Military Monday Episode 6 – In Memory of Willie Frost
Behind the trenches of Ypres, Belgium, was a transfer station for soldiers. They would stay here on their way to and from the battlefields of Belgium. In 1915 senior chaplain Neville Talbot asked Army chaplain Reverend Philip Byard (Tubby) Clayton to set up a rest house for soldiers passing through this area. Tubby set up a non-traditional club in an empty hop merchant’s house. He named it Talbot House, in memory of Neville’s brother who had been killed in action. Eventually the house became known as TH, pronounced Toc H as it would have been by army signallers at the time. Toc H offered a unique experience for soldiers, fostering a space for friendship, comradery, and religious understanding. The house was open to soldiers of any ranks, offered a well-stocked library of books that could be checked out, regular church services and communions, debates, and concerts. Many men would receive their final communion at Toc H before being killed on the battlefields of France and Flanders.
After the end of the war, Tubby wanted to continue the good work of Talbot House, giving the new movement the soldier’s nickname; Toc H. The first post-war Toc H house opened in London in 1919, and by 1920 additional houses were opened in Manchester, Southampton and another in London. In 1920, the foundation aims of the Toc H movement were stated as;
• The Kingdom of God
These were known as the Four Points of the Compass. The network grew and through local groups and houses, word of the movement spread around the country and internationally.
In Doncaster, the Toc H branch was founded around November 1924 and headed up by Major M. E. Clark. It was described in the local press as ‘assisting social services in the district in a variety of ways’ including helping at events in the town ‘for the benefit of the sick and suffering’, and helping local people apply to the Red Cross emergency fund. The Doncaster branch raised £120 towards the building of the new Doncaster Infirmary in 1926, and acted as stewards when the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) visited Doncaster that year. In the early 1930s, Doncaster experienced a spike in unemployment. Representatives of the Doncaster Toc H sat on a committee organised to help tackle it and create opportunities for people in the town.
The Toc H ‘Lamp of Maintenance’ was introduced in 1922, and branches had their own lamp. They were dedicated in memory of a person or group of people. The lamps feature a double cross, which is part of the coat of arms of Ypres, referring back to the origins of the movement at Talbot House, in Belgium. IN LUMINE TUO VIDEBIMUS LUMEN is inscribed on the lamp. This is taken from Psalm 36 verse 9 and means ‘In thy light shall we see light’.
Doncaster’s lamp was first lit on the 11 December 1926 at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester by the Prince of Wales. The Prince was an avid supporter of the Toc H movement. He lit the lamps of new branches and appeared at the movement’s celebrations and events. Doncaster’s lamp was dedicated in memory of Sergeant Willie Frost in a service at Doncaster Parish Church in October 1928. The lamp of remembrance was relit in a service annually at the church.
Willie Frost was born in Barnby Dun, Doncaster. As a child he lived with his family in Kirk Sandall. His father, Mark, was an agricultural worker and later worked at the maltings in Barnby Dun.
Willie joined the army in September of 1914, just shortly after war had broken out. He was 19 years old. At the time of his enlistment he was working as an engineer’s chainman. Although he originally joined the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, he was transferred to the 9th Battalion of the Yorks and Lancs regiment immediately after enlisting. He served at home from September of 1914 until August of 1915, and was then sent to France. Willie was promoted to Sergeant in the field in March 1916.
Willie was one of the many casualties of the first day of the battle of the Somme. The exact circumstances of his death are unclear. He was initially reported missing in July 1916, but his family, then living at Rose Cottages in Barnby Dun, received no further information. In April of 1917, 9 months after he went missing, Willie’s father Mark received word from the Army Council. They wrote that they were ‘regretfully constrained to conclude’ that Willie was dead, because of the ‘absence of any news to the contrary’. He was 21 years old. Willie is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, along with thousands of other servicemen who perished in the Somme region and have no known grave.
The lamp was donated to Doncaster Museum in 2017. It is not known why Willie was chosen to be remembered on the Doncaster branch lamp.
Although Toc H continued to be popular until the 1950s, the movement later struggled to remain relevant to younger people. Toc H began to focus more on volunteering opportunities for young people, which helped to attract more young members. Toc H still exists today, but is smaller than it once was and is currently undergoing another transformation to become a relevant volunteer movement of the 21st century. The original Talbot House in Belgium is now a museum and conference space. In 1925, Toc H Australia had the first ‘World Chain of Light’. This is a 24 hour event where Toc H lamps are lit around the world. This tradition continues to this day on December 11th/12th.