Museum in Belgium visited by Harry Patch facing uncertain future
A museum dedicated to the British soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Ypres could close because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Talbot House was originally an “everyman’s club” set up behind the lines at Poperinge, Flanders, in 1915 by two Army chaplains where all ranks mixed together.
It was a home from home for more than half a million weary and homesick troops that were stationed in the area – including Harry Patch.
They could meet friends regardless of rank, have a cup of tea, write a letter home, enjoy a well-kept garden or play the piano.
In the attic, a chapel offered some comfort and provided hope for the men who had to return to the trenches.
The club was so successful that soon after the war, some 500 clubs sprang up throughout the Commonwealth.
Since the reopening of the club in 1931, it has served as a museum where people can also stay the night.
“Every year, thousands of pilgrims and tourists find a warm home from home and a cup of tea – like the soldiers back then,” said museum manager Simon Louagie.
“It’s an authentic British pearl from the war years. Last winter, work on a new permanent exhibition commenced.
“In ‘A House of People’ countless new tales of our rich history are told linked to some 500 artefacts from our collection, most of these never having been shown to the public before.”
Mr Louagie is appealing for help to keep the museum going because it has now been forced to close.
“The major investment in our new permanent exhibition, paid out of our own pocket, and the forced closure due to the coronavirus outbreak, has left us without an income, which is no less than a financial nightmare,” he said.
“With cancellations till the autumn, we see our income fade away.
“A historic house of more than 250 years old requires almost constant maintenance and renovation. As things stand at the moment it is going to be a struggle to make it till the end of the year.
“We certainly have no intention to throw in the towel easily these days. A new campaign has been launched to save the house.
“The funds will help us to survive while we have to remain closed, keep the house in good shape and help us to bridge the gap till we have sufficient income from visitors and guests again.”
Mr Louagie said that with help they can overcome the crisis.
“Just like after the liberation in 1944, we hope to welcome everyone once again after a period of forced closure,” he said.
“Obviously, no date can be set for now, but together we can overcome this crisis.”
Mr Patch, from Somerset, was the last British survivor of the First World War trenches and died in 2009 aged 111.
A memorial stone marking the exact spot Mr Patch went over the top at Langemarck – which mysteriously disappeared before being found last year – is due to be permanently homed at Talbot House in May.
Speaking earlier this year, British historian Jeremy Banning said Talbot House was a place Mr Patch loved.
“Talbot House was an everyman’s club set up behind the lines, a home from home, where all ranks mixed. You could have a private sat next to a major or a colonel,” he said.
“Harry went there in 1917 as a 19-year-old, went there again when he returned to the battlefields and loved the place. It has a real charm.
“He opened the new museum wing there during one of his return visits.
“He was not only the last surviving man of the trenches but the last surviving person who had originally been in Talbot House as a soldier.”
– The fundraising campaign, which has already raised more than 5,000 euros (£4,500) can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-talbot-house