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Friday, 1 July 2011

The Start Of The Salvation Army In Croydon - Rev. Dr. J. N. Morris

The Salvation Army was one of the most distinctive religious organisations to emerge from that ferment of religious innovation and controversy, the Victorian age: its blend of orthodox evangelicalism and open-air missionary activity with a quasi-military structure at once set it apart from most other churches and denominations and provided it with a pattern of organisation and tradition which have helped it to survive relatively unscathed in the late twentieth century. Its interest from an early stage in welfare work and its growth to an international movement are widely known; less well-known, however, ar the early vicissitudes of the movement before it became properly established as the 'Salvation Army' in the late 1870s, and in particular the importance Croydon played in the efforts to establish the 'Christian Mission', as it was then called, outside London. William Booth's missionary activity in the 1860s was largely concentrated in the East End; Croydon was the first mission station he established on something like permanent lines outside Central London. Its appearance in the late 1860s and survival through the 1870s thus provide an interesting commentary on what could be described as the 'pre-history' of the Salvation Army.

In the official biographies and histories of the Army the importance of the East London Christian Mission was very much played down, the authors naturally being inclined to concentrate instead on the subsequent success of Booth's organisation from the early 1880s on. Booth-Tucker's early Life of Catherine Booth (1893) contained no more than a handful of references to the Booths' work in Croydon. Harold Begbie's Life of William Booth (1926), the first full biography, devoted little space to the Christian Mission in East London and made no reference to Croydon at all. St. John Ervine, in God's Soldier (1934), paid a little attention to the establishment of Christian Missions outside London, but his perspective was summed up in his assertion that the history of the East London Mission can be told only in a sketchy form. ... It can be called a failure, but only in the sense in which Faraday's first experiments were failures". The first volume of Robert Sandall's official history, which appeared in 1947, partially redressed the balance by concentrating entirely on the Christian Mission years; even so, the references to the Croydon Station were slight.

This neglect is a little puzzling, because the early years of the Christian Mission in Croydon are well documented, at least in comparison with the available material for many other Victorian churches and chapels. Aside from the works to which 1 have already referred, there are four principal types of surviving source material. First, and most importantly, minutes of the early Elders' Meetings have survived intact in the Salvation Army archives in London, covering October 1869 to November 1871, the crucial years of the station's foundation and early growth. These minutes present a detailed picture of the mission's organisation, leadership and activities in this period. Second is a copy of the original prospectus and subscription list of the appeal for the permanent mission hall, the station built in Tamworth Road in 1872-73; this is a valuable document, as it contains a brief history of the station and, of course, the names of those who donated money towards the construction of the hall. Third, there are frequent reports on the work of the station in Booth's Christian Mission Magazine, published monthly from October 1868 and bound into annual volumes from December 1869. These concentrate on conversion stories and general summaries, and do not add much significant detail to the sources already mentioned; however they do convey something of the atmosphere of the mission meetings and give an insight into the theology of Booth and his followers. Finally, and much less reliably, these sources can be supplemented on occasions by reports in the local newspapers, principally the Croydon Chronicle and the Croydon Advertiser, both of which were in production before the Booths carried out their first missionary activity in the town in the late spring of 1869.

Most of these sources either come to an end or cease to be useful after the years 1872-73, though we know from street directories and other sources that the Mission Hall in Tamworth Road continued to be used as such by the Christian Mission until around 1879, when it was renamed as the Salvation Army Barracks. The completeness of the early documentary material means that it is possible to construct a fairly detailed account of how the mission station came to be formed and how it was run in those early years. It also means that it is possible to throw some light on the Booths' evangelistic methods, on the problems the missionaries faced and on the solutions they adopted in an effort to overcome these difficulties. One further, interesting, consequence is that it is also possible to examine to some extent popular reactions to the Christian Missionaries, and to attempt to gauge the reasons why Booth's organization failed to make much headway in the 1860's and 1870's.

The Booths' connections with Croydon began in the spring of 1869 when Mrs. Booth conducted a three month long campaign of services and meetings at the Public Halls in George Street, culminating in a public tea meeting presided over by William Booth himself on 29th June. How many people attended these meetings is hard to say; they were not reported in the local press, and contemporary Christian Mission sources give no indication of numbers. The impetus for them presumably came from the residence in Croydon of a number of followers of Booth, two of whom (Ivo Cobet and Henry Holme) subsequently became instrumental in the establishment of the mission station. These Croydon friends of Booth "had long felt concerned for the spiritual destitution of the poor and working classes of Croydon and asked him to take in hand in Croydon work similar to that which he had already begun in the East End. He agreed to do so on condition that any expenses for hire of rooms were covered by the Croydon followers themselves.

Booth's Croydon supporters first engaged the Workman's Hall in Church Road for Sunday services, and this remained their base for the next three years. Evening meetings during the week were held at a Mission Room in Old Town which "some kind friends" let for use free of charge. The Mission certainly had modest beginnings: the Christian Mission Magazine refers to some six to seven hundred people being approached in the first week after Mrs. Booth's services had finished, of whom only eight decided to join.

Yet the immediacy of the impact these services had upon some people is attested in the same issue's quotation of an account by Sister Coates of her preaching at Croydon on 11th and 12th July 1869:

"After the benediction had been pronounced in the morning, and while the congregation were slowly retiring, a man broke out in prayer and praise, and in the fullness [sic] of his heart cried out, 'Now 1 know my sins are forgiven'. He had been coming to the meetings, and had obtained a blessed sense of sins forgiven during the sermon".

The following edition of the magazine gives some idea of the rapid, early growth of the mission, for by September of the same year it was undertaking open-air preaching and holding meetings for up to five hundred people at a time in the Workman's Hall. According to Robert Sandall, at first all the preachers were supplied from East London, until in January 1870 Alexander Ritchie was appointed as the station's first residential superintendent. The first Elders meeting was held on 26th September 1869, with William Booth in the chair and seven other brethren present. Around that time it is likely that Brother Brewin was appointed Treasurer and Brother Ivo Cobet Secretary by Booth himself, as there appear to have been no elections for these posts. Something of the purpose of the Mission, and an idea of the social classes at whom it was aimed, can be gleaned from the prospectus for the new Gospel Hall in Tamworth Road:

"This Mission is entirely unsectarian, it seeks to reach a class not yet influenced by any existing Christian efforts ... This is essentially a poor man's Mission".

Three simple rules adopted at one of the early Elders' meetings indicate the evangelicalism of the mission, and the way in which it was careful not to undermine the work of other evangelical churches in the area: first, no one could become a full class member unless they could give adequate evidence of being 'really born again'; second, no one could become a full class member without first being on probation for three months; and finally, anyone coming from another church would have to give satisfactory reasons for leaving that church before they could be admitted as a class member. The week by week management was in the hands of the meetings of the Elders; how the Elders were appointed at first is unclear, though it is likely that William Booth himself nominated many of them. There were never more than about a dozen of them, most of whom had specific offices in the station, and all of them were 'Leaders of Believers Meetings'. Nominally in control was the Superintendent, directly appointed by Booth: he was a paid, full-time preacher, and much of the burden of daily organisation fell upon him. In the early years superintendents did not stay long at Croydon before being moved elsewhere by Booth: Brother Ritchie, the first, stayed only for eight months before being replaced by Brother Tidman; Tidman himself stayed only until April 1871, and then was temporarily replaced by Brother Lamb. Lamb appears to have disappeared from the scene within two months, there being no references in the Minutes to him after 24th June 1871. In July 1871 John Allen was appointed, remaining there until some time in 1873.

How important these superintendents really were is difficult to determine, given the tight control William Booth himself exercised over the Croydon mission throughout its history. Although the station was intended to be self-financing, it was self governing only in the more trivial details of its management: in all major matters affecting it Booth's voice was paramount. We have already seen how he retained control of key appointments, including in all likelihood at least the first group of Elders of the station. He chaired particularly important meetings of the Elders - in October 1870, for example, to discuss the formation of a Building Committee and to announce that the Christian Mission would in future be organised into circuits, with each station drawing up its own schedule (or 'plan') of preachers, and again in September 1871 to discuss financial arrangements in connection with the procurement of a new site in Tamworth Road. His approval was deemed to be necessary for major financial decisions taken by the station, including an increase in the superintendent's pay and the launching of an appeal to raise funds for the station. He directed the external affairs of the station, and advised the Elders on whether or not legal action should be pursued against people disrupting the station's services and meetings. His authority was neatly illustrated in August 1871 when the Elders felt they did not have the power to determine whether or not they could proceed with the purchase of a site for a new hall, and "agreed to lay the matter immediately before Mr. Booth".

One of the major preoccupations in these early years was the search for suitable accommodation. The Workman's Hall had a number of disadvantages: it was rented and not owned by the Mission, and so they had only limited control over it; it could not be secured on a permanent basis; and it was relatively expensive, at least compared with the slender financial resources of Booth's followers. The Hall initially could be engaged only for six months at a time, at a rental of fifteen shillings per Sunday in the winter of 1869. Already in December of the same year there were ominous signs in the reluctance of the landlord to grant a longer term. A further six months' tenure was secured in April 1870. Some increased security was obtained in September when a twelve-month lease was negotiated: possibly the landlord may have realised how dependent the Mission was upon his premises, for he now refused to let them for a shorter period. Impatience with this arrangement had already prompted the Mission to look at the possibility of acquiring an iron chapel in Cross Road (subsequently used by the Primitive Methodists) and another one in Wellesley Road, both of which initiatives came to nothing.

The search for accommodation intensified towards the end of 1870, without much success. In October the Elders admitted, in a general discussion, 'the expediency of having a place for our own'. Subsequently however they rejected as unsuitable a site offered to them in Church Road. No firm prospect of a suitable site had materialised six months later. Then events began to move rather more quickly: a Mr. Richardson offered a location in Tamworth Road, and after seven weeks of negotiation the Elders secured what they considered to be favourable terms: a ground rent of £60 per annum, and a lump sum of £50 (paid in three instalments) to buy out the sitting tenant. Booth's sanction in principle had already been obtained; he was appointed as General Superintendent of the Building Fund established, with a managing committee, at a meeting he chaired in August. Thereafter fund-raising, and not the search for a site, seems to have become the brake on the building programme: to cover the acquisition of the land and the cost of construction a total of around £725 was required, a sum which strained the resources of the Mission to tile full. The Prospectus asserted that the 'poor mail's Mission' had done its best 'at considerable sacrifice'. and as the attached subscription list, which itemized receipts and promises totalling £604, indicated that fifteen donors alone of ten pounds or more contributed £304 (at least £80 of which came from wealthy Croydon residents who were not themselves members), the average donation from the remaining 211 donors was no more than about £1 10s each. According to the local press, the fund was assisted by a series of special services at the Public Halls. led by Mrs. Booth. In fact it seems these raised only £3 9s 3d. Without a number of wealthy individual subscribers, then. the new hall probably could never have been built, yet the large number of small, individual donors illustrates both tile poverty of most of the Mission's supporters and the strength of their attachment to the station. Work began in October 1872, over a year after tile decision to acquire the site. The ceremony of laying the foundation stone took place on 8th October. It took a further year to wipe out the remaining debt on the building fund. Gospel Hall was a modest, brick-built chapel in classical Nonconformist tabernacle style, a rectangular building, with a triangular portico above the entrance.

If the Minutes of the Elders' meetings and other records chart the construction of Gospel Hall particularly clearly, nevertheless they also serve to illustrate tile rapid development of the Mission's other activities. Worship was not restricted to indoor premises, for open air preaching was a vital part of William Booth's overall approach to evangelism: this was an 'aggressive' one deliberately aimed at seizing the attention of the poor in lower class areas in and around the centre of Crovdon bv singing hymns in groups, marching and addressing the crowds which invariably assembled around the missionaries. Open-air work seems to have been undertaken in two areas in the main: the decaying, central market area, including streets such as Surrey Street, Crown Hill and Church Street, and Duppas Hill, a large recreation ground south-west of the town's centre. A variety of different meetings and services were provided at the Workman's Hall and. subsequently at Gospel Hall. Prayer meetings and 'experience meetings' (where missionaries could describe their own conversion experiences, and where conversions frequently took place) were held from the very beginning. Temperance meetings were being held by September 1870. Early the following year a children's class was organised. Other special services and meetings were also organised from time to time: in August 1870, for example, a tea meeting was held to raise funds for the station; and from May of that year Wednesday evening services were held to attract shop workers released from work by early closing. In this way Croydon station developed the full range of evangelistic meetings, matching the provision made at other chapels and churches in the area. Croydon also served as a base for further expansion of Booth's organisation, though at this stage with limited success: meetings were begun successively at South Croydon, Carshalton and Bromley and worked from Croydon, but all these proved to be short-lived ventures.

Despite all that has been described so far, the early history of the Christian Mission in Croydon was not a catalogue of unqualified success. Three sets of problems in particular seem to have dogged its work: recurring financial shortages, internal divisions, and a fairly continuous level of popular hostility to it. A number of cases of individual deprivation crop up in the minutes, seeming to bear out the frequent assertion that the mission was for the 'poor man'. In February 1871, for example, it was reported that Brother Johnson was 'suffering from great want', and a collection was taken for him. It is impossible, however, to be sure how typical such cases were of the membership as a whole. The financial problems of the station were, in general, collective rather than individual; they were caused by the relatively high outgoings of the rent of the Workman's Hall, and by the difficulties of raising adequate income. On at least thirteen occasions from October 1869 to November 1871 the Treasurer reported anxieties over the low state of the finances. In June 1870 this problem was 1aid before the Lord in prayer", and it was disclosed that the station could not yet raise almost half of the quarterly rental for the hall. The extra money was eventually found, but by September the station was seeking to reduce its expenditure by discharging extra mission workers engaged from London. In October they were again short of rent, and examining ways of raising further money by means of special services and the wider distribution of collecting boxes. These difficulties continued throughout 1871, apparently without resolution; they provided a firm incentive for the station to obtain premises of its own, and were probably responsible in part for the relatively short stay of superintendents: Brother Tidman, for example, was moved by Booth to Limehouse Christian Mission in April 1871 because the Croydon station was unable to afford his salary.

The financial problems of the station were surely not improved by the extraordinary rancour amongst members which seemed to beset it in these years. As the Christian Mission Magazine itself put it in August 1871:

"Here [in Croydon], for some time now, there has existed a division of feeling and opinion which has greatly retarded the work; indeed, for several months, the congregation, society, and contributions have all gone back together. How sad this has been!''

The minutes record frequent complaints of arguments and disunity in 1870 and 1871, but are circumspect about the real causes of these divisions. Brother Ritchie, the first superintendent, seems to have been objected to by a number of the brethren, especially one Brother Franklin, an Elder, and this was cited as a possible cause of his leaving the station. Franklin's behaviour was discussed at a long meeting in September 1870 and resulted in his voluntary withdrawal from missionary work for three months. In November a dispute between two of the Elders led one, Brother Hart, to withdraw from his preaching engagements as he felt "he could not count upon the sympathy of Brother Mitchell"; the meeting expressed regret "at the frequency of such differences among members of the Mission". Another source of complaint appears to have been the excessive noise and indiscipline of some of the Mission's members during meetings: this was reported on several occasions, and led to a rebuke of Brother Franklin and Sister Asher for 'scoffing and ridiculing' during a prayer meeting. Brother Franklin was shortly thereafter expelled from the station. However by August the same complaints about noisy meetings were being aired once again.

Continuing financial shortages and internal quarrels undoubtedly undermined the work, but it is difficult to assess the real impact of popular hostility to the Christian Mission. It may have isolated the missionaries and discouraged some people from joining, but there is no evidence to support this contention, and it is possible that popular persecution only served to reinforce the resolution of the missionaries, both by enhancing their own sense of the lightness of their actions and by convincing them of the depth of the spiritual and moral needs of the population around them. One report of a mobbing of an open-air service concluded "... the mob say they will rout us; but we are determined to go forward by God's help". Disruption of open-air meetings, and even of some indoor meetings, was frequent and of a piece with the treatment the Primitive Methodists received for their open-air work and with the experience of the Salvation Army in the 1880s and the Total Abstinence Vigilantes in the 1890s. The strength of this hostility prompted the mission to consider legal action against selected individuals on a number of occasions. The form it took usually involved shouting speakers down, jostling them and their followers, breaking up assemblies of missionaries, and sometimes pelting them with vegetables. In February 1870 the Croydon Chronicle reported a typical instance in which a crowd assembled at the corner of Surrey Street and Church Street to ridicule a group of Christian Missionaries who were singing hymns; the crowd sang snatches of popular songs to drown them out, and then shouted 'Mockery', 'Lock him up' and such like when the preacher, one Hugh Martin, refused to be moved on by the police and retorted: 1 shall not - the Lamb of God has sent me into the highways to preach and 1 shall do so"; some of the crowd even threw stones. Mobbings like this actually received some support from the law; in this instance it was Martin himself who was fined for obstructing the thoroughfare, not the members of the crowd, and the presiding magistrate made it plain that he did not welcome open-air services in Croydon if they led to this kind of disturbance.

William Booth's efforts to extend the work of the East London Christian Mission to Croydon and surrounding areas of Surrey were repeated elsewhere in the south-east, including Brighton and Hastings, and his and his wife's active involvement in the establishment of the mission stations was facilitated by the cheap, fast transport provided by the railways. The Brighton station seceded in 1870, but Croydon's survival served to give Booth's followers a stable base in South London from which to expand the operations of what came to be known as the Salvation Army in the late 1870s and early 1880s. It thus had a pivotal role in the growth of the Salvation Army outside Central London.

It needs to be emphasized, though, that Croydon remained a very small outpost of Booth's work throughout the 1870s. Some possible reasons for this have already been discussed: undoubtedly the Mission was not an affluent one and its recurrent financial problems certainly restricted its scope. It is an interesting reflection that the mission was in effect driven into building a chapel of its own by its difficulties in meeting the rent on the Workman's Hall: at £ 725, the cost of building Gospel Hall represented about seven years' rent, so the exceptional effort required to raise funds for it was worthwhile. This puts into context the assertion of some historians that the Victorians invested too readily in building churches and chapels, in other words permanent 'plant'; in practice for groups like the Christian Missionaries it often made sound economic sense. Internal divisions weakened Croydon mission further. Popular hostility to it may provide a clue to the station's early stasis, but it is equally possible that a more fundamental reason was simply that, in towns such as Croydon, Booth's organisation at this period simply was not sufficiently distinguished from other Protestant evangelistic agencies to attract a large number of followers. The London City Mission were, after all, very active in Croydon in the 1860s, as were the Primitive Methodists, and they both employed very similar techniques to those of Booth, aimed at attracting the same social classes, and had a similar theological perspective. It was the adoption of a unique organisation, uniform, culture and image, modelled on military lines, which gave the Salvation Army the distinctiveness which proved, in time, to be so attractive to so many.

Gospel Hall still survives today, marooned by modem road development. In 1887 the Salvation Army moved from there to a new Citadel built on a site in Elis David Road; the old building, sold off, had a chequered history as a cinema and car repair shop, amongst other uses. Hopes that it could be restored as a museum for the Army have floundered on the high estimated cost, and its future remains uncertain.

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