Heaven in Hell

Padre Paul Wright, Senior Chaplain of the London District, cites an example from the First World War

One of the great inspirations in my ministry in the Army has been Padre Tubby Clayton, the founder of Talbot House (TocH) in the picturesque town of Poperinge, Belgium during the Great War. The town of Poperinge lies ten kilometres behind Ypres and was therefore at the heart of the old Western Front. Thousands upon thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers trudged down the road from Ypres to go ‘on the Pop’ in Poperinge for some rest and recuperation.

Tubby Clayton wanted to offer something that was different to the more obvious pleasures that were available to the soldiers. He created a chaplains’ centre in a beautiful four-storey hop merchant’s house. With the aid of his tireless sidekick, Pettifer – always known as the General – they created a heaven and haven in the midst of the extraordinary hell. The chapel in the upper room with the carpenter’s bench ‘scrounged’ by Pettifer would see literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers climb the vertical staircase to the attic-chapel.

The spirit of Talbot House was encapsulated in the motto ‘Abandon rank all ye who enter here’. Over the door the sign still reads ‘Everyman’s club 1915 - ?’ Tubby’s spirit of whimsy and good fun was reflected in little sayings posted on the walls: ‘Come upstairs and risk meeting the chaplain’; ‘if you are in the habit of spiting on the floor at home, then do so here.’ Perhaps the most poignant was at the back of the house which read ‘Come into the garden and forget about the war.’ Tubby and Pettifer also took the spirit of Talbot House to the trenches themselves being a familiar sight in a motorcycle and sidecar with a harmonium on Tubby’s lap.

Although this may all belong to another era and time, the Army Chaplain of today is still called to bring a little bit of heaven and a safe haven for people who have encountered hells on earth by sharing in all the risks, dangers and joys of his soldiers’ lives. There are no private heavens, this would be an impossible thing, but there are very real and awful private hells that soldiers and their families experience in our current operations. Anybody who has witnessed the death on operation of their fellow soldiers or been with the families at a repatriation or funeral will know of the dreadful pain and spiritual loneliness that conflict can bring.

Soldiers, on the whole, love being in the Army and are very aware of the risks they take. This commitment alone does not make things easier for their families, but it does provide a set of unique circumstances in which special relationships can develop. Tubby Clayton recognised this and had the spirit and inspiration to develop a real sense of brotherhood and friendship. This spirit may not necessarily be Christian, but nevertheless there is a very deep spiritual need, questioning and yearning in all people and soldiers in particular often have time to think about life and the reality of life’s big questions at a very young age.