home - main site - contact us - search

The Skeleton Army

back to 'Persecution'

According to George Scott Railton, the original Skeleton Army was organised at Weston-super-Mare, towards the end of 1881. The Christmas War Cry of that year states that 'the chief officers of the Skeleton Army raised to oppose us at Exeter were converted'. It was after that edition that the term Skeleton Army came into continual use.

A lurid light was thrown on the origin and purpose of the organised oppostion by an article which appeared in the 'Bethnal Green Eastern Post' (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, 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 consumate 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 trafic, and prepared for the most desparate enterprise.

The skeleton armies carried flags usually bearing a skull and crossbones, no doubt inspired by the prominence given to piracy in contemporary "penny dreadfuls" for boys. Variations included the addition of two coffins and the motto "blood and thunder ! Others decorated theirs with monkeys, a devil, and rats. Another had a yellow banner with three B's-" beef beer and 'bacca !

Some of these " armies " produced "gazettes" - ribald, obscene, blasphemous and slanderous! Ammunition was flour, red and yellow ochre, rotten eggs, stones, brickbats and any other unpleasant and often at times injurious missiles that might be found at hand. Sticks were often used viciously on men and women, young and old alike.

view full size image

The organization of skeleton armies in London and the publicity this received did much to spread trouble throughout the country. At first the Metropolitan Police turned a deaf ear to the appeals made for protection for Salvationists. Their then head (Sir Edmund V. Henderson) even denied the existence of what was alleged to be taking place.

Serious fighting and conflicts with the police eventually turned the public against the Skeleton Army in London, resulting in drastic measures being introduced to deal with the rowdies, bringing organised trouble to an end.

The Skeleton Army however, thrived in other parts of the country until 1892. During those years the corps officer's wife at Guildford was kicked into insensibility, not ten yards from the police station, a woman soldier was so injured that she died within a week, At Shoreham, a woman captain died through being hit by a flying stone.

Eastbourne's mayor declared that it was his intention to 'put down this Salvation Army business', and if necessary the town council would call on the Skeleton Army to help them, this in fact happened, and many Salvationist were brutally assulted, because they were denied the protection of the law and would not protect themselves.

It was the universal testimony, in which even their bitterest enemies sometimes unwittingly joined, that Salvationists not only did nothing that provided the slightest excuse for bad treatment but at all times showed a truly Christian forbearance.


Copyright (c) 2003 The Salvation Army
All Rights Reserved.