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Sensitive, caring, and frenetic

26 February 2016

Alan Wilkinson looks at the life and work of Tubby Clayton

Friend o’ mine: the “Gen.” (Private Arthur Pettifer) and Clayton, in 1928: Pettifer was Clayton’s cockney right-hand man at Talbot House, and later at All Hallows’, where his ashes were placed in the crypt after his death in 1954. A photo from the book

Friend o’ mine: the “Gen.” (Private Arthur Pettifer) and Clayton, in 1928: Pettifer was Clayton’s cockney right-hand man at Ta...

A Fool for Thy Feast: The life and times of Tubby Clayton, 1885-1972
Linda Parker
Helion £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


A Touch of Paradise in Hell: Talbot House, Poperinge — Every-Man’s sanctuary from the trenches
Jan Louagie
Helion £29.95
Church Times Bookshop £26.95


IT IS remarkable that two impressive books celebrating P. B. (“Tubby”) Clayton, Talbot House, and Toc H should appear at the same time from the same publisher. Talbot House has just celebrated its centenary. These sizeable and well-illustrated books are worthy successors to biographies of Clayton by Harcourt (1953) and Lever (1971).

We are already indebted to Linda Parker for two perceptive studies of First World War chaplains. This sensitive and well-researched biography of Tubby Clayton further enhances her reputation.

When Clayton’s parents in 1886 returned from Australia, where he was born, his father created a business, and his mother became a parish visitor to the poor. Thus Clayton’s background was somewhat unusual, despite his going on to St Paul’s School and Oxford. At Oxford, he was influenced by Christian Socialism.

He was ordained for the huge working-class parish of St Mary’s, Portsea, under the formidable Cyril Garbett. Unlike other curates, Clayton did not observe the strict routine, but was up half the night, reading, writing, and talking, while during the day he was a tireless visitor (like “an active volcano”) and organised clubs. The parish history (not cited here) records that when the church clock failed, Clayton stood outside and shouted the time through a loud-hailer to the dockyard workers as they cycled past.

In November 1914, a cruiser was sunk. Its crew were from the parish. Clayton visited 500 bereaved families. His sensitive care for working people drew him to army chaplaincy. A house near Ypres was rented as a servicemen’s club, with Clayton in charge. He created a chapel in the loft with a carpenter’s bench for an altar. “Talbot House” was named after Gilbert Talbot, who was killed in 1915, and was the brother of the chaplains Neville and Keble Talbot. Clayton wanted it to be an Emmaus Inn that would give servicemen a glimpse of better things.

The egalitarianism of the house encouraged Clayton to dream of a more equal post-war society. He urged the Church to follow Mirfield and Kelham by removing financial and educational barriers to ordination training. Clayton chose Knutsford Gaol as a college, through which 435 men were eventually ordained, fruits of Talbot House.

Clayton believed that the best way of remembering the sacrifices would be a reformation of Church and society. Toc H, signallers’ shorthand for Talbot House, was created to promote fellowship, service, fair-mindedness, and the Kingdom of God.

The first hostel was established in London in 1920. A year later, there were 70 branches. From 1922 to 1963, Clayton was Vicar of All Hallows’, near the Tower of London, a base for him as Toc H developed internationally. All Hallows’ was wrecked in an air raid in 1940. Clayton’s main post-war task was raising money to rebuild it.

Between the wars, Clayton toured Toc H branches overseas. He was accompanied by a series of young men, including John Graham, later Superior at Mirfield. By 1965, there were 12,500 members and 1000 branches in England alone. During the Second World War he became a naval chaplain, serving all over the world.

Retirement brought loneliness. He had worked an 18-hour day, seeing people, addressing meetings, and dictating letters from 8.30 p.m. to midnight. On his way to an engagement, he would visit a needy friend, and chat to passers-by, and to servants before meeting the host. His frenetic ministry brought him to breakdown during a world tour in 1934. Parker records the deep concern of his friends, but not the darker assessment by Alan Paton in his autobiography.

A Touch of Paradise in Hell is an imaginative collection of primary sources. This log book is motivated by a deep devotion to the House, and compiled by a language teacher in his home town of Ypres, and secretary of the Talbot House Association, whose mission is to preserve it.

The 388-page book falls into four sections. The first tells a vivid story of its history from 1915 to 1919. In an average week, 5000 men used it, and many hundreds were grateful for Clayton’s ministry as a confessor. The second part guides the reader round its various features. The third introduces us to memorable visitors. Finally, we learn of Clayton’s visits to his wider “parishioners”, where he would minister to men in dugouts and barns. Once, during a eucharist in the open, a shell burst 15 feet above them, and fragments fell around. But, despite their not wearing steel helmets, no one flinched.

Talbot House was full of surprises. One day, 115 refugees sat down to breakfast. When two officers enjoyed a meal with Clayton and three privates, it was the first time the officers had ever eaten in uniform with soldiers. A notice outside Clayton’s office proclaimed “All Rank Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here”. When General Plumer called, he found Clayton scrubbing floors. This was the epitome of Tubby Clayton, Talbot House, and Toc H.


Canon Alan Wilkinson is the author of The Church of England and the First World War (Lutterworth, 2014) and a Fellow of the George Bell Institute, Chichester.

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