bedrooms were communal, save for the dressing-room, which we turned ambitiously into the ‘General’s bedroom,’ on account of a bed with real sheets.’ The room is atmospheric and has an original Kennington sketch hanging on the wall with a retro feel to the décor.


Kennington sketch in the General's Room. Authors image

Garden Room, Toc-H. Authors image

The Garden Room

In the summer of 1916 a sign was erected that said: ‘Come into the garden and forget about the war.’ There are many images of the men sitting in the garden ‘…the lawns of the delightful garden were brown with men basking like lizards in the sun..’ enjoying this ever-green space and escaping the war or so they thought. The House was struck by a 5.9 that wounded one and killed another of two Canadian brothers who had come to the House to write a joint letter home. Bombs landed in the garden, the building next door was struck and demolished with other shells passing over the house in various directions. The garden is a place of sanctuary and beauty. On a pleasant summers day one can sit in the garden reading a favourite book and simply enjoy escaping the intensity of everyday life. The garden is employed as an outside auditorium for summer concerts, harking back to the days when Regimental musicians played in the garden ‘The House was never so musical as when Quarter-Master-Sergeant Reynolds brought in his glee-party of Welsh Guards, so numerous that there was scarcely room for the audience..’ The garden is also employed for entertaining, social events and welcomes many old and new friends to the House.


A House At Prayer

The Upper Room, which Neville Talbot described as ‘… obtruding upon no one, but dominating everything, was the Chapel – a veritable shrine, glowing with beauty of holiness..’ still dominates and in the silence of the house in the evening it has a calming presence. One can sit in the Upper Room and commune with history, just as one can by sitting in St George’s in Ieper or any of the other religious houses in the Salient. The Upper Room is ‘Church of England in foundation and ideals this is to be expected as it was a Church House founded by two church of England vicars. On the lamp of maintenance, the symbol of the Toc-H movement, the Ypres Cross appears and is a continuing connection with the symbolism of the Ypres Salient and Christ who was invoked as Tommy’s companion in his struggles in the Salient. Perhaps 100,000 men during the time the House was in use climbed the steps to the Upper Room, with 20,000 receiving the Sacrament, some 800 confirmed, and 50 men baptised. Today, the Church still retains its presence with services held in the Upper Room and baptisms of British soldiers being a recent throwback to the house of old.


The Upper Room. Authors image

As yet, on searching for a Scottish connection with the Upper Room I have not found any records of a Scots Protestant or Catholic ever attending a service in the Upper Room in the time of Tubby Clayton. You may claim that Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, a Scot, visited Toc-H, ah, but no. This does not count. It was Davidson who offered Tubby Clayton the position of vicar at All Hallows-by-the-Tower in 1922 and since that date the church has been the Guild Church of Toc-H. Neither have I found any men of colour or men of the indigenous populations of the ‘Dominions’ attending services in the Upper Room. All the men that are mentioned by Tubby Clayton as having taken communion or been baptised in the Upper Room, were white and Church of England.


The Staff

Toc-H Wardens waiting to welcome you. Authors image

An ominous heading! The House when it first opened was staffed by an NCO and four men from the 17th Field Ambulance, which after four months were replaced by the Coldstream Guards. As well as Tubby Clayton as Padre there was one other permanent member of the staff Private Arthur (General) Pettifer of the 1st Buffs and a regular soldier who had seen service in India, South Africa and at Mons and had been awarded the Military Medal. The House had many ‘friends’ from various Regiments and did not lack for volunteers. Tubby noting that ‘The House was repapered at least twice a week and repainted on alternate Tuesdays..’ He also recorded that in the summer of 1917 the House had a staff of seventeen men. The House today has a core of volunteers who assist with the maintenance and other tasks, as well as professional trades that can be called upon. In addition, there is a full-time manager ably assisted by a staff who manage the reception, shop, museum and housekeeping. The House can also call upon the Warden volunteers who come from around the world and who welcome the many pilgrims and visitors to the House with a cup of tea in the old tradition.


Toc-H Movement

At the end of the war the question was posed ‘What then is to happen to the fellowship of Talbot House?’ The inter war years saw the establishment of over one thousand Toc-H branches and groups in all parts of the world. In Scotland, the St Andrews Citizen newspaper of 16 April 1932 reported on a meeting to establish a Toc-H Club in St Andrews. Mr Robert Sawers area secretary of Toc-H Scotland spoke at the meeting. He sought to reassure the audience about the aims and objectives of the Toc-H Movement: ‘The Movement had its own character and its own methods. Most people imagined that Toc-H was an ex-Service Men’s society, whereas in fact it was open to all men over the age of 16, and the majority of members were to young ever to have served in the Great War… Some people were apt to dismiss Toc-H as just another organisation which was competing with the Church and trying to set up a rival. Some considered it as undenominational and, therefore, a shallow thing. Others again labelled it as Anglican and considered Toc-H as a subtle instrument converting all men to Episcopalianism… All these were totally wrong ideas about toc-H. It was definitely inter-denominational, which was a vasty different thing from undenominational. Toc-H aimed deliberately at cultivating friendship and love between the churches, between ministers and men of all denominations..’ He then went on to talk about the work of Tubby Clayton and the House during the war, the Upper Room, and what was expected of Toc-H members today. ‘It was a definitely Christian organisation, and while no man joining it was subjected to an examination as to his faith, they did care that he did understand what he was joining and what was expected of him.’ It was decided to form a branch in St Andrews.


In the Post-Second World War years, the Toc-H movement saw many successful initiatives including in the Project scheme of the 1950’s which included environmental work, play schemes, work for the elderly, blind, disabled, cares, deaf, those with mental health issues, and children. In the 1960’s the women’s movement introduced the travelling caravan which went around the country undertaking community projects. The 1970’s saw the movement with several hundred branches however, by the late 1990’s the movement had gone into decline and today it is currently undergoing a rationalisation with the hope of carrying on the voluntary movement guided by the ethos of the Toc-h more than one hundred years ago.


A Great Deal of Romance About Toc-H

The stairs leading to the Upper Room. Authors image

In October 1939 the Perthshire Advertiser reported on a meeting of the Perth Rotary Club addressed by a ‘Lieutenant Foster’ a First World War veteran. He said that there was a ‘great deal of romance about Toc-H and spoke of the history of the House and of the Upper Room recalling that: ‘On the second floor there were different kinds of recreation. Leading from this floor to the one above was an old rickety ladder, and beside it a notice:Don’t go up this ladder for you will find the chaplain there.’ This, of course, only made the men curious to see what was on the third floor. When they went up they found a beautiful chapel.

The thing that began here, did not end with the war. The big white house continues to welcome visitors who are looking to experience living history and the ethos of the House as established all those years ago. Jan Louagie, in his book ‘A Touch Of Paradise In Hell’ which I think is the definitive history of Toc-H and a must read, defines the essence of Toc-H: ‘Somewhere to find peace and quiet, or company and conversation, somewhere for silent reflection and contemplation or for lively and noisy gaiety, somewhere for spiritual renewal or for physical refreshment.


Sources and Further Reading


·         A Touch Of Paradise In Hell – Jan Louagie

·         The Pilgrims Guide to the Ypres Salient – Issued by Talbot House

·         Tales of Talbot House, Everyman’s Club in Poperinghe & Ypres, 1915 – 1918 – Rev P.B. ‘Tubby’ Clayton M.C.

·         Plain Tales From Flanders – Rev P.B. Clayton M.C.

·         Great Battles of Ypres – Mark Connelly & Stefan Goebel

·         Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases - Edward Fraser and John Gibbons

·         British Newspaper Archive

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