Hallelujah Lasses

E.S. Turner

  • Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain by Pamela Walker
    California, 337 pp, £22.95, April 2001, ISBN 0 520 22591 0

It was widely supposed that London’s East End, in Victorian times, was a sink of evil, an outpost of the Cities of the Plain. Were there fifty righteous men to be found in this cockney Sodom? Well, yes, if you looked for them, and there were some uncommonly righteous lasses too. Together they had seen the vision splendid. Let Bernard Shaw, running on rich mixture, explain:

Joyousness, a sacred gift long dethroned by the hellish laughter of derision and obscenity, rises like a flood miraculously out of the fetid dust and mud of the slums; rousing marches and impetuous dithyrambs rise to the heavens from people among whom the distressing noise called ‘sacred music’ is a standing joke; a flag with Blood and Fire on it is unfurled, not in murderous rancour, but because fire is beautiful and blood a vital and splendid red . . .

(this from the preface to Major Barbara).

In darkest London appearances could be deceptive. Those belligerent women who ambushed the hapless male on his way to the public house were not, as might be supposed, harpies eager to lure him into more vicious courses. They were Salvationist ‘exhorters’ intent on waking the dull clod to dreams of heaven. In the words of the War Cry, they ‘would arrest his attention, and talk to him, one on one side, and another on the other, thus keeping up a continual fire-fire, and volley of advice. Many a poor fellow was thus extricated from the Devil’s clutches’ and taken to the hall ‘surrounded and saturated by such mighty influence as would drive the Devil out and “Let the Master in”’. The exhorters, a tougher breed perhaps than mere Biblewomen, worked for the Salvation Army’s drunkards rescue branch. Their day job might be mangling or step-scrubbing, but they were as much entitled to preach moral regeneration and proclaim themselves imbued by the Holy Ghost as the parson who hunted six days of the week and preached another man’s sermon on the seventh. Some exhorters worked for the Cellar, Gutter and Garret Brigade, which combined the counselling of ‘fallen’ women, or women who looked like falling, with help in the home, two fields of activity from which male evangelists were sensibly barred. (If the name of that brigade sounds cruelly specific, what about the Anglican body for relief of the disabled which called itself the Guild of Brave Poor Things?)

The Salvation Army comes under close sociological scrutiny in Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom down. An obvious title would have been Blood and Fire, but that was bagged a couple of years ago by Roy Hattersley for his massive biography of William and Catherine Booth, the Army’s founders. William, the ‘Fool of God’ who made such diverse sinners as Cecil Rhodes and Margot Asquith kneel and pray with him in railway carriages, remains something of a background figure in Pamela Walker’s pages. It is probably not a good idea to announce that a book began as a doctoral dissertation (almost a quarter of this one consists of notes), but the style usually gives the game away. Walker’s research is commendably thorough; if she is a little unclear about what went on in London rat-pits, she is fully at home with holiness theology, ‘gender issues’ and – her speciality – ‘conversion narratives’.

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