100 years ago on the Western Front, the now-legendary army padre Philip “Tubby” Clayton and his colleague padre Neville Talbot recognised the urgent need for a soldiers’ club where the troops could hang out and relax with their comrades when behind the lines. A two storey house in Poperinge (“Pop”) was procured and named after Talbot’s brother, Gilbert, who was killed at Ypres on 30 July, aged 23. Talbot House was born.
The top floor became a chapel, using a carpenter’s bench for an altar. Tubby estimated over 100,000 attended there during the war, whether for public service or private prayer. The ground floor was a lounge, library and tea room. Alcohol was not served. Talbot House was for all ranks, indeed all were considered equal, hence it was known as Every-Man’s Club. It was an immediate success and continued until the immediate area became too dangerous towards the end of the conflict, after which Talbot House went mobile, using prefabricated wooden sheds. The original Talbot House exists to this day as a museum.
Talbot House is celebrated at a new exhibition at the Guildhall Library. It comprises displays of contemporary objects, bits of uniform, letters, pages of Tubby Clayton’s letters, notes and diaries (very neat writing with all the lines caracteristically sloping up to the right in a pleasing way, uniformly so. The hut in the middle of the display is an actual survival: not a replica. The interior is made up as Tubby’s field office.
This display is brilliantly conceived and designed. The signage is logical, clean and informative. The little touches are wonderfully effective, for example the contemporary wallpaper design. The cumulative effect is extremely moving. The Guildhall Library have done great work already on World War 1, including contemporary war memorial photography by their artist-in-residence Simon Gregor (London Historians member). But this Talbot House exhibition is easily the best large display I’ve seen them do. Highly recommended.
Talbot House: An Oasis in a World Gone Crazy a the Guildhall Library runs until 8 January 2016. Entry is free.