When The Salvation Army Fought The Skeleton Army

“The majority in the world are sinners, and are quite against goodness, and I’m afraid it’s the same in Torquay.” —Evangeline Booth

In A Nutshell

The Salvation Army was founded in the 19th century to help the needy and promote a Christian lifestyle. But they soon ran into determined opposition from the Skeleton Armies, mobs of working-class men who objected to their judgmental attitude and opposition to alcohol. In 1882 alone, over 600 Salvationists were attacked in the street by the Skeletons, prompting some Salvationists to fight back in self-defense.

The Whole Bushel

In 1878, the Methodist preacher William Booth founded the Salvation Army. Organized on quasi-military lines, the organization aimed to assist the poor and rescue the “denizens of Darkest England” from lives of sin and misery.

But not everyone appreciated the Army’s particularly forceful brand of Christianity. Believing that an aggressive approach was justified to save the souls of the working class, Booth’s followers would plan “attacks” where they would flood into neighborhoods singing, clapping, and “loudly showing emotion,” all of which were frowned upon in Victorian England. Although they won many converts, the Salvationists’ firm opposition to alcohol did little to endear them to the wider public, especially in an era when one in five shops in London’s East End sold gin. To fight such widespread drunkenness, the Salvationists employed such tactics as congregating outside pubs singing hymns, forcing patrons to push through them to get inside.

So, while the Salvation Army won plaudits for their work with the poor, they were also widely disliked among working-class men, who either found the Salvationists self-righteous or just wanted to get hammered in peace. In 1881, the Salvationists began facing violent opposition from groups calling themselves Skeleton Armies, who marched under a skull and crossbones flag. Exactly how organized these groups were is up for debate. Some Skeleton Armies were probably just spontaneous riots, but others clearly pre-planned their actions and apparently received significant funding from pub owners and brewers.

Among the favorite weapons of the Skeleton Armies was good, old-fashioned mockery. For example, they would dress in parody Salvation Army uniforms and use filthy dishcloths as flags. Instead of hymns, they sang popular dirty songs. In some cases, the two sides essentially got into a sing-off, as when drinkers in Dunstable forced their way into a Salvationist meeting and drowned out the hymns “with comic songs.”

But the Skeleton Armies mostly just used violence, and riots became alarmingly common during Salvation Army marches. In Weston-super-Mare, a mob of 2,000 Skeletons temporarily overpowered the police and attacked a Salvationist procession. Later, a Salvationist service was interrupted when a window was smashed and a flock of pigeons coated in red pepper was released inside. As the Salvationists rushed out to escape the ensuing cloud of burning pepper and enraged birds, they were attacked by a waiting Skeleton Army.

In Worthing, a 4,000-strong Skeleton Army pelted the Salvationist hall with rocks, then attacked a police station after one of their own was arrested. A local Salvationist named George Head had to defend his shop with gunfire, and the mob clashed with a squad of dragoons who had been sent to restore order. The town of Chester was shaken by “Black Sunday,” during which the Salvation Army was attacked by a mob of “decidedly criminal appearance.” The ensuing trial saw the magistrates threatened with “Revenge and Death,” and a witness was attacked as he was leaving the courthouse.

In 1882, at least 669 Salvationists were assaulted and 56 buildings damaged by the Skeleton Armies. That proved to be the worst year of the violence, in part because the Salvation Army decided to adopt “less confrontational strategies,” which removed much of the public support for Skeleton attacks.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
Victorian Chester, by Roger Smith
Leisure, Citizenship, and Working-Class Men in Britain, 1850–1945, by Brad Beaven
The General: William Booth, by David Bennett
William Booth: Soup, Soap, and Salvation, by Janet Benge and Geoff Benge

  • OldBoris

    So, it was a bit like the Crips and the Bloods, but they fought over whether or not alcohol and dirty songs were cool.

  • Hillyard

    …a mob of 2000 Skeletons temporairly overpowered the police… has there ever been a cooler phrase written for KN than that?

  • oouchan

    Good. I can’t stand the SA….bunch of self-righteous jerks. If they showed up in my neighborhood singing loudly and clapping, I’d turn to violence, too! On top of that, many of their attitudes show up today. Do yourself a favor…help out the needy yourself and cut out the middle man or give to an organization that doesn’t have an agenda.


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