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Frank Fletcher

(1923-) – Toc H Bible owner

Frank Fletcher’s story concerns a Bible found in the Toc H Hall in Looe which was recently returned to him. Inside were two letters written in pencil by his great uncle Alfred while fighting in Palestine. They read rather like a holiday travelogue, but the shelling by the River Jordan was real enough…

Credit: Looe Old Guildhall Museum

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Neil Birchwood-Harper, on duty in the Toc H Hall in Looe, was given a box of books for sale.  While sorting through the selection he noticed a small black Bible and, as Looe Toc H always gives Bibles rather than selling them, he put it to one side. Looking at it later, he found it was one of many given to the children of the Board School in Looe on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.

Two more surprises awaited; the Bible had been presented to Leonard Fletcher, a descendant of a coastguard from Ireland who settled in Looe in the 1830s and who, it is rumoured, later turned to smuggling.  As Leonard’s grandson is a good friend, Neil set it aside to be returned to the family.  However, there was a further surprise: tucked inside were a few sheets of paper.  These turned out to be letters, written in pencil.  One incomplete letter addressed to ‘mother’ dated 2nd May [1918], was written while under shell fire by the River Jordan.  The other letter, also to mother, dated 27 April 1918, describes the soldiers passing through the Holy Land:

‘We are about three miles from where Christ was baptised in the river Jordan … We left Jaffa some days ago and have travelled through all the old biblical country including Jerusalem but am sorry to say we did not stay there long… Since then we have come through some terrible rough country.  The hills being enormous, have seen the pinnacle where Satan tempted Our Lord and the place where Moses was supposed to be buried…Jericho is a very dirty place they say … we can see it easily from where we are camped about 1 mile.’

The letters were probably written by Leonard’s younger brother Alfred, born in 1893, to his mother Elizabeth Ann, a West Looe fisherman’s wife.  Alfred survived the war, but why the letters were saved in his brother’s Bible is a mystery.

Toc H, an international Christian Movement, began in the First World War at Talbot House (named after Gilbert Talbot, the son of the Bishop of Winchester, who was killed in 1915) in Poperinge, Belgium. Gilbert’s older brother and Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton set up a soldier’s club where rank did not matter.  The sign on the door read:  ‘All rank abandon, ye who enter here’. ‘Toc’ was radio signallers’ parlance for T.  Many towns, like Looe, built their own Toc H hall in the inter-war years.

In the early part of the First World War, Looe also hosted the 13th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment.  Billeted in hotels and the Drill Hall, they bathed in barking tanks (where nets and sails were weather-proofed) and used the fields around St Martin’s church for trench-digging practice.  When they left in May 1915, the town gave them a rousing send-off and a parting gift of a silver cup became the tug of war prize for East and West Looe matches.  Looe, in turn, gave the regiment a set of drums and eight bugles. 

Credit: Looe Old Guildhall Museum