Today in London’s religious history: Salvation Army pelted with mud & rotten fruit by Skeleton Army, Whitechapel, 1881.

Sick of religious fundamentalism leading to murder, rape and war? Feel rage at god-botherers preying on the poor and vulnerable? Infuriated by the vast wealth milked from millions by churches of all denominations… Think the world would be better off without superstition of all kinds…?

…then let’s revive the Skeleton Army!

In the 1880s the growing influence and offensive puritanism of the Christian sect the Salvation Army provoked the birth of the Skeleton Army – locally organized bands of rowdies who disrupted Salvationist crusades, abused and humiliated their preaching and parades, and physically attacked them…

In the 1880s the Salvation Army were regularly attacked when they marched to preach, harass and attempt to convert drinkers in working class areas. Their mission was openly to draw working class people away from the disorderly popular culture that revolved around drinking, singing, smoking, and riotous entertainment and resistance to the police and other arms of the state… towards godliness, respect for authority and sobriety… Like most religious sects of the 19th century, the Salvationists held that the poverty and squalor afflicting the lower classes was largely their own fault, for giving in to drink and gambling and other vices…

An attitude shared by many of the upper and middle class do-gooders, as well as large sections of the more respectable working class – including the chartist and socialist movements…

… as if class divisions, property, the power of the rich and the hierarchies imposed on us all have nothing to do with it…

The original Skeleton Army was organised at Weston-super-Mare, towards the end of 1881. The same year, a Sally Army march to Stoke Newington led to them being attacked outside the Shakespeare pub. According to the Daily Telegraph: “Yesterday morning… the bands issued forth in the afternoon… the largest marched to the Shakespeare… Here the division of about 20 persons, male and female, began to sing but before the end of the first verse a crowd of roughs had gathered round and began a counter chant. At the third verse someone issued forth from the tavern with a can of beer in his hand, and making use of foul expression, offered it to the Salvationists. This was a signal for a general riot, and in a few moments the members of the Army were attacked, knocked down, and shamefully used. Acting under the orders of their captain, the and gave no blow in return but avoiding their brutal assailants as best they could, covered the retreat of the women. There were over five hundred persons present, but not a single hand was raised in defence of the band… One young girl yesterday was seriously injured, two of the men were much hurt, and nearly every member of the band had been robbed of some article of property. All of this took place within a stone’s throw of two large police stations.”

On New Years Eve 1881, the local Skeleton Army assaulted a Salvation Army parade outside the Blind Beggar pub, in Whitechapel, pelting them with rotten fruit and mud. Now that’s the way to usher in a New Year…

As the location of William Booth’s first sermon, which led to the creation of The Salvation Army, this was a very symbolic spot for the god-botherers.

Colonel George Holmes of The Salvation Army, who was a boy Salvationist in 1881, later recalled:

“It was very rough. I remember attending an Open-Air Meeting one Sunday night outside ‘The Blind Beggar.’ Afterwards we marched to our Hall in Whitechapel Road. The ‘skeletons’, directed by Jeffries, headed our procession, proceeding at a snail’s pace and compelling us to do so. Thus handicapped, we were jostled and pelted with decayed fruit and mud. I was only a boy, and for safety was placed in the middle of the ranks.

An enthusiastic Salvationist in our front rank wore a high hat with a Salvation Army band round the crown. Slipping behind him, Jeffries leant upon his shoulders and deftly pushed the high hat over his eyes, whilst wriggling into the desired position. Then, using the top hat as a drum and his legs as a goad, he ‘drove’ his victim in the procession to the Hall. The Salvationists could have dismounted Jeffries only by rolling their comrade in the mud.”

Charles Henry Jeffries, describer here, sadly succumbed himself to the lure of the Salvationists, after this, however, and rose to become a high-ranking officer… His former allies targeted him repeatedly, as you should…

“In the Open-Airs my old mates gave me many a blow and kick – but I stuck fast. At times they would follow me home singing, ‘Jeffries will help to roll the old chariot along’ – and, thank God, I am doing it.”

The ‘Bethnal Green Eastern Post’ described the Skeleton Army “a genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated… 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… 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…”

The skeleton armies usually carried flags bearing a skull and crossbones; sometimes with additions such as 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 the local Skeleton bands produced “gazettes” – ribald, obscene, blasphemous and slanderous news-sheets. Favourite ammunition for showering the preachers and marchers included flour, red and yellow ochre, rotten eggs, stones, brickbats…

The organisation of skeleton armies in London and the publicity this received inspired the growth of other similar groups throughout the country. Serious fighting and conflicts with the police eventually resulted in drastic repression being introduced to deal with the rowdies in the capital, bringing organised trouble there 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.

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As austerity bites, and poverty increases for many; as religious wars multiply, disillusionment and uncertainty, fear and superstition are on the rise… Religious bigots both powerful and powerless try to push back against the freedoms won by hundreds of years of struggle against church, mosque and temple…

But religion by its very nature belongs in the middle ages. Organised faith continues to play a huge role in violence against women, the support of war and of hierarchies and power relations that keep us poor and divided, in the worldwide assault on people’s ability to determine their own sexuality and gender…

Isn’t it time to bring back the Skeleton Army… Not just to harass the modern religious parasites like the United Church of the Kingdom of God…

…but to also oppose the building of new places of worship of whatever religion, to fight religious control over the vulnerable, to support rebels resisting religious control from within.

For a future free from fear, bigotry and hate… from Syria to Tottenham..

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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