- 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’.
Shaw was very unhappy about conversion narratives, though that is not what he would have called them. He saw sinners’ confessions as ‘a nasty lying habit’ and maintained that ‘on the point of conversion all Salvationists wish to be taken in.’ The trouble with such confessions is that they have been so obviously composed or doctored by others, like the dying repentances of highwaymen and the ‘verbals’ which policemen attribute to villains. So it is not hard to see the hands of the War Cry’s correspondents and sub-editors in boasts like: ‘My poor wife gets a joint of meat now on a Saturday night instead of a black eye. Glory be to God! It is the Lord that has done it, and that landlord knows that I am converted, for he gets his rent instead of cursing and the little lambs are going to school next week.’ The little lambs have to make their own sacrifices. A mother who has been saved says: ‘Now my children never ask me as they used to do for their Sunday penny; but they love to pray and I do believe God will save my children.’ Hooligans accustomed to breaking up Salvationist rallies undergo such ‘fire-fire’ on their way to the penitents’ seat that they burst into tears, are ignited by the Holy Spirit and throw themselves at the feet of Jesus. The War Cry’s idea of a good story is that of a young girl who delays her potentially redemptive visit to an Army meeting for a week, during which she is fatally injured by a vehicle. To her broken-hearted mother she cries: ‘Don’t come to kiss me. I might have been saved but for you; it’s all through you I am going to Hell; you never taught me to pray, never taught me about my soul and now I’m dying and going to Hell – and it’s All Through YOU!’ Superfluous to say that the mother soon afterwards becomes an imbecile and her son is killed while playing billiards in a public house. Mothers come in for much more stick than fathers, a gender issue if ever there was one.
There is one story in this book in which brave intentions, blasted hopes, inveterate delinquency, sexual superstition, corroding guilt, class distinctions, religiosity, recidivism and squandered mercy are dismayingly mixed, though today’s inner-city care workers may find the basic elements of the tale familiar. It comes not from the War Cry but mainly from the voluminous diaries of Constance Maynard, a ‘social-purity activist’ and headmistress of Westfield College, founded to guide young women in Christian living. Wishing to adopt a child, but not wanting the ‘trouble of babyhood’, she approached a Salvation Army captain with whom she had studied at Cambridge. From its Paris orphanage the Army produced for her inspection a six-year-old girl, daughter of a fallen Italian mother and a fallen father (not that fathers were ever called fallen). Maynard was initially put off by the sight of this rough, ill-clad, spectacled child with a squint and no manners, but she undertook to raise her in the holy war against Satan.
Baptised with the name of Stephanie Anthon, Effie turned out to be not only rough but a liar, a thief, a manipulator and intolerably rude. At ten she was sent to work as a servant, to teach her humility, but rebelled on the grounds that she was a lady. After many setbacks Maynard wondered whether the girl suffered from ‘moral idiocy’, blameable perhaps on that Italian streak in her parentage. Sent to an orphan-training school, Effie was found in bed teaching other girls ‘filthy and disgusting tricks’ and was expelled. Hearing of the reason, Dr Barnardo said he would as soon take in someone with smallpox. Maynard, fearing the holiness process was going nowhere, urged the Salvation Army to keep trying. Effie underwent conversion and wrote to Maynard: ‘I have given myself to God, and O I am so happy, and so glad to be able to give you joy.’ It did not last. She worried about her ‘old besetting sin (you know what I mean)’ and expressed the wish that Major Mary Bennett would tie her hands before she went to bed. It was a time when ‘thousands of young women’ were thought to be dying or going mad from indulging in Effie’s habit. Against all odds the Salvationists kept trying. Major Bennett informed Effie that it was God’s will that she should learn shorthand, but this was not Effie’s will. She expressed a wish to become a Salvationist and Maynard offered to buy her a concertina. Though now of fallen state, thanks to an episode with a lodger (‘Would she had died rather than this!’ Maynard exclaimed), Effie was sent to train for a commission, which was delayed by severe ill health, but she was able to work in a rescue home for girls in trouble. Briefly she became a lieutenant, but failing to keep the Devil at bay, had to be demoted to ward maid. The Army’s officers, like teachers and employers, deemed her ‘naturally unfit to be a lady and a potential danger to her peers’. By now ravaged with tuberculosis, wayward to the end, Effie died in a workhouse infirmary where Maynard, hurriedly summoned, recited to her the poems she had loved in childhood. She was too far gone to hear them. As Walker says: ‘Published conversion narratives never hint at the kind of troubles that beset Effie.’ It seems right that a photograph of her should appear in this book, along with portraits of the movement’s saints.
Another problem recruit for the Salvationists was Rebecca Jarrett, who figured as a procuress in the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ scandal of 1885. As a pretty girl with a drunken mother she turned heads in Cremorne Gardens, fell from grace, served in a brothel and then ran one of her own. Such experience seemed to qualify her to find an under-age girl for W.T. Stead to feature in his articles on child prostitution in the Pall Mall Gazette. The Booth family were privy to this mismanaged exposure. Bramwell Booth, William’s first-born, was acquitted on charges of abduction. Stead was jailed in cushy conditions for three months, but Jarrett received six months without privileges. The Salvation Army stood by its convert and she remained faithful to it, in her fashion.
Inevitably, the Salvation Army was mocked for its assumption of Army ranks, for drawing up Articles of War and so on. But General Booth, or ‘General’ Booth as some called him, never doubted that he was at war – with the well-drilled legions of Lucifer. As it turned out, there were plenty of evangelists who were not averse to holding commissions in an alternative army. Women were able to call themselves captains and colonels long before it was possible to do so in the regular Army; and this advance for feminism was a matter for much merriment. Some of the most relentless mockery, and indeed offensive criticism, came from the Anglican clergy. In their eyes, people who could belt out ‘For He’s a jolly good Saviour’ or sing sacred words to the tune of ‘Champagne Charlie’ were the vulgarest of blasphemers. The Bishop of Oxford was not alone in thinking that noisy late-night meetings, attended by the young of both sexes, all in a state of high emotional excitement, were bound to lead to immorality (the opponents of Bank Holidays used to warn about what would happen nine months afterwards). Sometimes the Army’s noisy spectaculars featured Hallelujah Lasses wearing nightdresses, or dressed as disorderly women, a somewhat confusing method of ‘expressing their own purity and the power of their mission’. Less open to misunderstanding, but scarcely immune from puzzlement, were circus-style Hallelujah Giants and Hallelujah Midgets; the War Cry at one point seems to have fielded a Hallelujah Phrenologist, who certified that ‘the love of God in a man or woman’s face sheds a ray of heavenly glory upon its possessor’s features.’ Much abhorred by the sensitive were the Barnum-style advertisements: ‘Salvation for Costers, Cabmen, Cats-meat-men, Loungers, Lords and Stealers, Policemen, Pirates and Political Agitators . . . Thousands of Angels in Attendance, Shouts of Joy and Great Peal on the Chimes of Heaven.’ Even the Methodists from whom the Salvation Army sprang rebelled at what they called ‘wretched accretions and corrupt fungi’. Noisy street theatre could be relied on to attract gangs of roughs intent on pouring beer over the heads of the exhorters to holiness. When trouble reached the courts, magistrates tended to the view that the Army was to blame. Salvationists made the best of it, knowing that Jesus expected his followers to be knocked about a bit. Anything was better than the apathy which promoted the old joke (not quoted here): ‘Let’s give them two more verses of ‘Oly, ‘Oly and then bugger off ‘ome.’ Punch’s jokes were rather more refined. Sooner or later everybody had a go at the Salvation Army. Did not the austere A.E. Housman knock off a heartless squib about Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane, who was bisected on the railway line (‘Mary Jane, the train is through yer/Hallelujah, Hallelujah’)?
Women preachers, of whom Catherine Booth was a powerful example, drew much fire. The way had been pointed by fearless Methodist women in the 18th century. Walker does not record Dr Johnson’s disgraceful dictum, but even William Booth in his early years doubted whether women had the intellectual capacity and other qualities necessary for preaching: the strong-minded Catherine soon revised his views for him.
William Booth had enough good sense not to let loose the sort of ‘murderous rancour’ mentioned by Shaw, or to proclaim to his followers, in the words of a name-forgotten poet: ‘Ye are the duped and dormant, damned to the end of things,/Motes in the merchant’s ledger, dust in the path of kings.’ He thought socialism a bad idea altogether. That did not stop Thomas Huxley – as Roy Hattersley tells in Blood and Fire – from conducting a long, brilliant but batty campaign exposing the General’s plans for ‘a sort of Methodist Jacobin Club with vigilance committees . . . scattered all over the country’. The middle classes, whom Catherine did her best to win over, were in no mood for funding organisations that threatened subversion. What won them over, gradually, was the Salvation Army’s policy, from 1884 onwards, of providing social services in tandem with evangelising. It slowly built up a miniature welfare state – strings of hostels for errant women, orphanages, night shelters, canteens, cheap food depots, farm colonies and workshops (real workshops). The Booths’ children, strictly brought up, were active in running these enterprises, so much so that the Salvation Army began to be criticised as a family firm. Walker tells us of the extraordinary interest the family weddings aroused; the six thousand people who attended the nuptials of Bramwell Booth and Florence Soper were charged one shilling admission, which went into the movement’s funds (think how Hello magazine could have augmented the total). They were a high-powered progeny. I have reason to remember Commander (later General) Evangeline Booth, who tried to persuade me, then a newspaper reporter, to kneel and pray with her in a Glasgow hotel room, sixty-odd years ago. Careless of my soul, I made an excuse and left.
Had Walker wanted a bizarre postscript she could have mentioned the sinking, on the eve of World War One, of the Empress of Ireland, packed with Salvation Army officers, of whom 148 were drowned. Spiritualists later spread the notion that this was part of a divine plan. The knowledgeable ones on the Other Side were preparing for ‘a vast number of Servicemen’ who would soon be hastily ‘flung into the next world’, and Salvationists, accustomed to coping with sudden death, were needed ‘to form a good link between the military life and the religious life’. At least it was a tribute to the high regard in which General Booth’s officers were by now held.