Skeleton Army

Skeleton Army

The Skeleton Army was a diffuse group, particularly in southern England, that opposed and disrupted the Salvation Army's marches against alcohol in the nineteenth century.

In April 1884 the owner of a liquor shop in Worthing objected to Salvation Army criticism of alcoholic beverages so he founded the 4,000 member organization. The "Skeletons" recognized each other by various insignia used to distinguish themselves.

Several techniques were employed by the "Skeletons" to disrupt these meetings. Black, sticky tar was put onto alley walls which damaged Salvation Army uniforms as they marched past and threw eggs filled with blue paint at the “Sally Army”. Other tactics included throwing rocks and rats, and physically assaulting Salvation Army members at their meetings. Many in the town approved, but the Salvation Army continued unabated.

Captain Ada Smith led those who faced the "Skeletons". General Booth wanted police protection for the Salvation Army. The Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt said it was outside his jurisdiction. Captain Ada Smith of the Salvation Army and her group were ordered to march on Sundays.

On Sunday, August 17, 1884, the police, the Salvation Army and the Skeletons confronted each other. For an hour the police kept the peace then the Skeletons rioted. The area was filled with screaming men, brick dust and broken glass. The Salvationists returned to their "barracks" and the Skeletons tried to burn it down. The landlord, George Head defended his property and the people there with a revolver, wounding several Skeletons.

George Scott Railton, second in command of the Salvation Army, by contrast, claimed the Skeleton Army first started in Weston-super-Mare in 1881.There in 1882 Captain William Beatty was given a three months prison sentence by the magistrates for a breach of the peace. The action was reported by 'The Times', at the appeal hearing it was stated that the Skeleton Army was founded in Weston-super-Mare, Queens Bench Vol 1X pp. 308-315.

The 'Bethnal Green Eastern Post' (November 1882) stated:"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, beersellers 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."

Skeletons used banners with skull and crossbones, sometimes there were two coffins and a statement like, “blood and Thunder” or the three B’s, “Beef”, “Beer” and “Bacca”. Banners also had pictures of monkeys, rats, and the devil. Skeletons further published so-called gazettes considered libellous as well as obscene and blasphemous.

Both sources agree Salvationists were pelted with missiles. At Bethnal Green flour, rotten eggs, stones and brickbats were among those used. Salvationist men and women, even old people, were viciously beaten. When news of trouble in London spread, Skeleton riots took place in other parts of Britain.

The Metropolitan Police were at first unhelpful. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Edmund Henderson denied what happened. The public eventually demanded action and Skeleton riots in London were belatedly put down.

Skeleton riots continued elsewhere till 1892. At Guildford the corps officer’s wife was kicked unconscious close to a police station and a woman Salvationist fatally injured. At Shoreham too a woman was killed when a stone hit her. The mayor of Eastbourne stated he would, “'put down this Salvation Army business” with help from the Skeleton Army if necessary. Skeletons attacked many Salvationists. Salvationists considered it unchristian to defend themselves but thought the Police should protect them. It is universally agreed the Salvationists did not provoke these attacks but rather showed restraint. Beaty v Gillbanks (1882) 9 QBD 308. The cited case held that the Salvation Army was acting lawfully by marching. They were not inciting, procuring or encouraging the riots. They may have been the cause of the riots but it was not their intention nor did the endeavour to produce the result of the riot.

External links

* [ The Skeleton Army]
* [ Opposition And Persecution]
* [ The Eastbourne Riots]

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