I reproduce a 1930s pamphlet on Toc H, or, Talbot House, a former weekend retreat at Pierhead, Wapping.
IS religion out of touch with everyday life? Some people think it is, many more thoughtlessly say so, and altogether a great number of people believe that there is a wide difference between plain folk of ordinary view and the pious enthusiasts. Yet, if we stop to think, the religion of Jesus is full of homely and kindly things—women cooking and sweeping, shepherds with their sheep, tradesmen and ﬁshermen, children and birds and ﬂowers. Even the very words He used over and over again in His parables are common words—words like bread, water, light, house. Bethlehem itself means “The House of Bread.”
It is signiﬁcant that Toc H was born in a house, as its name—Talbot House——reminds us. We, in the League of Women Helpers, have set ourselves to spread the spirit of Toc H and so break down the shackles with which the world has chained itself, through its own greed and selﬁshness and fear. But meeting, as we mostly do, only once a week, and with so many diﬁerences in our homes and work and opinions, it is difﬁcult to keep the ideal steadily before us, and to maintain that close fellowship which transcends personal preferences and “view-points.”
It is good that Toc H has always maintained its houses where people may live together and build up a “constructive corporate life.” Pierhead House, Wapping, is one such house —but with a difference. Here at week-ends, the hostellers cheerfully repair to other Toc H houses or visit friends, thus leaving this one free for Retreats, Conferences or Training Week-ends. All kind of people use it for this purpose, but chieﬂy Toc H and the League of Women Helpers.
Wapping has been described as “poor, honest and noisy ”—and at all events it is certainly not dull. In fact it is full of interest for those who love ships and wharves and docks, to say nothing of history and W. W. Jacobs, whose descriptions of roads with a blank wall on one side and faded houses on the other apply to many streets down “ Wapping Way.” Friends and admirers of Mr. Daniel Quilp of “The Old Curiosity Shop” will remember that he had a bower on Tower Hill, and a wharf on the Surrey side of the river.
So, as we stand in the garden at Wapping and look across to Rotherhithe, we can imagine that gentleman entertaining Mr. and Miss Brass in his delightful retreat.
Pierhead House was leased in 1927 at a small rental to the Vicar of All Hallows, Berkyngechirche (the Founder Padre of Toc H) and in 1931, the lease was transferred to Toc H. It is one of the few large houses in Wapping High Street, which otherwise consists entirely of Warehouses and wharves separated by little stairways leading down to the river, and crowded ﬂats whose occupants are the only life to be seen on the road at week-ends. On weekdays it is different, the street being blocked by continual heavy traffic. There is a courtyard with trees between the house and the road, and at every window is found a new and engaging view of the river. When the wind blows from a certain quarter the smell of the spice warehouse nearby gently tickles week-enders’ nostrils. Inside the house we ﬁnd a dining-room which seats thirty, and a combined Common Room and Library with shelves of books, and wide Window seats. In the basement is the Pilot’s Room with an old oak table which originally came from a ship; here too is the Chapel. There are many bedrooms up above, and as is usual in Toc H Houses, each room has its name over the door. There is “Stephen’s Room,” “ The Messengers,” “The Shepherds,” and “ The Watchman’s Room.” Perhaps the most popular is the “Watchman’s ” because the beds are in two tiers arranged like berths on a ship.
Naturally, every group of people corning here has a different theme for discussion and talks, but there are some things true of nearly every week-end. There is Matron’s friendly Welcome at the door, and the running up and down as early arrivals escort the later ones to their rooms. There is “swapping ” of rooms and endless re-arranging, as faithful souls demand the “bed they slept in before.”
One of the hostellers always declines to leave, no matter how many are coming. He is a black and slightly pompous gentleman named Tui, but although a little proud, he is not above having his chin rubbed, or his tail gently pulled. He takes no part in discussions, but he likes to walk about while they are in progress and on at least one occasion, he suddenly rolled over and purred at the most solemn moment of a speaker’s address.
Tea is the ﬁrst business of the conference, and generally it is handed round in the Common Room to the accompaniment of greeting and gossip as old friends and new relax before the strenuous part begins.
Whatever the subject of the week-end, you can be nearly sure there will be Group Discussions. Of course, everyone knows them at unit meetings, but at Wapping they come into their own. One by one the groups are dispatched. “ No. 1 please go to the Watchman’s Room-—No. 2 down to the Pilot’s Room” and so on all through the list. At the end of the time instead of the Chairman’s pencil to end the session, the gong is sounded with gusto, and down come the groups, still talking nineteen to the dozen. It is often said that “Deeds not words” are wanted, and that “Talking does no good,” but “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” and we in L.W.H. are called to dedicate our minds no less than our hearts and hands to Christ’s service. Our little talks may seem futile against the background of world-problems and affairs, and yet if our minds have been set working in unaccustomed channels and but one prejudice broken down, we can feel that something worth-while has been done.
Then there are walks—to the Tower, or past the Old Stairs and St. John’s, the parish church of Pierhead House. On Sunday morning, there is sometimes a trip to Petticoat Lane where the market is in full swing. Once a Wapping party was greeted with more enthusiasm than accuracy “ ’Ip, ’Ip, Ooray!” called out a red-faced gentleman, “ ‘Ere comes the Girl Guides!”
On these occasions, the camera enthusiasts in the gathering insist on “snapping” the party from all angles. Some-how although there may have been a positive riot of fun ﬁve minutes before, everyone looks plunged in gloom, as they gaze stolidly where the photographer orders, until someone makes them say “Cheddar Cheese” to counterfeit smiles!
On Sunday morning there is early Communion for the Anglican members, either in Wapping Church or All Hallows, or in the Chapel of the house. And here there are held prayers and quiet times at intervals throughout the week-end, when the presence of the Master of the House and the Elder Brethren becomes very real.
But the week-end must close, and the little band who have been drawn so closely together separate and go back to their own personal responsibilities, and the round of unit and district life. During this time, we may not have done any-thing, there may be no immediate practical result, but—have we been wasting time? An answer to such doubts or criticism may be found in the words of John Macmurray:
“It is sometimes said that we are called as Christians to serve Christ and the world. No! we are called to be friends of Christ and the friends of the world. . . . All of us know something of the freedom that comes—~the tranquillity and self-realisation—when we slip from the company of strangers into the companionship of our own intimate friends. . . . Our real selves can ﬂow out to these others freely, and in giving ourselves, we ﬁnd ourselves. The ray that illuminates and warms us in these moments, however faint it may be, comes straight from the Light of the World. The purpose of God in the life of the world is simply the spreading and deepening of that experience until it covers the whole earth.” B. C.
The ﬁrst outlay was met by one who loves Toc H. But food and upkeep remain for each guest to help with as they can. Every week-end party is host of the next, and so the courtesy which marks true friendship adds a touch of graciousness, even to the counting of shillings and sixpences. On an average, the actual cost of a week-end (that is, from Saturday at 3 p.m. to Sunday at 6.30) is 7s. Applications for week-ends should be made well in advance.
(a) From North London and Aldgate trams run to Dock Street, and from the south side of the river buses cross Tower Bridge, whence it is eight minutes walk to the House via East Smithﬁeld and Nightingale Lane.
(b) Going by the Metropolitan Railway (Hammersmith to New Cross) turn left outside Wapping Station and ﬁve minutes walk will bring you to the House, passing the church of St. John at Wapping and Wapping Old Stairs on the way.
(c) From Mark Lane Station, opposite All Hallows Church, cross to the entrance to the Tower, and walk along Tower Wharf and under Tower Bridge to St. Katharine Way.
A ten minutes walk, crossing two dock bridges on the way, brings you to a third which gives entrance to London Dock. Here turn right-handed into the paved yard of Wapping Pierhead with its trees and ﬂag-staff. Pierhead House stands at the far corner separated by its little fenced garden from the river’s edge.
After dusk, when the Tower gates are closed, take the Northward side of the Tower and leaving the Royal Mint on your left, follow the slope parallel with Tower Bridge Approach, then turn left at St. Katharine Way and follow the river bank. Or, having passed the Royal Mint, take the way of East Smithﬁeld and Nightingale Lane.
The Work Goes On
PIERHEAD HOUSE possesses a subtle quality, compound of old and new. She stands in her quiet courtyard dreaming gently of the past. She remembers the gallant captains and merchants of substance who once sat in her ample halls and discoursed gravely on the fortunes of war or the hazards of trade, of the iniquities of pirates and the quality of French liqueurs.
She remembers the merry children who played in the cobbled yard where grass now grows. The bars are still there in the nursery windows above. They are children of a larger growth who now watch the twinkling lights go up and down the river. But something of their spirit lingers still. A gaiety of heart and a faith in human-kind are yet the perquisites of those who lodge beneath her roof. The house breathes still a quietude, an aloofness from the turmoil of the common world. Here are no angles and sharp contours. The very walls are rounded. and night and day encompassed with the murmur of tranquil waters.
Her windows are Wide and high and gather in on every side the salty breezes brought by the inflowing tide. So sunlight and strong air pervade the house, and men who linger there breathe in new life, and talk and plan and rest awhile, and thus go forth again renewed and gay of heart.
This is the purpose of the house—to be a meeting place for young and old, where the wise may speak good words, the tired renew their strength, the vision of the seer be shared by all and fellowship abound. Where men, in short, may meet with God and know His working in their lives.
With every tide new craft come up the river, their cargo destined for the need of man. At high tide, too, the ships go down to sea and new hopes are launched on the great waters.
So, too, it is with those who gather here. The time is short, a few brief hours, but vital with the stuff of life. “Training ” men call it. Rather it is the listening ear, the seeing eye, the brief halt in a life of much busyness wherein values may be compared afresh, the less discarded and the greater set to sacriﬁce, where old ventures may be tuned to ﬁner ends and fair hope, with gallant heart, go forth to serve anew.
So the work of the old house goes on. The captains who gather there command new craft, but the merchandise is old, age old. For courage, joy and love and peace is the cargo and it is girt about with prayer.