Today we look at the remarkable story of William Booths life, how he emerged from a poor family - in the harsh landscape of a rabidly urbanising Victorian Britain. How his early life as a Methodist preacher taught how to read and write and evangelise on the street. How he fell out with the Methodists and as an independent evangelist formed the salvation army. Taking on the vested interests of the alcohol industry, his church became more and more militant, leading to violent clashes and his ostracization by the Church of England. The sinister emergence of a Skeleton Army to oppose them, and kill some of them. Then how his movement spread around the world and a once divisive figure, died with the respect of an international statesman, lauded by leaders.
Today in 1829, William Booth was born in Sneinton, Nottingham. Booth's father was relatively wealthy, but during William's childhood, the family descended into poverty and could no longer afford his school fees, so he was apprenticed to a pawnbroker. This traumatic experience of poverty would drive his life’s work. His best friend Will Sansom was a big influence on him and together they would go to the Methodist Chapel in Broad Street, and in 1844 he had a conversion experience, noting that: "It was in the open street [of Nottingham] that this great change passed over me". Two years later, a preacher from Scarborough made a deep impression on him , and he started to prepare himself for a ministry of preaching, reading extensively and training himself in writing. He became a Methodist local preacher and delivered his first sermon in Kid Street. Forming a partnership with his friend Will Sansom, it suddenly came to an end when he sadly died of tuberculosis. This was a sign of how poverty and a short life expectancy were common in Victorian Britain.
Booth resigned as a lay preacher and took to open-air evangelising in London on Kennington Common, and soon became a full-time preacher at Binfield Chapel in Clapham. Just over a month after he started full-time preaching, he was engaged to Catherine Mumford. Now a prominent Methodist Evangelist, he was often in demand, but was beginning to feel constrained by the structures that he felt were imposed on him. He wanted to spend more time evangelising, but was being pushed in a more pastoral direction. In frustration he resigned from the ministry and was soon barred from campaigning in Methodist congregations. He became an independent evangelist, setting up a tent in an old Quaker burial ground in Whitechapel. Now in his early 40’s - Booth and his wife Catherine opened 'The Christian Revival Society' in the East End of London which later became the East London Christian Mission. His resourcefulness and resilience came to the fore during the slow growth of his mission, he wife writing that he would "stumble home night after night haggard with fatigue, often his clothes were torn and bloody bandages swathed his head where a stone had struck”. Evening meetings were held in an old warehouse where sometimes urchins threw stones and fireworks through the window. As well as fearless preaching this may also be an indication of his uncompromising style which alienated as many as he attracted.
In May 1878 he was dictating a letter to his secretary George Scott Railton who said to him, "We are a volunteer army." Booth replied in indignation I'm no volunteer, I'm a regular!" Railton was instructed to cross out the word "volunteer" and substitute the word "salvation”. The Salvation Army was born. They were modelled after the military, with their own flag (or colours) and their own music, often composed with Christian words to popular tunes that were more usually sung in the pubs - Most famously ‘Onwards Christian Soldiers’ . This subversion of a popular pub pastime was deliberate and effective, but also provocative. In England, by the 1860s, widespread industrialisation had meant more people were living in urban rather than rural areas for the first time and saw a significant drop in the quality of life. Casual and unskilled workers often still struggled to find employment, while missing out on the fresher air and better food of the countryside. Housing was often overcrowded and insanitary. Hand in hand with industrialisation came workplace accidents, with little hope of recovery and no social support. In this harsh environment, Beer and gin were cheap and easily available, and numbed reality providing a much-craved pick-me-up.
Booth would wear the army's own uniform, 'putting on the armour,' for meetings and ministry work. The Salvationists wore uniforms, carried banners and along with their holier-than-thou attitude, proved to be extremely irritating to many ordinary people. It was abrasive to both the Christian establishment and many of those they were preaching to. William Booth became the "General" and his other ministers were given appropriate ranks as "officers". Other members became "soldiers". After a few years, the church was established in other countries, notably the United States, France, Switzerland, Sweden and: Australia, Canada, India, Cape Colony, New Zealand, Jamaica. During his lifetime, William Booth established Army work in 58 countries and colonies, travelling extensively and holding, "salvation meetings."
William Booths book Darkest England and the Way Out was reprinted several times, most recently in 2006, He proposed a strategy to apply the Christian Gospel and work ethic to the widespread social problems. The book, represents an ambitious vision, of abolishing vice and poverty by establishing homes for the homeless. Farm communities such as Hadleigh Farm would be established where the urban poor can be trained in agriculture, training centres for prospective emigrants, homes for fallen women and released prisoners, aid for the poor, and help for drunkards. Booth also lays down schemes for poor men's lawyers, banks, clinics, industrial schools and even a seaside resort. He says that if the state fails to meet its social obligations it will be the task of each Christian to step into the breach. The Ethical characteristic of William Booth's business ventures was evident in the manufacture of boxes of Salvation Army matches which bore the slogan "Lights in darkest England, Security from fire, Fair wages for fair work". His match factory on Old Ford paid 4 pence a gross, while the larger firms only paid 2 1/2 pence.
The Salvation army were a growing force and they were not easy to ignore. Bold and brash they marched in processions, banging drums, flying banners, singing loudly and playing instruments. In this context some could see them as a revolutionary force.
The strongest opposition to their activities came from the drinks industry who were concerned that their activities would lead to less drinking. A Skeleton Army was formed in Southern England, that opposed and disrupted The Salvation Army's marches against alcohol. Salvation bands were drowned out by a cacophony of whistles, horns and drums wielded by Skeletons, who sang their own songs, often with obscene or threatening lyrics. Clashes between the two groups lead to the deaths of several Salvationists and injuries to many others. A young woman, Susannah Beaty, newly married, was knocked to the ground in the seaside town of Hastings. Felled by a thrown rock and set upon by the mob, she lost an eye. and later, in hospital, she died from internal injuries. It was 1889 and she became the Salvation Army's first "martyr". The tail end of the 19th Century saw towns across the south coast of England descend into violence. Dead animals, some set alight, were hurled at passing Salvationists, as were sticks, stones, paint-filled eggs, burning coals and rotten fish. Chamber pots were emptied from upper windows over the heads of men and women below. Thousands of people were injured, some were killed.
The police would rarely intervene, and when they did, the Salvation Army's unpopular militant manner meant that they were just as, if not more, likely to fall foul of their attention. Some in positions of authority, such as the mayor of Eastbourne, even joined brewers and other supporters by publicly endorsing the actions of the Skeleton Army. In Torquay, hundreds of Salvationists were assaulted, and the local council responded by adding a clause - later repealed by Parliament - to the Torquay Harbour and District Act, to arrest and imprison Salvationists. Mass brawls broke out in 67 towns and villages. After a few tumultuous years the anti-Salvationist frenzy die down. Police became more amenable to arresting the Skeletons, and the Salvation Army's right to promenade in public was enshrined in law and the Skeleton Army; faded away.
William Booths strong character and determination, and patriarchal nature also created many enemies, some from within. Accused of nepotism for appointing his own children to posts for which others were better qualified such as his daughter Emma Booth as the Principal of the Officers' Training Home, when she was just 19. The press was often hostile with Booth portraying him as a charlatan only out to make money. The Church of England was at first also extremely hostile- with the politician, and evangelist Lord Shaftesbury going so far as to describe Booth as the "Anti-Christ". Many found him dictatorial and hard to work with, even some of his own children denounced him. However, in his later years, he was received in audience by kings, and presidents, who were among his ardent admirers. He was made a Freeman of the City of London, and was granted an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. When he died at age 83 his body lay in state for three days at Clapton Congress Hall where 150,000 people filed past his casket. His funeral service was held at London's Olympia where 40,000 people attended, including Queen Mary, who sat almost unrecognised far to the rear of the great hall. King George V wrote to his daughter: "The nation has lost a great organizer and the poor a whole-hearted and sincere friend." United States President William Taft wrote "[Booth's] long life and great talents were dedicated to the noble work of helping the poor and weak and giving them another chance to attain success and happiness."
But maybe the ultimate honour and irony was when One Mile End, a brewery from East London created a craft beer called Salvation! Pale Ale. The beer is sold in a couple of pubs including the White Hart Brewpub, only a few meters away from the statue of William Booth on Mile End Road.