Christian Charity, Domesticity and Masculine Identity: A Four Nations Approach To Disabled Veterans of the First World War

Christian Charity, Domesticity and Masculine Identity: A Four Nations Approach To Disabled Veterans of the First World War

Bethany Rowley (University of Leeds) discusses the ‘Men, Women and Care’ research project and the relationships between religion,  gender and care for disabled First World War  veterans.

Six months ago, I wrote a blog post for the Four Nations Network entitled ‘Disabled Ex-Servicemen of the First World War: A Four Nations Approach To Their Social, Medical and Religious Care Needs’. In that post I introduced the ‘Men, Women and Care’ research project currently being undertaken at the University of Leeds. The project explores the formal and informal structures which developed in Britain in the interwar years to provide medical and social care to the allied war disabled across the four nations and further afield. We are examining the impact of the Great War on individual servicemen and on wider society, including the family, clergy and the medical profession.

By specifically focusing on ideas of gender, however, a nuanced understanding of the long-term effects of total war on both the gendered provision of social care prior to the introduction of the welfare state and developments in medical practice in the first half of the twentieth-century will emerge. Whilst there has been much written on the impact of war disability on ideas of masculinity by historians such as Jessica Meyer and Wendy Gagen, as well as on domesticity, with the work of John Tosh at the forefront, there has been less attention paid to the ways in which a man’s masculine and religious identities were altered by war injury and the impact that this had upon his family setting.[1]

As an emerging strand in this research project, I examine these links in this blog post using Toc H, a Christian charity, as a case study. 

All denominations of Christianity define domestic relations and provide guidance on the treatment of people with disabilities.[2] Being head of the household, the male provides for his family. This Christian understanding supports the ‘traditional’ gender relationships and the natural order of families, with ‘men in public roles, and women at home’, as argued by gender historian Joan Scott.[3] Disabled veterans, however, significantly disrupted this idealised order, simultaneously providing a social crisis and re-fashioning of gender codes. Identifications of masculinity and importantly of femininity, were therefore altered by soldiers’ ‘broken bodies’.[4]

By disrupting this social pattern, they were also challenging Christian teachings of domesticity and masculinity, such as that of the powerful male at the head of the household. Additionally, many men were unemployable because of their disablement, which, to some, also meant a loss of personal identity and financial freedom. An inability to be economically self-sufficient further challenged the Victorian ideals of manliness as independence and self-reliance were seen as essential qualities [5] Yet, whether religious identity, because of biblical teachings on the disabled and domesticity, declined because of an altered sense of masculinity through war disability remains an unexplored topic in First World War gender and social histories.

This will now be addressed through Toc H correspondence from the Toc H archive held at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham.

What is Toc H?

At Sanctuary Wood in July 1915, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot of the Rifle Bigrade died at The Battle of Hooge.[6] Just five months later, Talbot House was opened as a response of the army authorities and the Army Chaplains Department to the lack of recreational facilities at Poperinge, Belgium. This was the work of Gilbert’s brother, The Reverend Neville Talbot, senior chaplain to the Sixth Division of The British Expeditionary Force.[7] Calling upon the Reverend Phillip ‘Tubby’ Clayton for help, they wanted to provide an alternative to the estaminets and brothels of the town. For Talbot, Clayton, who had been stationed at No. 16 Base Hospital at Le Treport since arriving on the Western Front early in 1915, seemed the ideal man to ensure the success of this rest house, with his eccentric personality and ability to mix with soldiers of all rank.[8] For Allied soldiers wanting respite from the Front Line, Clayton ran the centre as ‘a home from home where friendships could be consecrated and sad hearts renewed and cheered’.[9] Turning the top floor into a Chapel, Christianity remained at the heart of this home.

After the Armistice, Talbot House was referred to by its initials in the Army signaller code of the time: Toc H, and while there was only one house during the war, by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, there were 1,500 around the world. [10]

Originating in London in 1917, Toc H houses soon appeared through the regions of England and Scotland with fewer branches in Ireland and Wales, as demonstrated by the poster below:

Toc H: War Disability and Identity

As research for the ‘Men, Women and Care’ project progresses, it is becoming increasingly evident that charities offered less and less religious aid or service to disabled ex-servicemen as the distance from the conflict grew. Although inherently Christian, Toc H does not challenge this interpretation.

For example, a nameless Toc H Padre wrote ‘A Litany Concerning Toc H’ in 1915:

“Father, let Thy Hand uphold/ The named and nameless dead; The maimed; the blind;/ The Deaf; the dumb;/ The living half-forgot/ The lone hearts still comfortless, / The mind that has dethroned its reason/ The soul that has enthroned its doubts, / the men that move like pawns, and stray like sheep. Bless them and keep them’.[11]

From the early days of Toc H’s existence, the war disabled were therefore held in the hearts, minds and prayers of Padres and the men who visited Talbot House in Belgium. But, as Toc H spread across the four nations as the years went by, this disability focus appears less and less prominent. Whilst documents detailing efforts by Toc H to relieve unemployment exist, such as advertising jobs for members in local newspapers, no documents exist on specific schemes for disabled ex-servicemen. Likewise, Toc H policies on the disabled can be found, along with measures to help the ‘blind, dumb and deaf’ across Britain, but, no evidence has been found detailing specific care measures taken by Toc H for the war disabled. Interestingly a policy for allowing disabled men to become members, which focused on accepting the physically and not mentally ill, was only considered by Toc H after both world wars in 1959.[12]

The difficulty the organisation had in allowing disabled as well as men of non-Christian faith to join suggests that it was not an inclusive organisation despite advertising that it was ‘open to all children of God’. Conforming to social expectations, to be a member of the Toc H ‘family’ you had to be male, Christian and healthy. Very rarely were exceptions made, and if they were it was when a man became disabled after he was already a member.

Religious and masculine identity thus intertwine with the recurring family metaphor in Toc H literature. In published books by members, their annual journal and in newspapers, Toc H enforces that a man’s primary responsibilities are his home and daily work, unsurprising as family and love are referenced in The Four Points of Compass. These are the aims by which Toc H members should build their lives by: Friendship: To love widely, Service: To build bravely, Fair-mindedness: To think fairly, The Kingdom of God: To witness humbly.[13] Membership disputes, however, suggest that ‘fair-mindedness’ was not always demonstrated. It was later suggested that the Fourth Point should include ‘to spread the Gospel without preaching it’. This was not included. It has instead become a motto rather than an aim, as it reminds members that in Toc H, Christianity is determined by actions and not words, and that ‘lives speak while words are only spoken’.[14]

This ‘family’ analogy extends beyond domestic circles to the love of God: Toc H is first and foremost a ‘Christian Family’. Members, wrote Tubby in 1921, are ‘just a cross section of mankind, differing in their ideas on nearly every subject under the sun, but bound together in the belief that they are all one family, and that some of the things which divide them are imaginary and the rest of their own making’.[15] As such, Toc H was both a religious and social ‘experiment’.

This is also an inherent paradox of the organisation. With such a focus on equality, women could not become members and it was agreed in 1924 that they should have their own organisation rather than join Toc H. This was ‘The League of Women Helpers’. Thus, the family referred to was one of men and not women. Masculine domesticity and the Christian position of men at the helm withheld. Hence, familial ties amongst men and God were behind the rapid growth of Toc H. The answer to what Toc H is and male identity within this Christian platform therefore must, as argued by Clayton throughout the 1920s and 30s, ‘be sought in the lives of men’. [16]

Talbot and Clayton believed that the best way to help ex-servicemen in inter-war Britain was not financial or domestic interference, but through acts of service. The same principles apply to the organisation across all four nations in the twenty-first century.

[1] See for example: Gagen W. ‘Remastering the Body, Renegotiating Gender: Physical Disability and Masculinity during the First World War, the Case of J. B. Middlebrook’, European Review of History. 14(4) (2007), pp. 525-61; Meyer, Jessica. “’Not Septimus Now ‘: wives of disabled veterans and cultural memory of the First World War in Britain.” Women’s History Review 13.1 (2004): 117-138; Tosh, John, A Man’s Place – Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1999 and John Tosh: Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain (Pearson Education Limited, Edinburgh, 2005)

[2] Madigan, Edward, Faith Under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War. (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011)

[3] Joan W. Scott, “Rewriting History,” in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, ed. Margaret Randolph Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz (New Haven, Conn., 1987), p. 28

[4] Reid, Fiona. Broken men: Shell shock, treatment and recovery in Britain 1914-30. A&C Black, 2014.

[5] Cohen, Deborah, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939 (London, University of California Press, 2001), p. 119

[6] Birmingham University Special Collections: Toc H – Section 6 – History/POW, Toc H In The Countryside, Toc H Publications – no date, p.3

[7] T. Lever, Clayton of Toc H (London, 1971), pp. 40 – 42.

[8] Parker, Linda, A Living Memorial – The Toc H Movement and Talbot House as ‘Living Memorials’ (unpublished article), p.5

[9] P. B. Clayton, Tales of Talbot House, p. 36; Lever, Clayton of Toc H, p. 44.

[10] Birmingham University Special Collections: Booklet: The Story of Toc H – author only given as B.T.D and no date – printed in England. P.5

[11] Birmingham University, Toc H Section 10, B2, A Treasury Of Prayers and Praises For Use In Toc H: the spirit of the man is the lamp of the Lord – reprint of the 1924 edition – July 1926 – p.15

[12] Birmingham University, Toc H Section Two, SP1: Policy Regarding Handicaps

[13] University of Leeds, Liddle Collection C-50/ TOC, Toc H defined, p.7

[14] Harcourt, Tubby Clayton, pp. 88-90; University of Leeds, Liddle Collection C-50/ TOC – Toc H defined, P.12

[15] Birmingham University Special Collections, Toc H Section 6: Booklet: The Story of Toc H, p.7

[16] Birmingham University Special Collections: Toc H Section 5 PC6, book three, – Press Cuttings 1932-1935

Beth is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research examines religious charity and the experience of disabled ex-servicemen in inter-war Britain. She looks at why religion didn’t play a larger role in the rehabilitation process when it was dominant in charitable work aimed at the disabled prior to 1914, whilst considering the impact that accessing religious charity had on male identity, in relation to both the Victorian concept of ‘manliness’ and the Christian role of provider. Because of her research interests, she is a team member of the ‘Men, Women and Care’ Research Project at Leeds. This blog post is to introduce the project and its links to Four Nations History.

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