History of  TorchLight o/a Distress Centre Wellington-Dufferin

(revised: July 2010)

Contributed by: Shirley Stewart, Past Volunteer/Board Member ( o/a Distress Centre Wellington-Dufferin), Member, Board of Directors of Navacrek Community Services Inc.

“TorchLight” is the governing body of the Guelph Distress Centre (known to many as Distress Centre Wellington/Dufferin). Toc-H Ontario is the philanthropic organization which has financially supported  TorchLight for several years and is known in Guelph as Navacrek.

In 1986, Toc-H Ontario agreed the monies left by Mr. Higginbothom’s estate should be used in the Guelph area and be administered locally. Thus, “Navacrek Community Services Incorporated” was established to carry out this mandate. The late Don Kerr, Guelph’s Toc-H Ontario representative, at that time formed a five-person Board of Directors.

Navacrek may seem an unusual name, but it was created to recognize Mr. Higginbothom’s bequest. It comes from the name he called his mansion on Stuart Street – “Ker Cavan”. Navacrek is “Ker Cavan” spelled backwards. There is no connection between Navacrek and the present day Kercavan Heritage Association, which was overseeing the re-development of this historical property.

In March 1987 Navacrek sold the house on Norfolk Street previously occupied by  TorchLight (Distress Centre Wellington/Dufferin), and invested the monies realized from the sale.

At that time, the Navacrek Board of Directors agreed to give TorchLight relocation funds and the Distress Centre Wellington/Dufferin decided to rent a location in the downtown area. The mandate of Navacrek Community Services Inc. is to help small agencies in the social service field in Guelph and surrounding area, to meet some of their financial needs. Navacrek’s Board of Directors meets each October to plan its distribution of available funds and writes the annual report. Recent years have seen interest rates on investments decline. With fewer funds to allocate, and no new bequests forthcoming, TorchLight’s Distress Line program has been the main beneficiary of these funds. TorchLight has been told not to count on this money indefinitely. The next few years may see an end to the funds.

Where did Toc-H originate?

Where did Toc-H originate? Few people are familiar with the romantic history behind this organization.

Toc-H began in the trenches of Flanders Fields. World War I may have been championed as “the war to end all wars” but it’s social barriers dividing officers and privates stood firm even in the face of a common enemy. One of the men determined to overcome this and free the way for communication between the ranks was a chaplain by the name of Rev. P.B. Clayton. Reverend Clayton was known affectionately by his friends as Tubby Clayton, but was “Willy Woodbine” to the troops – the result of his regular visits to the trenches, distributing much-coveted Woodbine cigarettes. Together with his friend Neville Talbot, he approached the High Command and convinced them to commandeer a large house for the duration of the war. This was to be used both as a house of worship and as a meeting place where rank and class would be forgotten. High Command agreed to the plan, despite opposition from many senior officers who were convinced such free communication would mean the end of military discipline. Just when Neville Talbot was about to see his idea become a reality, he was killed in action. In his memory, the house was name Talbot House. True to his ideals, a sign was erected above the door of the chapel reminding all those about to enter, “When in God’s house, abandon rank.” With the use of Morse code and the phonetic alphabet, news of Talbot House spread among the troops. Phonetically, “T” is designated by the phrase “Toc” and “H” by home. The result, in early code communication meant Talbot House soon became known as Toc Home… a place where men could meet on common ground and discuss their problems, hopes and fears. Friendships were born that did not recognize rank. Toc Home soon acquired the first of many influential patrons – the Prince of Wales – who became familiar with its existence through his visits to the trenches. He brought news of Toc Home back to Britain.

With the end of World War I, the spirit of Toc Home remained. Soldiers remembered Toc Home long after they had put away their uniforms, and many people bequeathed funds to the organization that had done so much to break through class barriers. Toc Home continued in Britain with the stated aim of helping the classes communicate better. The organization and its ideals spread throughout the British Commonwealth and soon each country had separate chapters. Shift the scene slightly across the Atlantic – to Guelph at the end of the Great Depression. In 1929 hundreds of men “rode the rails” in search of a job. In most railroad stations, they arrived not to find a job, but fines or imprisonment. Security was high in an attempt to keep control over this rootless mass of humanity. In Guelph however, the railway was community owned and security was relatively lax. Word spread that a man was safer to get off at the Guelph junction than to try for Toronto and risk spending “a night in the slammer.”

In times of adversity, a “man of the hour” usually comes forward, and in Guelph such a man was millionaire Harry Higginbothom. From his mansion on Stuart Street -“Ker Cavan” – Harry recognized the need for food and shelter, and established a series of hostels. At his death, his generosity continued – he left no survivors, but a generous bequest to the Hospital for Sick Children and to Toc-H Ontario (as the Ontario branch of the organization is known.) When Toc-H receives a bequest from an individual, they try to put it to use in the community from which that person came. At the time of Mr. Higginbothom’s death, the Ministry of Health was assisting with the establishment of Crisis Intervention Centres to deal with a recognized and growing drug problem. Dr. Dale, the Medical Officer of Health for Wellington County was a Toc-H trustee. He approached his fellow trustees, who decided to use Mr. Higginbothom’s bequest to purchase the factory at Woolwich and McDonnell streets, to house a Crisis Intervention Centre in Guelph (known today as TorchLight o/a Distress Centre Wellington-Dufferin).

During the 1970’s, the Crisis Centre operated as telephone crisis intervention and a drop-in centre. Volunteers operated the service between 7 pm and 2 am daily. Operating as a drop-in centre, in downtown Guelph, accessible to the many “speeders” and addicts meant the volunteers had to be very careful about their personal safety. There were always two on duty and it wasn’t unusual to be questioned by the police as they closed up in the early morning hours and headed home. Another organization in Guelph, named FISH, ran a similar distress line and decided to join the Guelph Crisis Centre. Answering the phone with “This is the Guelph Crisis/Fish Centre” created some amusement and occasionally confusion as we had to tell callers we were not an aquarium! It was at this time that the Centre changed its name to “Distress”, dropping the reference to “Crisis”. When Dr. Dale retired, the late Don Kerr, then Chairman of the Board for TorchLight was appointed a trustee of Toc-H.

Some years ago, the Co-operators Insurance Company expressed interest in purchasing the old factory – the TorchLight Building. Toc-H agreed, not to sell but to trade the building for another house at the corner of Norfolk and Suffolk Streets in Guelph, to house the Distress Centre. Later the Centre rented space on Cork Street, and now in 2005 has a new location in downtown Guelph.

It’s a long journey from the trenches of World War I to our new location, but it’s a path well-trodden from past to present by the connecting thread of people such as you, caring for your fellow human beings… and doing something about it.