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Peter Gill stars in Great War play Talbot House at Stroud Subscription Rooms

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: March 18, 2014

By Jonathan Whiley

Talbot House

Talbot House

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WE often hear about the horrors of war and the unimaginable slaughter.

But in a year that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, there remains a tale that is a beacon of light in the endless darkness.

During the Great War, Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium, a few short miles behind the front line, became a haven for thousands of allied troops – a ‘home from home’ where they enjoyed some familiar comforts and remembered the men that they really were.

Run by a diminutive chaplain named Tubby Clayton, the house became known by its army signaller’s code of Toc H.

Regardless of rank or religion, Reverend Clayton would welcome men who had escaped from the lines for a few hours or days. Cocoa was made, biscuits were distributed freely and men would find a quiet place in which they could read or write a letter home to loved ones.

The house was named Talbot House – after Gilbert Talbot, the brother of a senior army chaplain, who had been killed in Belgium in July 1915. He was the great-great uncle of adventurer Bear Grylls.

The house, and Tubby Clayton, soon became legend and it’s his story that inspired Peter Gill, chairman of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Branch of the Western Front Association, to put together a theatre show.

“Tubby was just an inspirational figure and he made a huge difference,”Peter says.

“In three years he had set up 70 hostels and they went all over the country and all over the Commonwealth.

“He wasn’t the tallest of guys and yet was larger than life in terms of his personality.

“He ran the place with no rules, he controlled things with his spirit and character.”

With a long-standing interest in the First World War – sparked after reading Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong – Peter felt he had all the elements to present a positive story for the stage.

“There is a lot about the history of the war so educating people is a factor,” he says.

“But I also want to get across the positive nature about this man and his spirit and that he did make a difference.

“I’ve been on several visits to Talbot House and we’re fortunate that Tubby has written three or four books.

“But the one thing we struggled with was finding what his voice sounded like.

“We searched all over but couldn’t find anything.”

As well as writing the piece, Peter Gill also puts in a performance of his own with a showing at Talbot House itself that sticks out.

“It was surreal. There was one point halfway through that I realised we were using a chair that Tubby himself would have sat in.”

Tickets for the 7.30pm show at Stroud Subscription Rooms on Friday cost from £10. Call 01453 760900.

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