The Skeleton Army

Industrialisation proved to be a brutal experience for many who turned to drink to drown their woes. Victorian England produced a new breed of crusaders who were determined to save people from their moral and physical squalor which meant abstention from the demon drink.

Going out for a Sunday walk in the late 19th century in a typical English Town or City, would have been an assault on the senses. Smog from the coal fires in every business and home, the smell of horse manure from the transport and the ghastly sound of two dissonant bands and choirs. If you followed the sound you would have come across a resolute company of Salvation Army volunteers in their Christian soldier uniforms being harried and harangued by another company of troops, the Skeleton Army.

And while the Salvationists would appeal to the citizens of town to repent their sins and take the pledge, the Skeleton Army would be there to stop the do-gooding. The Bethnel Green Post noted in November 1882:

“A genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated has been infesting the district for several weeks past. These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’…. The ‘skeletons’ have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands… it contained a number shopkeepers’ names… I found that publicans, beer sellers and butchers are subscribing to this imposture… the collector told me that the object of the Skeleton Army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible… Amongst the Skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consummate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce…worthy of the disreputable class of publicans who hate the London school board, education and temperance and who, seeing the beginning of the end of their immoral traffic, and prepared for the most desperate enterprise.

When things got violent, the police were called on to intervene, although they didn’t behave in the way you might expect. In Weston-Super-Mare, three members of the Salvation Army were arrested and jailed for incitement to riot. Not that they were directly inciting anyone to riot, but wherever they went, the Skeleton Army followed and if they hadn’t been there, the Skeleton Army would have no reason to actually do the rioting.

In Worthing, the Salvation Army appealed for protection but the Home Secretary refused to give permission for the police to assist. All in all, government from magistrates to members of the cabinet seemed more fearful of the Sally Army’s organised and sober movement than a drunken rioting rabble.

However, not all meeting of the two armies led to war. There were occasions where Skeleton Army members and Salvationists shared tea and there were several conversions en route. Skeleton lout, Charles Jeffries left the mob and joined the Salvation Army and rising to third in command.

 

By the 1890’s the Skeleton Army had run out of steam and were disbanded, broken up by force or left to just fall apart, leaving the Salvationists continued their mission in peace. But despite the Salvation Army now being free to continue unhindered, the government didn’t fall at the hands of the sober masses and the publicans still had a steady stream of business.

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