Let me begin with a brief apology. A variety of different factors have stopped me adding to this blog as frequently as I planned over the past couple of years but it’s by no means dead. I have several features planned for the coming months and years but as we approach the centenary of the first committee meeting (The effective founding of Toc H, the organisation) on 15th November 1919, I wanted to get this one done and dusted.
This blog revolves around the cartoon reproduced below. At Christmas 1920 Toc H published an annual, The Christmas Spirit, to raise funds and promote the fledgling organisation. It contained contributed stories, pictures and cartoons by a variety of friends ranging from Rudyard Kipling to Heath Robinson and contained a greeting from Edward, Prince of Wales. It also contained several cartoons by illustrator Frederick Henry Townshend who contributed to Punch amongst many other achievements. Punch was a staunch supporter of early Toc H thanks largely to its editor Owen Seaman. Tragically, Townshend died suddenly on the golf course on 11th December 1920 around the time the annual was published. However, the subject of our blog is not a Townshend cartoon.
Sitting proudly on page 91 was a caricature captioned “Toc H.” At Home. It featured seven sketches of some of the people involved in the very early days of Toc H. The cartoon is reproduced in the August 1929 The Journal supplement, Ten years of Toc H and is described thus:
Some of the persons in the Toc H drama in 1920. A caricature by J.B. Melhuish from The Christmas Spirit, the 1920 Toc H Annual, the Editor of which was Stuart Sheppard (above – now Chelsea branch). “Shi” above was the first warden of Mark I, where “Mus” was one of the hostellers. “The Gen.,” seen wearing a favourite German hat, was “Major Domo,” with Sam Pickles (now on the professional stage) backing him.
These people were the pioneers who joined Tubby – or indeed substituted for him when he was torn in many directions – as the organisation fledged in such places as Tubby’s sister’s old flat on the top floor of 36 Red Lion Square, or in the offices of The Challenge (which Tubby edited) in Effingham House on The Strand.
Thus in one picture, the quality and variety of the early initiates in Toc H is admirably illustrated and I want to explore these men in more detail in this blog. I am going to skip over Tubby himself, and his loyal batman The General (Arthur Pettifer) as their stories are oft told. Instead I will focus on the other five illustrated and on Melhuish himself
The editor of the Christmas Spirit was one Stuart Morton Winter Sheppard, a cousin of Tubby. Both men descended from the well-known clothiers, the Sheppard family of Frome, Somerset. He was born in Dawlish in in 1895 to Henry (Harry) and Rita Sheppard. Harry, a scholar of Hebrew, would himself become a Toc H man and would be responsible for building it up in Cambridge.
Stuart served as an officer in the 12th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers in the Middle East. After the war he settled in Chelsea and became a solicitor. Tubby contacted him early on and persuaded him to edit The Christmas Spirit. This happened from the offices of the Cavendish Association at 8a New Cavendish Street. (The Association would later merge with Toc H bringing Barclay Baron into the organisation). Sheppard was also on the London Club Committee in 1922. However it was in the Toc H sports associations that Sheppard found his calling.
He started a Toc H cricket team which led to finding and renting in 1921 (From Eli Frusher) the Toc H sports ground at Folly Farm near Hadley Woods, Barne. Sheppard was also secretary of the Toc H football team in 1927/8 when they played in Senior Division 1 of the Southern Amateur League
In December 1922 he married Barbara Shepherd, daughter of another Punch illustrator, J.A. Shepherd at Charlwood church in Surrey. Tubby, newly inducted as vicar of All Hallows, carried out the service. They would have two children, Mary and David. David went on to become a well-known cricketer and later Bishop of Liverpool.
Sheppard died on 19th November 1937 aged only 42. His ashes are in the undercroft of All Hallows church.
Perhaps the most interesting character of the caricature is Sam Pickles. This charming fop of a lad was born in Huddersfield, on what is now an industrial estate near the Kirklees stadium, on 4th February 1894. His dad was a lumber yard labourer and young Samuel had several siblings. By 1911 he was working as a shop assistant. However, at some point he decided to train for Holy Orders and found himself under the Reverend Charles Neivell of Cleckheaton.
According to Pickles himself, he also began an acting career ‘running away from home’ at the age of 17 to join the Benson company. His first professional role was playing Old Adam in As You Like It. Then war broke out!
Like most young men of his age, young Pickles enlisted and found himself in the Royal Field Artillery. It wasn’t a glorious career, at one stage Corporal Pickles found himself reverted in rank for misconduct, but nonetheless he was described in Toc H literature as a “square built Gunner from Yorkshire”.
On 1st October 1918, at the age of 24 he married Helena Roberts, a woman some 13 years older than himself. And then, after armistice, he went to Le Tourquet, the first Ordination School set up by Tubby and followed him to Knutsford – his bulldog in tow. He was by all accounts, the life and soul of the theological training school in the old Knutsford Gaol but he failed academically. This, presumably, is how he and Helena found themselves snared by Tubby to be stewards and housekeepers at Marks 0 (8 Queen’s Gate Place) and I (23 Queen’s Gate Gardens) in Kensington, and later (7th November 1922 to be precise) was promoted to Officer Commanding Messing at All Hallows House aka Mark VII (15 Fitzroy Square) under warden Jack Clark.
This was not to be his life though. At Tubby’s suggestion, Pickles had taken evening classes and returned to acting doing a lot of drama around the Toc H hostels. In 1924 he appeared in the London premier of George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan alongside Sybil Thorndike and Raymond Massey (and a 14 year old Jack Hawkins).
He won a scholarship at RADA and graduated in 1925 alongside John Gielgud (Who was later involved with the Toc H Drama League), Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Alan Napier, amongst others.
It was Napier, most famous for playing the butler Alfred Pennyworth in the sixties TV series Batman, who adds a twist to the tale of Sam Pickles. In his autobiography Napier notes that Pickles was somewhat older than the rest of the class and also described him as a “pixie with more attractiveness than talent”. Nonetheless, he found him the most palatable of his contemporaries and they shared a flat at 37 Belgrave Road in Pimlico. Here Napier observed that Pickles had a wife much older than himself who “looked in from time to time” but was quite clear that Pickles was in fact gay.
Now whether that had any bearing on his subsequent career moves is unclear but initially Pickles seemed to find most of his work up north. In between plays he cleaned windows at Collinson’s Cafes in Leeds and took other less pleasing jobs. More significantly, he says at the suggestion of Sybil Thorndike, Sam Pickles changed his name to Peter Ridgeway in a bid to be taken more seriously. It seemed to work for he appeared in several plays during the late 20s and early 30s even sharing the boards with a young Laurence Olivier in 1925. He toured Egypt with Thorndike and also dramatized two books himself. In June 1931, his wife Helena died and whilst his IMDB entry shows him married to one Mary Christiansen, I find no evidence to support this.
Probably Pickles/Ridgeway’s most significant contribution to the acting world was the founding of a small club called the Playroom Six in 1927. This moved premises and changed names several times before becoming the Player’s Theatre in 1936, a famous music hall co-founded with Leonard Sachs, that still exists to this day.
Perhaps our Mr Pickles may have achieved more but he was sadly taken by TB on 21st November 1938. He was only 44 years old.
Whilst Lieutenant E.G. White of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles held the fort for Tubby administratively whilst he was still at Knutsford, it was Commander George Pritzler Green, Royal Navy Retired, who took over from White to be Office Boy/General Factotum at Toc H HQ alongside the newly free Tubby and William Musters. He was also the first naval member of the newly minted association.
His tenure was short. Arriving in 1920, the following year Tubby asked him to go and see some former soldiers confined to the Ministry of Pensions Hospital in Ducane Road, Shepherds Bush (Now the site of Hammersmith Hospital). Green obliged and decided to stay there moving into a side ward and acting as an errand boy and friend to the inmates until his own ill-health forced him to retire to Lewes.
Green was born in Charlton on 12 November 1881 to a shipbuilding father Henry, later MP for Charlton. The sea was clearly in his blood and he enlisted in the Royal Navy in January 1896. He progressed through the officer ranks becoming a Sub Lieutenant in 1901, a full Lieutenant two years later and Lieutenant Commander in September 1911. He retired of his own desire just two months after this promotion.
In July 1913 he married Isabel Carwithen Richardson in Ledbury.
He came out of retirement in August 1914 to serve in the war, initially on HMS Glory in the Mediterranean. In 1916 he transferred to HMS Valerian, a newly launched minesweeper, and in 1917 was promoted to Acting Commander aboard HMS Hannibal, a depot ship stationed in Egypt.
Shortly after Armistice he requested immediate repatriation due to private family matters and in June 1919 he reverted to the retired list. He was promoted to a full Commander (Retired) as a reward for his war work. It must have been shortly after this that Tubby ‘acquired’ him for Toc H.
After his brief stay with Toc H, Tubby seems to lose track of his Commander bar a brief written reunion in 1935. What we know of the rest of his life, largely relates to a naval career once again resurrected by war.
On 29 August 1939 Green was assigned to HMS President, the land based naval establishment overlooking Tower Bridge that was the home of the Royal Naval Reserve, for Special Service. Shortly afterwards, at the time of the 1939 register, he was living in Manchester Hotel in the City of London alongside another retired naval officer Robert Buchanan. In 1943, Green had his shoulder injured when he was run down by a car. On 14 June, 1944 he was reverted to the Retired List on compassionate grounds.
His wife died in 1952 and Green himself died on 20th November 1961.
Like Pickles, Major Herbert Shiner DSO MC, was one of the earliest hostellers. He lived in the flat at 36 Red Lion Square (Sometimes known retrospectively as Mark 00) and established the short-lived Mark 0 (Again an ex post facto nomenclature) at 8 Queen’s Gate Place before becoming the first warden of Mark I. It was not for nothing that Melhuish annotates his caricature with the words “The host in himself.”
Shiner was born on 4th July 1890 in Bethnal Green. By the time of the 1911 census, he was an acting Bombardier with the 35th Heavy Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery and was billeted at Fort Nelson near Fareham. He later transferred to the reserves and on 9th December 1912 joined the Metropolitan Police as a Constable. When war broke out he was mobilised as a Bombardier before being commissioned in 1915. That same year he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. In 1917, now with the 154th Heavy Battery, he was promoted to acting Major and the following year received the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”. He left the Metropolitan Police in September 1917 and in 1919 accepted a permanent commission in the RGA. Shiner was a Battery commander at Poperinge and knew Tubby (and the Old House) well.
He married Elizabeth Trimmer in 1921 but retained his links with Toc H being a major player in the Petworth area in Sussex where he now lived at Coldharbour Farm near Pulborough. Shiner became a councillor for West Sussex County Council in 1928. In 1932 was chairman of the West Sussex Education Committee. A school was later named for him. He was also chair of Petworth Rural District Council for some years.
Elizabeth died in 1935. During the war Shiner was a member of the council’s War Emergency Committee and also served on the headquarter staff of the Home Guard. He became chairman of the West Sussex County Council in 1946, a position he retained until shortly before his death. He was made a Deputy Lieutenant of West Sussex in 1949 and knighted the following year. He died on 1 August 1962 in the London Clinic.
And so to Laidlay. Unfortunately I have so little to go on. The caricature just labels him as “Tenner” voice and Baron later describes him as “A Mark I hosteller who helped with the appeal”. I do not see his name in later records of Toc H and without so much as a first name to assist, my quest seems almost impossible. And yet, it is not that common a name. Even Google keeps asking me if I mean Laidlaw. Johnny Ernest Laidlay was a well-known Scottish amateur golfer who had two sons who might just have been about the right age and yet…..it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack when I haven’t even found the haystack yet. Although, there is this chap.
John Melville Lauriston Laidlay was born on 15th January 1900 in Cheshire to Edward Collinson and Beatrice May Laidlay. His elder brother Edward Christopher became a vicar. On 17th September 1915 Laidlay signed up to the army giving his date of birth as 15th January 1897 thus making him old enough to enlist. At 5’ 8½” he is tall enough to pass for 18 and is accepted into the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Royal Gloucester Hussars Yeomanry, a Territorial or part-time force. Without being deployed overseas, Laidlay is discharged on 1st August 1916 for “having made a misstatement as to age on enlistment”.
The following year he applied to the Royal Flying Corps and on 28th October 1917 was temporarily assigned to the Naval wing as a Pilot Flying Officer based at Greenwich. In January 2018 he was transferred to Redcar and thence to RAF Manston in Kent. On the formation of the RAF on the 1st April 1918 Laidlay was appointed 2nd Lieutenant and transferred to Cranwell before being discharged at the end of May.
By 1920, when – if this is our man – he was purloined by Tubby, he was living in Highgate. We know this because in February he was fined 15 shillings for “motoring at a speed of over 20 miles an hour in Hampstead Lane” and his Highgate address was given in the newspaper.
We know from Baron that our Laidlay lived in the hostel Mark I during 1920 and J M L Laidlay was living in similar accommodation at the Connaught Club near Marble Arch by 1923 which suggests to me the lifestyle suited them and they might be the same person.
By 1930, whilst still living at the Connaught Club, he is listed as an actor (Another one!) as he travels firstly to Canada and the US then to New Zealand.
He married Marjorie Rix Carter in 1937 in Honiton, Devon and at the 1939 register was living by private means in Torquay. After the war, when he was put on the Royal Navy reserve list, things get a little cloudy. Laidlay continues to make overseas trips and is listed as living in Wellington, New Zealand as early as 1949. Marjorie does not appear to be with him and it seems they may have separated. His job is listed variously as an accountant and a journalist. He moves around New Zealand during the sixties and died there in 1972.
Is it him, perhaps….he is the best candidate I could find. Maybe one day I will be able to prove it.
And so what of the man who provided the illustration. John Barradale Melhuish himself. Known as Mel, he was an illustrator for such periodicals as The Tatler and Sporting Life as well as for the Evening Standard. His speciality was sport and his cartoons help plot the great sporting events and heroes of the first half of the twentieth century. The caricature style both flatters and lampoons at the same time and I must be careful not to fill this blog with his wonderful sketches. If they aren’t yet collected together in a book then they really should be.
Melhuish was born in Exeter on 9th January 1893. By the time of the 1911 census he was a trainee at an auctioneers in Leicester which is why, when he enlisted, it was into the Leicestershire regiment where he rose from Private to Lance Corporal before being commissioned in August 1915. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and an MBE in 1919.
He found time to marry Doreen Armstrong at All Saints, Clayton Park, Hackney in February 1917 though they divorced in 1932 and he married Violet Digby, an actress, the following year.
At the time of the 1939 register they were living in St Ives, Huntingdonshire and Melhuish was recommissioned for the war. He was relinquished in 1945 on account of a disability.
He died on 22nd March 1965
And that’s it. A brief run through the lives of a handful of the characters that made up early Toc H. And over the next 100 years there would be thousands more interesting and unique people making up the merry band of Toc H. I know, many of them are my friends.