The origins of Toc H can be traced back to the battlefields of the Ypres Salient in Belgium during World War I – to Messines, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Passchendaele and Ypres. It was on these fields that tens of thousands of young men lost their lives: men from Great Britain and from countries which had been part of the British Empire – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, India, and South Africa. Early in the War, it became evident that something had to be done, especially for those returning from the Front Lines, something that would take their minds off the tragedies of death and destruction which daily surrounded them. There needed to be somewhere they could go, to rest the body and to refresh the soul. One town to which many of them went was Poperinge, famous for its hops. From 1914 to 1918 this town was continuously crowded with soldiers, motor vehicles of all sorts, horse-drawn wagons and guns, and although it was only a few kilometres behind where all the action was, it was relatively safe compared with other towns in the area, like Ypres and Messines.
In 1915 the Reverend P. B. Clayton was appointed to be one of the Chaplains to the British Forces serving in the area. He was born in Maryborough in Queensland on the 12th December 1885, but his parents moved back to England when he was still an infant. It was there that he grew up and received his education – at St Paul’s School in London and at Oxford University, where he distinguished himself as an outstanding classics scholar. After graduating from Oxford he was ordained and served his curacy at Portsmouth. He was known affectionately as ‘Tubby’ because of his stature – he was short and rather rotund.
Once he settled down to life in the Army in the Ypres Salient he set about ministering to those who were on their way to the Front Lines and to those returning from them: the survivors of the horrors of trench warfare and the mud and slush of Flanders Fields. To do this he needed a base from which to operate and he found this in a three-storied white building in Gassthuistraat in Poperinge. One of his closest friends was Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot of the Rifle Brigade who was killed on the 30th July 1915 just to the east of Ypres, and the decision was made to call the house – ‘Talbot House - in his memory. It provided accommodation and opportunities for reading, letter writing, relaxing in the garden or joining in the many concerts which Tubby and his staff organised.
Above all, however, it was a place in which everyone was welcome, in which there were much fun and laughter and in which real and lasting friendships were formed. Friendships develop often when people find themselves having to cope in very difficult situations and the Western Front in this part of Belgium was one such place. Everyone who entered through the door at Talbot House was greeted with a smile and a firm handshake. Right from the beginning, Talbot House was unique and this was evident from a sign displayed within it which read: "‘All rank abandon, ye that enter here." It was a true ‘'Everyman’s Club.’ Tubby’s great sense of humour pervaded the whole place, and for many, it was a home away from home.
What made Talbot House so special from 1915 to 1918, however, was its Chapel, known to everyone as ‘'The Upper Room'. This was located in the loft above the third floor. It was non-denominational, and it was, as one young soldier wrote later, ‘"a room so sacred to many of us that it grows more hallowed with the passing of the years". The altar in the Upper Room was a simple carpenter’s bench. Queues stretched down the stairs and often out into the street for services held in the Upper Room and over fifty thousand signatures appeared in the Communicants’ Rolls kept by Tubby.