Written by Dr Jack Binns
Largely because of the long life and prodigious work of a single man, William Booth (1829-1912), the Salvation Army made one of the greatest contributions of English Christianity to the modern world.
Booth was the son of a small-scale builder in Nottingham who after the death of his father was apprenticed at 14 to a pawnbroker. Across the pawnbroker’s shop counter in Nottingham and then London he came face to face every day with the poorest and the most desperate. Mainly out of concern for the needy he became a Methodist minister. In London he met Catherine Mumford (1829-1890) whom he married in 1855. Together, husband and wife, became a preaching partnership, one of the special characteristics of the Salvation Army. In a time of male domination and female invisibility, the wives of most clergymen were restricted to domestic duties.
Together, Mr and Mrs Booth set up non-denominational missions wherever they travelled - in Cornwall, the Midlands and mostly in the most deprived and depraved parts of east London. In 1878 William became General of the Salvation Army.
The Booths and their increasing number of followers preached in the open streets, in public houses, in market-places and even in brothels. Most of their converts were barmaids, prostitutes, navvies, pickpockets and loan sharks.
In 1879 a local Methodist and his three sons played their brass instruments at one of William’s open-air meetings. From then on the Salvation Army formed brass bands in all its missions.
The early Salvationists had a hard time: they were pelted with rotten fruit and bad eggs; they were physically assaulted and had their premises and property damaged and destroyed. Only gradually did local police and magistrates come to accept that they were law-abiding and peace-loving and deserved protection from drunken hooligans.
By 1880 there were Salvation Army missions in the USA, France, Canada, India and parts of British colonial Africa. The movement had become world-wide.
Above all, the Salvation Army was famous for its social and humanitarian work: Booth’s “soldiers” offered shelter and subsistence to orphans, ex-prisoners and the homeless. Thomas Barnado started out as one of William’s assistants. WT Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who ran a national campaign against child trafficking and prostitution, found ready allies in the Booths, father and son, Bramwell (1856-1929), who succeeded him as General.
However, it was a new experience for Scarborough when on Tuesday, August 30, 1881, General and Mrs Booth came to town to lay the foundation stones of the New Barracks at the corner of Alma Parade and Victoria Road. In heavy rain, a huge procession over a thousand strong, having arrived by excursion trains from Hull and Heckmondwike and preceded by the Army’s brass band, marched up through the town from the Foreshore.
The first stone was laid by Mrs Booth, the second by the former mayor, S North-Smith, the third by WS Caine, the borough’s Liberal MP, the fourth by General Booth himself and the next by Joshua Rowntree. Cain’s was the longest speech. “No Christian”, he said, “was worthy of the name who was not a fighting Christian...” The circulation of the War Cry at 200,000, the 12,000 voluntary preachers and the 450 paid preachers - all these indicated the strength and success of the movement.
After the ceremony, a public tea, held in the schoolroom of the Bar Church, was addressed by the mayor, Thomas Whittaker. He used the opportunity not only to praise the work of the Salvation Army but to condemn, in contrast, the “debauchery” of the “rabble” who had come to Scarborough for the races the previous Friday and Saturday.
General Booth told the same audience that the Army “was rolling along”. Two hundred “soldiers” had been recruited in York, 50 in Paris, and there were now 13 “stations” in Ireland. In Scarborough there had been no place for them: they had been turned out of the Circus (in St Thomas Street) and had been compelled to build their own Barracks to seat 2,400 at a minimal cost of £2,500.
The following March 1882, just before the opening of the new Barracks, General Booth presided over a religious service in Oxford Street in an improvised building which had been used previously as a skating rink and a market. The Mercury correspondent noted that the men on the platform wore dark uniforms with the letter S on the collar and the women wore small “coal-scuttle” bonnets. The General had introduced several of his “trophies”: two elderly women who between them had been in prison 351 times, a converted prize fighter, “the greatest blackguard in Peckham” and a former atheist.
Soon afterwards, after there had been several disturbances in the town, Scarborough’s magistrates took the advice of the borough police and placed a ban on Salvation Army street processions; but a fortnight later they lifted the ban on condition that “various religious bodies” desisted “from playing musical instruments on Sundays”.
Finally, on Thursday evening April 6, 1882, General Booth was again present to open the new Barracks in Alma Parade. Celebrations of the event carried on until the following Easter Monday. All passed without serious incident though on Monday evening, a final Army “ring” on Foreshore Road was disrupted by a fight amongst inebriated fishermen. The Gazette was unable to resist a passing criticism of the Army’s “processions which invariably display the incongruity of sacred hymns sung to secular music, while certain of the party walk backwards, and others actually dance as they pass along the thoroughfares”.
For many of Scarborough’s richer and respectable, the Salvationists were far too noisy and vulgar, but they had become a permanent addition to the town’s Christian community.