Paul Brannen: The story of Toc H and the pursuit of peace across Europe

North East MEP Paul Brannen says Remembrance events show just how far Europe has come in the last 60 years

Paul Brannen, North East Labour MEP
Paul Brannen, North East Labour MEP

My first job after leaving Leeds University was for a charity with the somewhat unusual name of Toc H.

Unless you are over 60 my guess is you will never have heard of Toc H yet in the 1930s they were Britain’s largest charity, the King was their patron and they held their annual general meetings in a packed Albert Hall.

The existence of Toc H also coined a phrase which your parents or grandparents may have used, ‘As dim as a Toc H lamp’.

Toc H was founded, somewhat unintentionally, by an Anglican clergyman by the name of Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton. The Reverend Clayton had been a chaplain to the army in the First World War stationed in the town of Popperinge in Belgium.

He operated out of a house that acted as a meeting place for soldiers on their way to and from the section of the front line known as the Ypres Salient.

On the top floor was a chapel, a place for quiet reflection away from the horrors that lay only a few miles away. A notice was hung by the front door bearing the message, ‘All rank abandon, ye who enter here’, so no saluting was necessary, which was bordering on revolutionary for the times.

Clayton named the house Talbot House in memory of a friend’s son who had been killed earlier in the war. Talbot House soon became known to soldiers in the shortened form of Toc H given Toc was the British Army signaller’s code for ‘T’, and H was ‘H’.

After the carnage was over, Clayton ended up at Tower Hill in London where outside his house he placed a sign saying anyone who had passed through Toc H should feel free to call in for a cup of tea. He was inundated.

Unemployment amongst demobbed soldiers was high and many carried physical and mental injuries, and they were in need of a great deal more than a hot drink.

Clayton was well connected in the upper echelons of society and he set to work. Before long he had acquired a range of properties across the country and these became places where young men could stay, recover and learn a trade. In this rather accidental way one of Britain’s first large publically supported charities was born.

As we now know the Great War failed to bring Europe to its senses and it took a second and even more deadly war for this to happen. Only then did the continent’s leading politicians with the financial encouragement of the United States, begin the process of entwining the economies of Germany and France in such a way that an attack by one on the other would, in reality, be an act of self-mutilation.

The first step was the signing of the European coal and steel agreement between France, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands in 1951. Then, step by step, involving more and more countries, the Common Market was formed leading in turn to the European Union that we have today.

At no point in this 60-year journey has any country joining the project gone to war against another member state. A significant achievement when set against the Europe’s bloody history.

How divided and dysfunctional the Europe that existed in the period either side of the Second World War was brought home to me when I recently spoke to fellow Socialist MEP Jo Leinen. Born in the Lorraine region, Jo told me that during the first half of his life he held five different passports as his home moved backwards and forwards between France and Germany.

At one point he even had a United Nations passport as his region became a temporary UN protectorate.

At Brussels airport they are commerating the anniversary of the start of the First World War with an exhibition of poppies hanging from the roof and a series of information boards, one of which documents the history of Talbot House. Open to the public it remains, especially the chapel on the top floor, a quiet reminder of sacrifices made and friendships formed against the backdrop of the death and destruction of the trenches.

We have come a long way as a continent in the last 60 years. I think Tubby Clayton would approve. Remembrance Sunday provides an annual opportunity to pause and consider the future in the light of the past. Together we need to keep building the peace, it is not a given.

Paul Brannen is a North East Labour MEP.

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