The Houses That Love Built

This article was written for and first published by Talbot House as part of their appeal for funds due to the Covid 19 crisis. I republish here so we can get the biggest possible audience for this very good cause. If you enjoy reading this article, please make a donation to Talbot House and help save it.


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By Steve Smith

Thirty years ago this summer – 26th July to be precise – I arrived in Poperinge with a minibus full of young people. For the first time ever, I pulled up outside that huge front door and began depositing suitcases on the pavement outside Talbot House. Within a few short hours I was wrapped up in the magic of the place. The friendly welcome from the warden Bert; the beautiful and peaceful garden; and the history, the glorious history of the place. Later that day we were sat in the Upper Room listening to Jacques Ryckebosch tell us the tales of Archie Forrest and Edmund Street and all those others whose booted feet once climbed those stairs.

Until then Toc H was those strange people who came into the youth club in Hertfordshire where I worked and who held parties for people with disabilities. Now, thanks to them, we had brought our young people to Talbot House, the cradle of Toc H and were learning the story behind it all.

Poperinghe and London - First Annual Report 1921

Thirty years, and at least thirty trips to Poperinge later, I now tell the stories of Toc H, the Movement, in my blog One Hundred Years of Toc H. And to support Simon and all at Talbot House in these difficult times I have written this article about Tubby’s post-war push to build a new Talbot House. For although Toc H quickly became a Movement of men (and women) in a network of branches across the Dominion, it was Tubby’s initial dream to reopen a single building, a new Talbot House in London.

Writing in The Messenger – the newssheet of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the church of his good friend Dick Sheppard – in April 1919, Tubby outlined his plans to open a new house. Perhaps the bit about bulldozing Trafalgar Square to recreate the Grande Place of Poperinge was a bit tongue-in-cheek but the whole idea was very real indeed. The first £10,000 towards his dream came from two worshippers at St Martin’s in memory of Oswin Creighton, one of Neville Talbot’s chaplains killed in the war and whose name adorned the casket of the Knutsford School Lamp.

In June 1919 Tubby saw the news that the Guards’ Club was moving from its premises at 70 Pall Mall to a new building in Brook Street. Immediately he set his eye on taking the old building for Toc H. However the leaseholders, the London Joint City and Midland Bank, had other ideas and Tubby’s plan was thwarted.  Looking elsewhere he turned to his sister Belle. She somewhat had left her family home in Fulham to work and took up lodgings in Red Lion Square during the war. From here she ran her ‘self-appointed’ mission to help those in need in the area. Tubby often stayed there during leave. So in late 1919 he rented a five room flat on the top floor of 36 Red Lion Square and opened what was effectively Toc H’s first hostel.

It was clear that Red Lion Square was not going to be big enough for what Tubby had in mind and anyway, he was talking to the Westminster Estate about opening a hostel in two houses in Pimlico and also had one eye on Bloomsbury. But things were not moving fast enough for Tubby so when it came to light that the war-time organisation – the Anglo-South American Committee – had reached the end of its useful life and held two properties in Kensington, a delegation comprising Jack Peirs (the first treasurer), Reggie May, Herbert Shiner, and Tubby approached the committee’s head – Dame Guthrie-Reid – and she agreed to rent one of those properties – No. 8 Queen’s Gate Place to Toc H. The acquisition was discussed at a meeting of the newly formed Executive Committee on 23rd December 1919 and was announced as a done-deal in no less an organ than The Times on 12th January 1920. Although it was claimed they planned to open on the 19th January Toc H actually moved in in March 1920.

There is, of course, another story in which the rotund Reverend dispatched one Harry Moss, a friend of the Old House in Flanders, from Red Lion Square to No. 8 to ask the lady of the house to give it rent free to Toc H for six months. Harry duly knocks on the door and persuades the nurse who answers to let him see said lady. He is astonished to find that despite having been in Flanders she has not heard of Tubby or Talbot House so he borrowed the house telephone and summoned the man himself. Tubby arrived shortly in a G.N. cyclecar and took himself off with the lady for a conversation. He emerged soon afterwards declaring that they had house rent free for a year. The first explanation was related by Barclay Baron and  the latter almost certainly propagated by Tubby so I think I know which version I am inclined to believe.

It was around this time that an appeal was launched to raise £30,000 to fund this central clubhouse. As usual Tubby was putting his plans into action before the cash was actually there!

SOS Posters

It is an indication of the exponential growth of Toc H in 1920 that by May, No.8 was too small for its intended purpose and Toc H transferred to 23 Queen’s Gate Gardens, just up the road. It was a jump in rent, from £155 p.a. to £490 p.a. but Tubby felt it could be found. So here they settled – for now – and Talbot House Mark I was properly established. And it was here where the furnishings of the Upper Room, including of course the Carpenter’s Bench, found a home following their journey with the Test School through Le Touquet and Knutsford.

Mark I remained here until 1928 when 24 Pembridge Gardens in Notting Hill Gate was anonymously purchased for them and they moved there. It was from the basement of that terraced town-house they say that Bangladeshi Independence was plotted in the early seventies but you’ll have to wait for that story.

Mark I was followed closely – in September 1920 – by Mark II – the houses in Pimlico ‘gifted’ by the Duke of Westminster in memory of his mother Sibell Mary, Countess Grosvenor. Toc H paid a Peppercorn Rent and were eventually granted a lease of 999 years. It not only became the second hostel but also Toc H headquarters and remained so until HQ moved to offices at 1 Queen Anne’s Gate in February 1926. Of course Toc H didn’t hang on to it for 999 years and after they divested themselves of it, the houses became nurses’ quarters for Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mark III took root in the shadow of Waterloo station in May 1921. I told the complete story of Mark III earlier this year.

York Road wrong number

A fresh appeal was launched in 1921 specifically for new houses. This was still Tubby’s chosen expression of Toc H in those days. And so, in April 1922, largely due to the appeal, the first provincial Mark opened in Manchester. Pat Leonard was shipped up from Cheltenham Ladies’ College to run things. Gartness was a huge old house on Upper Park Road just east of Moss Side. They pulled it down in 2007 and built a mosque next door – quite fitting really.

Southampton followed next after an advert appeared in the Times in August 1922 stating that the owner of a medium-sized house with six acres of beautiful grounds “might be disposed to give it to a religious or charitable institution if satisfied as to the use to which it would be put. It was essential, the advert continued, that house should be used as a permanent memorial to one who fell, and preferably for the benefit of those hurt in the war”.

The house was the Firs in Bassett, the owner was Walter Southwell Jones, and the man who fell in the war was his son, Second Lt. Louis Gueret Walter Jones who was born in the house and died 20th June 1917 in France. Tubby happened to be staying at Little Hatchett, his family’s holiday home nearby, and he shot across to see Southwell-Jones. By January 1923 Mark V was opened.

1923 also saw the first Mark VI open in Newhall Street, Birmingham (but very soon relocated to Clifford Street) and Bloomsbury was finally reached when Mark VII opened in Fitzroy Square. Sheffield, Bristol, Hull, Leicester and Halifax had all opened before the year ended, and so it continued. And not just in England but in Canada, India, Australia and elsewhere. From one door being pushed open by a short chaplain and his rather tall companion in December 1915, there were now Talbot Houses serving men across the world.

What is clear, is that all these houses were sustained through love, generosity and donations. And if Talbot House – the original, the birthplace of so many good things – is to survive this current crisis then that same love, generosity, and most importantly of all, donations, need to be showered on the Old House right now.

Front Cover of Sept 1922 Journal

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