POPERINGE, BELGIUM: In the cold, dark days of WWI, there was a haven in the small town of Poperinge, Belgium the “Every-Man’s Club.” The club also knows as “Talbot House, opened on the 11th of December, 1915 at number 43 Gasthuisstraat in Poperinge, Belgium. The club gave British soldiers a respite from the war, just miles away in Ypres France.
The motto was as poignant as it was simple, “An oasis of serenity in a world gone mad.”
Chaplain Reverend Philip “Tubby” Clayton
Earlier in the year, the large house was struck by German shrapnel. Landing in the garden, the artillary was damaging to the rear of the building. The owner, a wealthy beer brewer named Monsieur Coeyoet Camerlynck, opted to remove his family and their belongings to safety and, in the process, offered the empty home to the British Army for 150 francs a month.’
Enter Army Chaplain Reverend Philip “Tubby” Clayton who decided to use the property as a soldier’s club; a safe haven, a sanctuary, a quiet place to relax even though gunfire and bombs could be heard just a few miles away at the front.
The Every-Man’s Club – A respite from war
The club became known as “Every-Man’s Club.” Here is where soldiers could rest, get a hot meal, shower and sleep in clean sheets regardless of rank. Over the front door was a sign containing just seven words that represented the most important rule of the establishment: “All rank abandon, ye who enter here.”
By and large, Poperinge was spared the destruction of its nearby sister city Ypres just eight miles away. Ypres was completely leveled during no less than five major battles that took place there.
Poperinge, on the other hand, was a garrison town for British soldiers. The small town rapidly became a thriving metropolis thanks to its relative safety, restaurants, bars, concert halls, movie theaters, and even brothels.
Thousands of soldiers passed through Poperinge each day, either going to or coming from the front. So many, in fact, that the city became known as “Little Paris.” Talbot House, as it was formally known, became a place of serenity in spite of the hostile sounds that rumbled in the distance.
There were books to read while sitting on comfortable chairs drinking tea from a bottomless urn.
At the top of the house, the attic room is a chapel and meditation space. The soldiers undertook the furnishing of the space. Here men could write letters, meet with friends, relax and enjoy the solitude of being in a “home-away-from-home.”
Belgium is a country of beer drinkers meaning that storerooms for hops were, and still are, plentiful. After years of renovation and financial assistance from several sponsors, the former hop store at Talbot House was officially listed as a historic monument in 1998 after being lovingly restored to its original state.
Among the Talbot House relics that can be seen today, is the old lift mechanism that pulled bales of hops to their storage space.
The artifact museum at The Concert Hall
The Concert Hall, another feature of reconstruction, is in the hop store. Today it displays unique artifacts from the private collections of family members of deceased veterans who donated their photos, relics, and diaries to the Talbot House to establish a permanent memorial.
Today, the Concert Hall, on the ground floor of the original hop store, features a “Life Behind the Lines” exhibition focusing on Poperinge and the neighboring areas during the war.
In 1916 and 1917, Poperinge swelled to about 250,000 soldiers although during peace time it only had a population of approximately 20,000 inhabitants.
Among the exhibitions are haunting testimonials presented by single narrators. By design, viewing is contemplative and without music, computer graphics or fanfare. The speakers stand vertically rather than horizontally, giving the impression they are talking directly to their viewers.
Illustrated with images, letters, quotations, artifacts and authentic documents, each messenger presents a personalized aspect of the roles they played during the war. For example, American brain surgeon, Dr. Harvey Cushing is the central figure who describes medical aid while Lt. John Gamble talks about life in the tent camps.
The Garden at Fulton House
Perhaps the most popular place at Fulton House was the garden. Tubby Clayton called the garden “the largest room in the house.”
Soldiers who spent days wallowing in muddy trenches and living in tree branches, found the Fulton House garden to be an oasis of tranquility. Recently restored to its original layout, the garden still offers restful solitude for visitors a hundred years later.
From the garden, touring guests next arrive at “the Slessorium.” It’s builder Major Paul Slessor gave the space its name. Among the relics is Tubby’s hut. Here is where the chaplain took refuge during the evacuation of Poperinge during a German offensive in 1918.
Following the war, Tubby took his hut to the UK, but 90 years later it was returned to Belgium, and today features much of Clayton’s personal memorabilia.
Old Talbot House Bed & Breakfast – still a respite
Old Talbot House is accessible to modern visitors, complete with authentic objects that are on display and still in use. Also newly opened is the Chaplain’s room, which was Tubby’s room during the war.
With seven historical bedrooms, Talbot House remains a working B&B today. Visitors wishing to get the full effect of this World War I Eden can do so by making reservations on the Talbot House website.
Note, the house is much as it was during the war. Each room has a washbasin with hot and cold water. There is a common sanitary room on each floor. Showers and toilets are cleaned daily.
On the night of December 11 at 9 p.m. until 9 p.m. December 12, Tubby Clayton’s birthday is honored in the Upper Room with the lighting of the Lamp of Maintenance.
Thus, even when war rages all around, man’s capacity for peace and survival continuously innovates new ways to find solace. Tubby Clayton had the right idea. For three years during World War I, his Every-Man’s Club was a candle of hope in the darkness of despair.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime
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