The Skeleton Army and the Salvation Army

The Salvation Army was founded as a London mission in 1865, offering food and shelter to the down-and-out, the poor, and the very, very drunk. The Skeleton Army was founded by people who enjoyed a good drink and a fight, and in the 1880s and 1890s it harassed the other army.

The Salvation Army came first, so let’s start with them: According to one account, its goal was to wage war on poverty and religious indifference, which testifies to humanity’s long and history of waging war on things that can’t be shot, slashed, or speared. 

And there I was thinking all that war against abstractions and inanimate objects started with the U.S. declaring war on drugs.

Never mind. The Sally wasn’t the first organization to fall in love with a bit of overblown rhetoric, and it quickly took on a military structure, complete with uniforms, recruits, ranks, and marching bands.

Irrelevant photo: An October seed pod. A friend thinks they’re from an iris, in which case I’ll guess a yellow flag, which grows wild.

The Sally’s own website doesn’t talk about warfare but about saving souls and relieving “the Victorian working classes from poverty. In Booth’s eyes [Booth being the founder], this involved morality, discipline, sobriety and employment.”

In other words, unlike the unions and proto-unions of the period, they didn’t see the causes of poverty as low pay and killingly long hours, they were immorality and drinking.

Not to mention gambling and salacious entertainment. 

Within the Salvation Army, women’s ranks–and this was radical for the period–were equal to men’s, and women played a powerful role in the organization. Although having said that, it was started by two people, Catherine and William Booth. I’ve put her name first because I’m like that, but I’m a minority of one in that. He’s credited as the founder and Catherine sometimes gets a mention–and not always by name but just as “his wife.” She may have played a secondary role–I’m not sure–but even if she didn’t, he was the Methodist minister in the family, and if that wasn’t enough he carried a Y chromosome, along with the physical oddities that follow from it, so he walked around with neon arrows pointing him out as the important half of the couple. 

Still, I’m writing that from a contemporary point of view. For the time, the organization was startlingly equal.

The world they campaigned in was a brutal one. Industrialization meant cities and towns had grown massively, and people’s hours, pay, and working conditions were, literally, killing. 

And in spite of the way the language is changing, literally there doesn’t mean figuratively. It means the hours, pay, and working conditions killed people. And crippled them.

Housing was overcrowded, germs hadn’t been so happy since the Crimean War, and beer and gin were cheap, so people drank. Sometimes that was all that got a person through one day and into the next.

Into that setup marched the Salvation Army, not to quietly establish soup kitchens and wait for people to come eat and get preached at but to march down the street, thumping the drum, playing the tuba, waving banners, and preaching against the evils of et cetera.

Et cetera can be extremely evil if left unchecked. 

This won them both recruits and enemies. Plenty of people wanted a drink and a dance and a fight. 

Along England’s south coast, this response coalesced into a group that called itself the Skeleton Army. Chris Hare, a historian from Worthing, one of the Skeleton hotspots, traces their origin to groups of Bonfire Boys–working class young men who raised hell on Bonfire Night, as well as on Mayday and any other occasion that gave them the opportunity. They didn’t bother with ranks or uniforms, but they did sometimes wear yellow ribbons in their caps or sunflowers in their buttonholes.

No, I don’t know how either. Maybe sunflowers were smaller back then, or buttonholes were tougher. 

They also took the Salvation Army’s songs and wrote rowdy lyrics to them. Fair enough. The Sally had taken popular secular songs and reworked the lyrics to suit their purposes, so they were only stealing what had already been stolen.

Skeleton mobs attacked the Salvation Army, throwing paint-filled eggs, dead animals, burning coals–whatever came to hand. Except for the eggs. Those took planning, because getting paint into an egg and keeping it there long enough to throw? That takes work. In fact, how you do it is a deeper mystery than anything the established religions have yet cooked up. But never mind, the eggs appear in more than one telling and seem to have been real. 

Where were the town’s respectable people while all this was going on? Unhappy not about the Skeleton Army but about the Sally. Individually, they wrote letters to the newspapers, worrying that the Salvation Army would give their towns a bad reputation and drive visitors away. 

As for the religious establishment, it preferred its religion inside the church, not bothering people on the street corner. And landowners and industrialists had an interest in keeping their workers drunk and if not happy at least not demanding higher pay and forming unions.

The Salvation Army was anything but revolutionary, but it offered enough prospect of change to worry the powers-that-were. 

Collectively, they were glad to look the other way when the Skeleton Army broke up Salvation Army events. 

To the extent that the police got involved, they were likely to blame the Salvation Army for any uproar. In Worthing, when one “Salvationist applied to the bench for a summons against those who had assaulted him,” he was told,” ‘You know what you do provokes others to interfere with you, and then you come to us for protection.’ ”

In Eastbourne, the mayor and the brewers endorsed the Skeleton Army. In Torquay, the local government banned marching music on a Sunday. It attracted troublemakers, so they arrested the marchers. 

Attacks on the Salvationists–as the articles I’ve read call them–increased, and the women, especially the women in authority, were the primary targets. 

Are you surprised?

One woman, Sussanah Beaty, was killed.

There were riots in Exeter, Worthing, Guildford, and Hastings, and brawls in 67 towns and villages. From the 1880s to the early 1890s thousands of the Sally’s officers were injured. 

But by the early 1890s,  the police became more likely to arrest attackers. Opposition began to die down and the skeleton army faded away.

After that, the story isn’t half as interesting, so we’ll abandon it there.


40 thoughts on “The Skeleton Army and the Salvation Army

  1. The Starvation Army is (was, really) big in my parts in New England when I was a boy. I always liked asking about the funny little suits they wore, nobody ever told me it was rude. But they did a lot of good for the grassroots. Think they dropped the sobriety bits though, because Old Orchard is, was, and will always be full of the obnoxiously, at times preachingly drunk. I am surprised to learn that women’s roles were liberalised for the times. I had always assumed that women’s inclusivity in religion began with the Millerites and reformists in New England after Puritanism stopped being, em, pure I guess. Fascinating stuff, I had a good time learning about it. I don’t think I’ll tell my former OOB brethren about the Skeleton Army, the old hometown’s property values have suffered enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Salvation Army in Australia plays a central role in the welfare industry (and I use the term advisedly). A somewhat jaundiced view can be seen here. Certainly the view of my parents and grandparents was that they were judgmental grandstanders during the Great Depression. My own professional experience bore that out in several disaster response efforts in my former career, where the Salvos refused to take part in any coordinated effort, preferring a random, maverick approach, with the media always in tow. Their penchant for homophobia and for sweeping child abuse in their institutions under the carpet suggests that their slogan ‘Thank God for the Salvos’ may be cruelly ironic.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Our Salvation Army store plays obnoxious modern Christian music. I find myself muttering “Jesus,” while looking through the shirts. And they demand that customers leave their packs or bags behind the counter so no one will steal the knick-knacks or anything. Most clerks are nice, but some seem to view all poor customers as thieves & bums. I haven’t been in any thrift stores since last February, though.
    Well, what would Christmas be without the Salvation Army bell-ringers and their red kettles?
    I always feel good putting a dollar in each time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny, but it wasn’t until I was responding to someone else’s comment that I realized the clerks in their stores don’t wear uniforms. I’m grateful–it’d be enough to chase me out–but it just never occurred to me.


  4. The Better Business Bureau gives the Salvation Army, as an organization overall, an A+ rating. They do help a lot here in Duluth, Mn with housing, food and of course clothing. I don’t care for it being church-based, but I approve of whatever good they do. I know I’ve benefited.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. That takes work. In fact, how you do it is a deeper mystery than anything the established religions have yet cooked up.

    Not all that deep, Eastern Christians have been doing the reverse for hundreds of years. Using a needle (sewing or hollow-bore) poke a hole in both ends, stick the needle in and swish to break up the yolk, then blow out the liquid (a lot easier than it sounds). You then use the hollow bore needle to get water in, swish it around, and blow it back out (clean out the rest of the egg). Voila!

    Paint would be the same, just need a larger needle (or nail) and/or thin out the paint.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do know about what I learned to call Ukrainian Easter eggs. I suspect getting paint in is harder than getting egg out. But even if it isn’t, this all sounds a bit more delicate than the situation calls for. Do you make the eggs in advance, close them with wax, and carry them in your pocket? In a bag? A basket’s awkward in a riot, and the look’s a bit too Red Riding Hood. Or do you make them on the spot–just find yourself a quiet spot, thin your paint, de-egg your egg. And so on.

      Maybe we need to recreate the setting and see if we can manage it. Meet you on Sunday afternoon?


      • You’ll have to foot the bill, but I’m willing to give it a whirl.

        I’d imagine they did it the night before. Eggs in a basket wouldn’t be all that uncommon in the age. I still see women carrying them in the Old Amish communities, they’re not all that big, can carry maybe a half-dozen eggs.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I suppose, but I still think it’d be a bad look for a riot. How many riots do you see those Amish women attending, hah?

          Let me check on the costs before I commit to the get-together. I’m having second thoughts here.


          • Well, except for those rioting today to show how peaceful they can be, I don’t imagine they came waving “We got eggs!” signs. I think they probably wanted to blend in with the common crowd until the actual moment.

            It’s only money, and Brits have lots of it.

            BTW, off-topic (if there really is one), what is the modern difference between England, Britain, and the United Kingdom. With most of the old parts of the UK gone (Canada, Austrailia, India, South Africa, etc.) I’m not sure how the terms apply now.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’m going to leave you a link on the England/Britain/UK question, but before I slip quietly out the door, I’ll say this much: Britain’s a geographical term, not a political one, although it’s used as if it were interchangeable with the UK. The UK’s made up of 4 nations, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Various powers have been devolved to the 3 countries that aren’t England. It’s policially messy, leaving England both dominant and aggrieved. The other nations are also aggrieved, but I’d say for different reasons.

              Did I mention that it’s messy?


              Liked by 1 person

              • England is a nation. The UK is a country.

                I would have to disagree here:

                What is the difference between Country and Nation? Definitions of Country and Nation:

                • The word country is used to refer to a geographical entity with internationally recognized borders.
                • Nation is a word that is associated with a group of people sharing a culture, language, and history.

                A country has a land of its own, a nation does not necessarily have to own a territory to call themselves a nation. For example, the Kurdish people though they do not live inside the same boundaries (they live in Iran, Iraq and Turkey) consider themselves as the members of the Kurdish nation. (source:

                From the link you provided Britain is made of the peoples of Scotland, England, and Wales. The UK is made of the peoples of Britain and Northern Ireland.

                Liked by 1 person

              • The nations that make up the UK have governments, but they’re not governments the operate on the international stage. They’re somewhat analogous to US states, but, um, also not. Did I mention that it’s complicated? The parallel is that the states’ borders are internationally recognized (as in, other countries can find them and aren’t inclined to argue about them), and they have governments, but they’re not countries.

                Liked by 1 person

  6. Gosh, do you think that’s where “our” authorities got some of their ideas this summer during some peaceful protests ? Nawww…not from any organization concerned with helping the poor (which they do over here – I am more familiar with some of their fine volunteers than with the formal organization.).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is the first time I’m hearing about the Skeleton Army. The minorities are always the one who get targeted, even if they have a valid point. It sounded like an uproar worth following back then, but I guess good it died down and no many other lives were lost apart from one. Here in Australia (at least my part in Australia) The Salvation Army is known for selling second-hand items, mainly clothes. Honestly I have never shopped there.

    Liked by 1 person

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