‘William Booth started out from Nottingham largely self-educated, penniless, and practically friendless. He had one fixed idea. The whole of his effort and talent would be directed to the one purpose – saving the world. Like his predecesssor Wesley, he took the whole world as his parish. So well did he succeed, that before he died, his name was known in practically every country of that parish, and his followers numbered in millions. He began with nothing, had no money, no powerful friends, only his golden voice, his passion, and this vision of man reconciled to God.’
To Save the World
The evangelist halted outside The Blind Beggar Tavern up the Mile End Road, East London. He was a tall figure in a frock coat and wide-brimmed hat and his piercing grey eyes looked out from a pale face. Drawing a book from beneath his arm, he gave out the verse of a hymn and faces pressed against the pub’s glass windows. ‘There is a heaven in East London for everyone,’ he cried, ‘for everyone who will stop and think and look to Christ as a personal saviour.’
From the pub came a volley of jeers and oaths, followed by a rotten egg. The preacher paused, egg running down his cheek, prayed, and turned west towards Hammersmith and his lodgings. He made his way through savage fighting men, ragged match-sellers, orange-women, and Irish flower girls clad only in soiled petticoats with their bare feet covered in dirt; children with wolfish faces gobbling up decaying food left by the street market, or swaying blind drunk in tap-room doorways. He strode past crowded tenements and stinking alleys where life was a just a struggle; and the dark alleys near the docks where the sick and dying lay side by side on bare boards of fireless rooms under tattered scraps of blanket.
‘A large muckheap what the rich grows their mushrooms on,’ was how one pauper described East London. After thirteen years as a Methodist Circuit Minister, the preacher was no stranger to it. But as he walked home a conviction grew within him. Towards midnight when he arrived at his lodgings, he found his six children in bed. His wife, Catherine Booth, who worried over their precarious financial position, waited in the living room. Excitedly he burst out: ‘Darling, I’ve found my destiny!’ Convinced that the churches had failed the people, William Booth would set out to save the world. The year was 1865.
Son of a speculative builder, William Booth was born at 12 Notintone Place, a red-brick terrace house at Sneinton, Nottingham, in 1829. William was taken away from school at thirteen years of age and apprenticed to a pawnbroker when the Booth family plunged into poverty – a mortgage was called in.
These were hungry years when local stockingers were hard-hit by poor trading and the high price of bread caused riots. Under the three brass balls, the sight of desperate, hungry mothers pawning their weddings rings to feed their families became etched on William’s memory.
Life for the Booth family didn’t improve when his father died a year later and his mother and two sisters moved to a shop on Goosegate selling toys and tape, needles and cotton. At the age of fifteen William began to attend Wesley Chapel.
His conversion simply came at 11 o’clock one night in the streets of Nottingham while trudging home from a meeting. As he himself recorded, he saw with sudden clarity that he must renounce sin and atone to others for the wrongs he had done them. Kneeling at a bare table in the Broad Street Chapel, he vowed: ‘God should have all there was of William Booth.’
Along with his friend, Will Sansom, son of a well-to-do lace manufacturer, he began to emulate his hero John Wesley who had preached in the open air to the downtrodden. His first sermon was outside the house that the pair rented in Kidd Street. Standing on a chair to sing and speak, he urged his listeners in where a room inside was the penitent room.
Noticing that the poorest and most degraded never came forward, William began to address open-air meetings in ‘The Bottoms’, Nottingham’s cruellest slum that housed the outcasts of the Industrial Revolution.
One Sunday morning in 1846, William led his ‘gang of slummers’ – ragged and dirty converts from ‘The Bottoms’ – through the main entrance of the Wesley Chapel where they filed into the best seats for worship. They were soon banished to using the rear entrance and required to sit on obscure, backless, wooden benches behind the pulpit, out of sight of the congregation. Methodism had become respectable.
William had one astonishing conversion. ‘Besom’ Jack, a drunken broom-seller whose wife had been reduced to begging tea-leaves from neighbours, became one of his devoted followers.
With apprenticeship complete, almost friendless and penniless, equipped only with a bible, the nineteen-year-old William travelled to London. For a while he worked as a pawnbroker on weekdays and lay preached on a Sunday till a Methodist Reformer and boot maker, Edward Rabbits, heard him preach and liked it. After inviting him home to dinner, Rabbits offered him twenty shillings a week as an evangelist. Within months the Reformers offered him a circuit at Spalding.
At one of the meetings of the Reformers he met and fell in love with Catherine Mumford. Deeply attached to the Methodist cause, she had already read the Bible several times and despite her delicate health was no shrinking violet. She believed in the equality of the sexes and unfailingly bolstered William at his times of despair. ‘Never mind. Do not give way. God loves you. He will sustain you,’ she would say. To Catherine, William was a man of destiny.
After eighteen months in charge of the Spalding circuit for the Reformers, William began studying under Dr. Cooke at the Methodist Connexion. So impressed was Dr. Cooke by William’s love of mankind that the youngster was soon appointed London Circuit Superintendent.
William married Catherine (pictured right) in 1855, three years after their first meeting. The couple had no settled home for he became the New Connexion’s travelling evangelist. Steaming up and down the country by train, they lived precariously on £2 a week, rearing a young not altogether healthy family of children that eventually totalled eight. Though an invalid herself, Catherine found time to look after them, bake the bread, and help at meetings. Without her, William later admitted, he could never have fulfilled his life’s work.
At his whirlwind revival meetings, William was averaging over twenty converts a day. In 1857 the Connexion cut short Booth’s travels and put him in charge of their Brighouse circuit in Yorkshire where the Booths battled to improve the lot of seven-year-old mill girls working a fourteen-hour day.
Two years later the Booths were moved to Gateshead. To Catherine Booth, the Devil was a personal opponent and at the Bethseda’s Chapel, she herself began to preach. Many leading Methodists shook their heads at this revolutionary step and wanted to curb these independent Booths. With his wife’s support, William soon broke with Methodist New Connexion.
At thirty-two years of age with a wife and four children to support, William Booth had hopeless prospects. ‘All Britain is now open to you,’ a fellow evangelist told him but soon the chapels of the New Connexion barred their doors to him. Undaunted, he hired secular buildings, even a circus tent, to which the lost and degraded could come. The Booths carried no dogma. All they wanted to do was to stand up in the market place and sound off the glory of the Lord. Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist or Mohammedan, it didn’t matter – these were lost creatures who were in need of comfort and hope.
The greatest preacher since Wesley, Booth was a little flamboyant, a little melodramatic, but he roused thousands to repentance and hope. ‘Religion,’ he said, ‘means loving God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself.’
Catherine was also much in demand as a preacher and in March 1865 she led revival services in the smoky dockland parishes of East London. It was then that William began preaching at the Mile End Waste where every fifth shop was a gin-shop. With a Bible under his arm, he exhorted those outside the taverns to convert and it was here that his destiny was made plain to him – saving those souls the churches didn’t want to know.
In this same year, the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was written.
Booth’s income never topped £3 a week. Often his clothes were torn and bloody bandages would swathe his head where a stone or cudgel had struck. Despite the bitter uphill struggle, he gathered supporters, though some went off to pursue their own vision. A young medical student, Thomas Barnardo, who helped Booth at indoor meetings, departed to devote his life to the rescue of homeless children. ‘You look after the children and I’ll look after the adults,’ was William’s farewell salutation.
The Booth children often bore the brunt of the crusade. Bramwell, the eldest son, was derided as ‘Holy Willie’ at preparatory school and bullies banged him repeatedly against a tree ‘to bang religion out of him.’ He later became the business manager of what he and his father called ‘The Concern’.
Wealthy philanthropists came to his rescue. Among the first was Samuel Morley, a Nottingham textile manufacturer, and the Booths opened their Christian Missions in East London. William recruited his first shock troops – reformed alcoholics known as the ‘Hallelujahs’ who were able to hold an audience spellbound. Typical was one man named ‘Fiery Elijah’ Cadman who had been converted from a drunkard. A small, sturdy man with short legs and a strident voice, he caused uproar wherever he went, ringing a town crier’s bell before each inn, bawling: ‘This is to give notice that 60,000 people are lost. Lost! Lost! Lost! Lost every year through accursed drink.’
Mammoth posters signed by Captain Cadman would presage his appearance:
THE HALLELUJAH ARMY,
FIGHTING FOR GOD!
Salvation Army (General Booth)
Within ten years of his first sermon at Mile End, William Booth had established 26 flourishing stations and his followers had spread the word throughout the country. Known at first as the Volunteer Army, Booth changed it to the Salvation Army in 1978, when his most valued aide, George Railton, objected to being called a volunteer. ‘I’m a regular or nothing,” he argued.
Military terms came to be used. The Salvation Army fired a ‘volley’ and ‘manned forts and citadels’. There were ‘siege operations’ against the Devil, converts ‘taken prisoner’, and they did not pray but did ‘knee drill’. It was his fervent followers who thought up the smart uniforms, the tambourines, and even William’s title – the General.
In the quiet cathedral city of Salisbury, Charles Fry offered the services of himself and his three sons to accompany the singing of songs in the market place. They all played brass instruments and unwittingly was born the first Salvation Army Band.
Not at all sure about the rowdy songs that the first Salvationists began to sing, William finally approved, saying: ‘Why should the devil have all the best tunes?’
‘Hold the standard high – let us tell the world of blood and fire,’ was Booth’s rallying cry on New Year’s Day 1879; and a year later on Boxing Day, 26 December, the first issue of The War Cry was printed. Top organiser George Railton and seven Hallelujah lasses ‘laid siege’ to New York; William’s eldest daughter Kate, a magnetic preacher, ‘opened fire’ in France; and Salvationists shouted their ‘Hallelujahs’ in Australia and Canada. In September 1882, a task force headed by Major Frederick Tucker, who had renounced all to follow Booth, set off to wage Salvation war in India.
The publicans and brothel-keepers launched a counter-attack. For more than four embattled years, Booth and his disciples were reviled and stoned. Eggs were thrown – generously provided by local publicans – and pepper thrown in their eyes. At Gravesend, drunken seamen sent ship’s rockets searing towards a crowd of singing lasses. At Whitechapel, the crowd roped Army girls together and threw live coals at them. Booth shared all the humiliation and dangers of his disciples. ‘Don’t rub it off,’ he said, when some hooligan spat at him. ‘It’s a medal!’
After a running fight through the streets of Sheffield, he lined his followers on the platform of the hall, their tunics torn, eyes closing, faces bleeding, and said: ‘Now’s the time to get your photographs taken.’
Police and magistrates often proved just as vindictive. A tradesman’s wife was sentenced to one month’s hard labour for displaying The War Cry in her window. At Worthing, where the police turned a blind eye to the formation of a vicious, hostile ‘Skeleton Army’, troops had to be called out. Booth just brushed it all aside.
Gradually the bands, the tambourines, the singing, the fervour, the uniforms – all began to bring colour and warmth into the hearts of people whose lives had been utterly drab and purposeless, who had come to feel that the churches were only interested in the well-to-do.
The Salvationists did fine work in the slums bringing soup and salvation, converting and rehabilitating many beggars, criminals and vicious folk, and gradually won the goodwill and practical support of people in high places including Queen Victoria and the Princess of Wales.
In 1885, Bramwell Booth helped expose the shocking traffic in young girls. Young girls over 13 years lacked any protection and they could be sold for £100 in any brothel, even profitably exported to the Continent in ventilated coffins, a trade that was worth £8 million a year. Booth’s soldiers raised a petition of 393,0000 signatures and Lord Salisbury’s Government passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act which raised the age of consent to 16 years.
Depressed trade during the late eighties brought strikes, unemployment and bloody police clashes. In the five-week dock strike of 1889, the Army supplied 195,000 cut-price meals. Booth forestalled the Government by twenty years when he opened a labour exchange in Upper Thames Street.
The Army provided rescue homes and Prison Gate Brigades to help ex-prisoners. The lasses of the Cellar, Gutter and Garret Brigade lived in Whitechapel’s filthy tenements caring for old folks and tiny children.
In America, President Cleveland received a group of Salvationists at the White House but the town of Boston, governed by Irish liquor-dealers, only allowed Sunday marches in total silence. On his first visit to America Booth launched a whirlwind campaign from New York to Kansas City impressing spellbound audiences; but only slowly did the Salvationists’ Christian example of caring for the sick and needy begin to turn the tide.
Loss of Catherine
Catherine Booth found she had a small painful swelling in her breast. Cancer was diagnosed and surgery recommended. She delayed, eventually consented, but it didn’t check the disease. The Booths rented a small villa at Clacton in sight of the sea that she loved, and on 4 October 1890 she died in William’s arms with her family around her.
Shortly after, Booth’s book In Darkest England and the Way Out became a best-seller. It exposed the grave ‘unmentionable evils’ of the time and suggested radical remedies such as planned emigration, a missing persons bureau, a Poor Man’s bank, and legal aid for the poor. Critics scoffed. ‘A childish impracticable Utopia,’ they said.
Booth simply dismissed them. Like all men of genius, Booth saw one simple and obvious thing – the horror of Victorian England. At the top was all glitter and opulence: below was a cesspool of squalor and starvation and vice. The rest of society looked on poverty as a sin – the result of irresponsible and feckless living.
General Booth was never much concerned with the rich; they had their cardinals, bishops and curates. What interested him was the lost and despairing horror of the poor. After many spirited battles for freedom of worship by the Army, other countries were now prepared to give Booth’s ideas a sporting chance. Shelters were opened in Brussels and Copenhagen. The Governments of France, Holland, Germany and Australia saw what could be done and financially assisted the Army. The Army even ‘opened fire’ in Tokyo where thousands of prostitutes renounced their calling.
To a hero’s ovation, William Booth returned to New York in 1895. Carnegie Hall was packed to hear him tell of his ‘Darkest England’ and he held 340 meetings in 86 cities. The Salvation Army had assumed a unique position in America through its slum work and the help provided for striker’s families. Seven Salvationists even set out from Skagway, Alaska, to Dawson City, scene of the gold rush, and served hot Christmas dinners to 300 shivering men who had staked and lost their all.
Tirelessly driving himself supervising his global corps, Booth became a much-respected international figure. He opened the US Senate in 1898 with a prayer and King Edward VII shook him by the hand at Buckingham Palace in 1904. Travelling widely, he found no country too remote, no people too barbarous, following the paths his soldiers had opened up. On a visit to Palestine, he kneeled outside the Garden of Gethsemane to kiss a leper’s hand.
Received by Royalty
Even when well into his seventies, the old General (pictured right) undertook motor car tours of Britain, galvanising audiences and holding them spellbound. There were trips to Stockholm, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Jerusalem and Tokyo. Though his eyesight was failing he wouldn’t give up his travels. He met King Haakon in Norway and was received by King Gustave of Sweden.
His sixth motor tour of Britain was cut short when he lost the sight of his right eye. Dimly able to write his own name through the cataract in his left eye, he toured Europe in the following Spring. In the May he filled London’s Albert Hall and made perhaps his greatest speech: ‘While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, I’ll fight; while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.’
An operation on his left eye was not successful and he was left completely blind. On Sunday 18 August he lost consciousness and grew steadily weaker. He died three days later.
‘The General Has Laid Down His Sword,’ was the simple message displayed in the window of International Headquarters. He was 83 years old. At the three-day lying in state, 150,000 people filed past the old warrior’s casket. 40,000 flocked to his funeral at Olympia Exhibition Hall where Salvation Army Officers knelt by the casket, along with thieves, tramps, harlots, the lost, and the outcast.
Royalty too. Queen Mary came along with her Lord Chamberlain, Lord Shaftesbury, and because Her Majesty had arrived unannounced without warning, she had to sit at the rear of the hall next to a prostitute. She heard the prostitute say: ‘He cared for the likes of us.’
The casket was borne to Abney Park Cemetery through silent masses lining the streets, followed by 10,000 uniformed Salvationists and forty Army bands. Around his grave were lain wreaths from the King and Queen, Queen Alexandra, Kaiser Wilhelm, and the American Ambassador Whitelaw Reid.
The New York Times claimed: ‘No man of his time did more for the benefit of his people.