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The Skeleton Army was a diffuse group, particularly in Southern England, that opposed and disrupted the Salvation Army's marches against alcohol in the 19th century.



In April 1884 the owner of a drinks store in Worthing objected to Salvation Army criticism of alcoholic beverages so he founded the 4,000 member organisation.[1] The "Skeletons" recognised each other by various insignia used to distinguish themselves.[2]

The Skeleton Army in 1884

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.[3]

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.[4]


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.[4]

George Scott Railton, second in command of the Salvation Army, by contrast, claimed the Skeleton Army first started in Weston-super-Mare in 1881.[3] 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, 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.[3]

Skeletons used banners with skull and crossbones, sometimes there were two coffins and a statement like, “Blood and Thunder” or the three Bs, “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.[2][3]

Both sources agree Salvationists were pelted with missiles. At Bethnal Green flour, rotten eggs, stones and brickbats were among those used. Salvationists, whether male, female or elderly, were viciously beaten. When news of trouble in London spread, Skeleton riots took place in other parts of Britain.[5][6]

The Metropolitan Police were at first unhelpful. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Edmund Henderson denied what happened.[3] The public eventually demanded action and Skeleton riots in London were belatedly put down.

Final stages

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.[2] The mayor of Eastbourne stated he would, “put down this Salvation Army business” with help from the Skeleton Army if necessary.[3] Skeletons attacked many Salvationists. Salvationists considered it unchristian to defend themselves but thought the police should protect them. The case of Beatty v Gillbanks (1882) holds that the Salvation Army was acting lawfully when marching, despite having knowledge that their assembly could well lead to riots.

As their intentions were ultimately peaceful and unrelated to the cause of inciting riot, the court found their actions to be within the limits of the law. That it was known that their marching may cause riots was not found to be a breach of the law, as it was the actions of antagonistic parties which led directly to the riotous behaviour.


  1. ^ [1] JSTOR Folklore Vol. 99, No. 2 (1988) pgs 221-231
  2. ^ a b c [2] Salvation Army Collectables website
  3. ^ a b c d e f [3] The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre
  4. ^ a b [4] History of Worthing Salvation Army Corps
  5. ^ [5] Bedfordshire County Council: Potton Salvation Army
  6. ^ [6] Swift, Roger (Editor) 'Victorian Chester: Essays in Social History 1830-1900' Published by Liverpool University Press (1996) pg 185 ISBN 0-85323-661-5

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