By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist
No this isn’t a skeleton Halloween post! In fact, if anything, it is more suited to Dry January! For context, during our 2019 December Closed Fortnight, I gave myself the task of going through our Prints and Drawings Collections, cataloguing and storing updates and repackaging and such… it’s a long ongoing project and is as interesting as you think it is, but what did blow my mind a little was coming across PD 1159 – Worthing: Salvation Army Riots or, to its other title, the Skeleton Army in Worthing.
Now being both Scottish and having an interest in a completely different period of British history, I was absolutely fascinated by something as hardcore sounding as the Skeleton Army running around destroying things in Worthing in 1884 because of something the Salvation Army had done (or tried to do). I decided to investigate in a little bit more depth, and, to be frank, I was shocked by what I read!
The Skeleton Army was an entirely Southern English entity, not to be found north of London. Started in the 1880s in Exeter (or Weston-super-Mare depending on who you ask), they existed in direct opposition to the Salvation Army. In particular, the Salvation Army’s staunch opposition of alcohol became a hot topic. The Skeleton Army, in an aim to be as inflammatory as possible, used banners with skulls and crossbones; and made a career out of mocking the Salvation Army’s sayings and marches.
For example, on some flags there was the phrase “Blood and Thunder”, twisting the original Salvation Army saying of “Blood and Fire”. They would also cite the three Bs: “Beef”, “Beer” and “Bacca” (tobacco), again mocking the Salvation Army’s three Ss: “Soup”, “Soap” and “Salvation”. Processions from either party would lead to disruptions or violence, and when looking at banners with skeletons, rats and coffins, or seeing their gazettes which were often blasphemous or obscene, it is hard to see the Skeleton Army as anything other than reactionary and aggressive.
This was, of course, how they wished to be viewed. The Skeleton Army would go to Salvation Army marches, which were themselves seen as loud, disruptive and intimidating – a threat to Worthing’s peaceful seaside reputation – with the explicit intent of causing disruption, knowing not much would done in opposition. This was because the police were at worst apathetic to or at best encouraging of the push back against the Salvation Army. Not just that, but the Salvationists themselves, generally, would not (or could not) retaliate.
In 1882 a riot had occurred in Bethnal Green, where members of the Salvation Army were pelted with flour, eggs, stones and so on. This news spread across Southern England and in 1884 a similar event played out in Worthing.
Calls for protection from magistrates and police had been ignored, as the Salvation Army were seen as inviting discord by marching publicly to begin with. Thus, when the Salvation Army decided to march on Sundays as normal, with no public backing, the backlash was immediate.
Over 1,000 people descended on Worthing’s Salvation Army barracks, the landlord’s home, the town hall and the police station, protesting the Salvation Army’s complaint about a nearby store selling alcohol. The alleyway which held the entrance to the barracks was tarred and eggs filled with blue paint were thrown.
On the 17th of August, the two groups clashed, and a riot ensued, with numbers building up to 4,000 people. When the Salvationists returned to their barracks, the landlord George Head pulled a revolver on the Skeleton rioters and injured several people, which was claimed in defence of his property. People did indeed die of injuries sustained during the violence. Essentially, a mess ensued that the army had to break up. Trouble would start up every now and then, with Mr Head’s home in one instance being trashed. Mr Head, who had shot at rioters previously, had been discharged after a court case, finding his use of violence justified in the circumstances. He would later successfully sue the town for the poor response of the police.
Riots across the area continued for the next five or so years until they died down. Sometimes the fights could be fatal. In Shoreham a woman was reportedly killed when she was hit by a stone. Eventually Worthing would publish a notice threatening a criminal sentence and hard labour to anyone “subscribing to” the Skeleton Army. This began to put an end to the back and forth violence.
Now, whether or not you are teetotal, this all can seem a bit of an excessive reaction from the Skeleton Army, especially in today’s eyes. However, the temperance movement and its associated organisations were very much the hot topic of the day. They would continue to be so through the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Regardless, best of luck to those giving up alcohol for January (or beyond!). One hopes that you get through it with as few skeletons as possible.