Cloud of Witnesses: Philip Thomas Byard Clayton

To call Tubby Clayton “Philip” would be like calling Babe Ruth “George.” Born in Queensland in 1885, Tubby’s parents returned to their native England when he was two. “I decided to accompany them.” He was just ten years younger than Chesterton, whom he knew as an old boy of St. Paul’s School in London. Not even Chesterton’s prototypical Father John O’Connor was more like Father Brown than Tubby, in every way except for membership in the Henrician spin-off of Holy Church. In all other things—clothing askew, distracted look, Dickensian oratory—he was not eccentric but rather centric in a world gone tortuously eccentric in the Great War.

I knew him as a Winant Volunteer, a group formed by Tubby for American college students to help rebuild blitzed-out London, even as late as the exhausted London of 1960s Carnaby Street. After a first-class degree in theology from Oxford he was a curate in Portsea, but his star flamed when he became an army chaplain in 1915, opening Talbot House in Poperinghe. This hospice in Flanders survived until the German army invaded, a kind of club and relief center to thousands of soldiers gasping for normalcy in the horrible fields. As most of the officers were gentry, the sign read, “All rank abandon, ye who enter here.” Talbot House remains as a museum, and the Belgian government put Tubby’s picture on a postage stamp. Our own Father Brown formed the Toc H Movement (“Toc” being the army signaler’s code for T), a worldwide organization of clubs dedicated to promoting the kind of fellowship and volunteer services that animated the Talbot House fraternity.

A trip to West Africa in 1932 inspired the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association, but Tubby’s longest association was with All Hallows Church at the Tower of London where he was vicar, and which he rebuilt after it was bombed in 1940. There he censured me for indulging the fad of brass rubbing: “I guarded those with my life and now the Americans are rubbing them away.” Dr. Johnson could not have surpassed his elegies on London. He solemnly informed me that only three peers in the House of Lords could trace their families back as far as any Cockney within the sound of All Hallows’ bells.

As a Companion of Honour and royal chaplain with a royal corgi from Her Royal Self, he prized his greatest royal achievement: public swimming baths along the Thames for poor children. When the London City Council employed all its Labourite bureaucracy to stymie his plans, he went to Buckingham Palace in red cloak, gaiters, buckled shoes, and tricorner hat, pocketed his ubiquitous pipe; stormed past the guard, and was ushered into the presence of King George VI. “Where do you want this bathing pool, Tubby?” “At the Tower, Your Majesty.” “The Tower of London? I think I own that.” “Indeed, Sir.” One call on the imperial telephone fixed everything.

Some seven years before his death in 1972, I was with him for a reunion in Belgium. Daily we walked through military cemeteries, and he stopped every so often to mutter to a tombstone. In Tubby Clayton was man alive as man had lived in the halcyon Edwardian afternoon of the world, and in him too was the shudder of a world blasted apart, never to be put together again. The last lines I shall forget, if a time of forgetting comes, are those of Laurence Binyon that we recited on acre after acre of grass and granite graves:

They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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