intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
Rarely has an old house been able to evoke so poignantly the memory of those who found refuge within its walls as Talbot House in Poperinghe. Built over 250 years ago in one of those old Flemish towns made wealthy through the cloth trade and beer production, it was pressed into service and played a memorable role during the First World War. At that time, Poperinghe was the nerve centre for the troops defending the Western Front under British command. It was also the town the soldiers came to when on leave. Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, the chaplain set up a chapel inside the house and provided a haven of peace and solace to all. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, shattered by the atrocities of the conflict found refuge at Talbot House. Today the house welcomes pilgrims who come to commemorate the sacrifices of the victims of the Great War.
Talbot House is a listed building which receives tens of thousands of visitors every year
Revd. Tubby Clayton © Talbot House
In 1914-1918, various clubs were set up behind the front lines to offer soldiers a place to relax during the rare days of leave they were accorded. On certain days for troops, on others for officers. The one set up by the chaplain Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton in the house of a rich brewer in Poperinghe was however quite unique, given the very special atmosphere that reigned there ‘a real home away from home’.
The room occupied by the chaplain of Talbot House has been refurbished as it was then and is particularly moving. Many soldiers have gathered round the small table to share their feelings …
Called ‘Talbot House’ after a young soldier who died in the first days of the conflict – Talbot House looked like a real house, with a living room, dining room, kitchen, library and garden. There was a canteen with hot tea, tables supplied with paper to write to one’s fiancée or family, mattresses to doze on, armchairs where newspapers or books could be read, benches for chatting, postcards, cigarettes, candles, notebooks, ink and shaving cream. Moreover, the attic housed a large chapel for those wishing to have time alone, and there was a space for board games and even a concert hall for films or cabaret evenings …
Padre Tubby, was a particularly jovial ‘master of ceremonies’ with a great sense of humour. His little messages with double meanings were to be found stuck all over the walls of the house: “If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, please spit here” The waste paper baskets are purely ornamental – by order” or “This is a library, not a dormitory” …
Contrary to the general practice in the British military environment, Talbot House welcomed everyone as human beings, independent of their rank in the hierarchy. It was as a man, whether father or son, labour party supporter or conservative, believer or sceptic, married or single, that everyone joined in the conversations, even if khaki was the dominant colour they wore. A space where they could be among friends, without having to put on a bold front or play the hero.
The men really appreciated the garden whose greenery and peace reminded them of home © Talbot House
It is true that only officers could rent a room at Talbot House (and soon in another house in the street as there was a great demand), while soldiers shared a large improvised dormitory set up in the old hop barn. The income from these overnight stays enabled Padre Tubby to cover the costs of rent, heating and lighting as well as offer everyone tea, newspapers, books and other modest comforts so appreciated after weeks spent in the mud of the trenches.
If you are looking for a room with a single bed, the ‘General’s Room’ is one of the most authentic (the only one supplied with sheets during the war)
The Library won a great success © Talbot House
There were plenty of cafés, restaurants, night clubs and other brothels in Poperinghe where soldiers could spend their meagre wages, as if these were to be their last evenings. Over 250,000 soldiers were stationed around the town: it is easy to understand how it acquired its nickname of ‘Little Paris’. Talbot House was a great place to have fun, drink, sing and dance but no ladies of the night were allowed to cross its threshold, neither could any alcohol drinks be served. Nonetheless, the house was always full. Over a thousand soldiers could pass through in a few hours, as can be seen from the registers where everyone signed their name on arrival.
Photo pose in the canteen – 1918 © VisitFlanders
Read the moving testimony of Lieutenant-Colonel F.R. Barry who visited Talbot House in 1917
The soldiers received very little news from other soldiers mobilised at the same time as themselves and sent to other places along the Front. Padre Tubby set up a messaging system in the entrance hall of the house, where everyone could leave a message addressed to their friends in the hope that when it was their turn at Talbot House, they would also give a sign of life. Many brothers were therefore able to find each other, fathers and sons could make a rendezvous and pals, colleagues or neighbours could comfort each other …
The wanted notices left at Talbot House were often the last surviving trace of soldiers who disappeared in the days that followed …
‘Pop’ meaning Poperinghe… © Talbot House
At the end of the war, Padre Tubby wrote his “Tales of Talbot House”, which were an immediate and immense success with all those on the ‘Ypres Salient’. A Christian movement called ‘Toc H’ (for TH, Talbot House), was born, founded on the values lived so intensely in the house: “love widely, build bravely, think fairly and witness humbly”. This movement, placed under the aegis of the Queen of England, developed in all the countries in the Commonwealth as well as Belgium.
The lamp in the chapel has become the emblem of the movement
Talbot House was abandoned after the final German offensive of Mont Kemmel (a few kilometres from Poperinghe), then its owner, the brewer and banker Maurice Coevoet, returned at the end of the war. He was inundated by the visits of so many former soldiers keen to see the house and its chapel again that he finally sold his house to the Toc H movement in 1930. The site was then furnished to receive pilgrims who came to pay their respects to the ‘Flanders Fields’ strewn with crosses and scarlet poppies…
The “Berat Room”, one of the finest rooms in the house, still retains (discreet) traces of three bullets fired by a German officer from his bed – for reasons unknown …
The English army found Talbot House again at the very beginning of the Second World War, before their forced retreat to Dunkirk. Requisitioned by the German troops, the house was used to accommodate their officers.
It became a place of welcome to visitors once again in 1945. Now placed under the responsibility of a Belgian association, it continues to offer accommodation to members of the Toc H movement, as well as those who have come to commemorate the Great War.
All visitors are offered a cup of tea, English style, because these traditions are handed down from generation to generation in Talbot House, lovingly maintained by numerous volunteers. The garden has been given a new lease of life, looking almost as it did a century ago, and the rooms are renovated one by one, and furnished with a great number of souvenirs from the 1915-1918 period. Chaplain Tubby’s office and the chapel are particularly moving, as they still seem inhabited by the presence of all the soldiers who found solace there during the darkest moments of the conflict.
Padre Tubby’s little portable harmonium often used to accompany him when he went to celebrate mass in the trenches. The instrument received several shrapnel wounds.
Thanks to the support of the Flemish Region, the former hop barn which served as a dormitory and concert hall has now been laid out as a museum. This re-creates daily life behind the lines, with all the activities that turned Poperinghe into a feverish hive of activity around the clock: the distribution of food and munitions, caring for the wounded, the training of new recruits, letters, the thousand and one little jobs of a city at war, beer-fuelled celebrations, Charlie Chaplin films, love affairs and other passions, but also desertions and psychological traumas …
There was so much tobacco smoke in the concert hall that the cinema operator had to install strong extractors so the image could be seen on the screen!
Interview of Raf Craenhals, Manager of the Talbot House
Lance-Caporal Cliford Labram, who died in Lijssenthoek Military Hospital © State Library of South Australia
The area around Ypres retains numerous traces of this deadly trench warfare. Naturally, you begin by visiting Talbot House and its museum (the admission fee is included in the room rate).
In Poperinghe, the cemetery of the old country hospital of Lijssenthoek is impressive with its 10,000 graves. A small Visitor’s Centre enables you to measure the silent combat that took place here on a daily basis to help so many wounded survive. A search engine helps you trace the soldiers who served their country in the region.
In Flanders Fields Museum © VisitFlanders
In Ypres, a visit to the Flanders Fields museum, housed in the old cloth hall, so symbolic of the textile industry in the town since the Middle Ages, is high recommended. The extensively documented exhibition, and presentation in didactic form, will help you better understand the numerous realities of the First World War in Belgium and North-West France.
At 8 p.m. every evening since 1928, the trumpets of ‘Last Post’ are sounded at the Menen Gate in Ypres, in memory of the thousands of lives sacrificed around the town (sound recording).
Increasing numbers of pilgrims attend this vibrant homage in respectful silence (Ypres) © VisitFlanders
© Passchendaele Museum
In Passchendaele, where the terrible battle cost the lives of half a million soldiers in 1917, you will discover a very well designed museum which explains all the aspects of this tragic confrontation, with a rich collection of uniforms and artillery guns. An underground section enables visitors to visualise the lives of soldiers deep underground in shelters. A communications centre, first aid post, dormitories and an HQ have been re-created. A scale model of the battlefield and a trench round off the visit.
Tyne Cot Cemetery © John Bull
Tyne Cot cemetery is the largest British military cemetery in the world. The perfect alignment of its 12,000 graves on the site of one of the most bloody attacks is more thought provoking than any of the films made to expose this appalling slaughter.
To fully appreciate the period atmosphere of Talbot House in Poperinghe, do not hesitate to enhance your stay by reading a few books (nothing beats a good historical novel to bring old stones back to life). Watching a film evoking the era or listening to some period music may also be a good way to transport you back in time… A few suggestions:
Learn and understand
Books to savor during your stay
Films to be watched before arriving
The perfect setting for a little music
The place to go and stay in to commemorate the centenary of the Great War in the 'Flanders Fields'! We have been, my wife and I, especially moved by the tragic pages of history written in the Ypres Salient in 1914-1918. But after visiting so many battlefields, war museums, cemeteries and memorials, it was good to realize there was another life then next to creeping in the front's trenches... Talbot House is not a common museum, nor is it a regular B&B. This unique place embodies such living human values that you can almost feel the heart beats of the thousands of soldiers who stayed here a century ago. Hear their songs around the old piano. Share their emotions while writing a letter home in the peacefulness of this blessed shelter. The humble house becomes even more inspiring in the silence of the night...
Wonderful 'British' welcome by enthusiast volunteers, keen to tell us all about what to see in the neighbourhood. Be sure you ask for a historical room, though, because some have been poorly refurbished in the '70 (luckily, these are now restored one by one). We will come back with our children!
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8970 POPERINGE (YPRES)
+32 57 33 32 28
+32 57 33 21 83
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