Founding mothers: Catherine Booth (1829-1890)

There can be few people who haven't heard of the Salvation Army and its work. In the third of a series on founding mothers of the voluntary sector, Third Sector columnist Gill Taylor and her daughter Bridget look at the life of the Sally Army's female co-founder

Catherine Booth
Catherine Booth

Catherine Booth was co-founder with her husband William of the Salvation Army, set up to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the poor, the addicted and the exploited by providing food kitchens, refuges for sex workers and night shelters for the homeless. Today the army still pursues its doctrine of "soup, soap and salvation" in 126 countries around the world.

Catherine was known as the Mother of the Salvation Army, which – unusually at the time – gave women equal rights in its hierarchy, including the right to preach: she became a prominent public speaker and told her mother after her first church sermon: "I felt quite at home on the platform – far more than I do in the kitchen."

She published an influential pamphlet championing women’s right to preach, defying the contemporary mores that women’s rightful sphere was in the home and the widely held belief that female preaching infringed the divine order of things. Given that women have only recently been allowed to become bishops in the Anglican church, she clearly showed a bold pioneering spirit.

Catherine was born into a Methodist family in Derbyshire, where her father was an occasional lay preacher. He left the Methodists in the 1840s and became alcohol-dependent, with periods of unemployment that meant she grew up in difficult economic circumstances. From an early age, she was a strong adherent of the Methodist principle of total abstinence from alcohol.

When the family moved to Brixton in south London, she met William, a circuit preacher of the Methodist Reform Church, and married him in 1855. By 1862 their reformist principles led to their expulsion from the Methodists, and they took up itinerant evangelical preaching, often in unusual venues such as circus tents and disused pubs. In Cornwall alone they claimed to have "converted" 7,000 people.

Their work exposed them to the social conditions of the country, including extreme poverty, and in 1865 they set up the East London Christian Mission. In that year, Catherine was invited to preach in London by the Midnight Meeting Movement – a group aimed at "reforming" prostitutes by holding meetings during their night-time working hours. The movement took an empathetic approach, going beyond simple moralising.

From the start, the new mission worked on the front line of poverty and provided practical help where it was most needed. After three years, the couple’s eldest son Bramwell, hearing his father William describe their recruits as a "volunteer army", instead coined the name Salvation Army: this was soon adopted along with ranks, uniforms and the motto Blood and Fire – a reference to the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit.

William then became Army General, giving him sole control over the organisation for life, and Catherine became Army Mother and a prominent public speaker at meetings. She also visited the wealthy to seek financial support for its activities. The couple had eight children.

The new militaristic guise, complete with brass bands, appealed to the Victorian love of spectacle and had a greater impact than simple revivalist preaching. But the loud, evangelical approach was not universally acclaimed – meetings were often disrupted by jeering and stone throwing, particularly by a group calling itself the Skeleton Army, which was opposed to temperance and supported by the owners of pubs. This led to violent clashes and the deaths of several Salvationists.

By 1870, the Booths were certain that social work was the key to spreading their evangelical message – the masses clearly could not concentrate on saving their souls if they were starving. Catherine started Food for the Million shops, which made soup available 24 hours a day and sold a three-course dinner for sixpence. By 1878, Salvation Army groups had sprung up across England and Wales and it was developing its distinctive character. Its magazine, The War Cry, was founded in 1979.

In 1881, a Salvationist in Whitechapel opened her house to women prostitutes. This attracted the attention of the feminist and social reformer Josephine Butler and the editor of the The Pall Mall Gazette, William Thomas Stead, who mounted a campaign. The legal age of consent was only 13. Stead published a description of how he had bought a 13-year-old girl for five pounds from her mother, explicitly stating that she would be sold to a brothel.

Catherine was horrified by society’s hypocrisy towards the sex trade and organised a petition that contributed to the raising of the age of consent from 13 to 16. The Salvation Army opened its first refuge for women escaping prostitution and domestic abuse in 1884, and later set up maternity homes for mothers and babies leaving the workhouse. In 1888 the first night shelter for homeless men was opened in Limehouse.

Catherine died in 1890, leaving behind a Salvation Army that had more than 900 "corps" across Britain and had already spread to Australia, Ireland and the US. Her concern for women’s status in the organisation had remained strong. In the year of her death William published a book, which Catherine had influenced, called In Darkest England and the Way Out.

This documented extreme poverty and proposed various welfare and employment schemes, many of which have since been adopted. These included homes for orphans, alcohol rehabilitation centres and refuges for women and girls escaping prostitution and sex trafficking. It also proposed labour exchanges, city workshops and farms that would provide training and employment as well as improving the spiritual welfare of users.

Next week: Mary Ward, who promoted women’s education but opposed women’s suffrage

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