Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Clergy, Saints and Martyrs

Blood and Fire: William Booth and the Salvation Army

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the sight and sound of a Salvation Army brass band. The steps of the most hardened atheist slow, and “Bah-humbug” dies on the misanthropist’s lips, as the first strains reach their ears. I stand with the rest of them, personally averse to religion of any sort, sickened by military uniforms of any hue, and yet completely enraptured by the cadences of familiar carols, Christmas shopping forgotten, immovable until the last notes of Silent Night fade away.

William and Catherine Booth established the Salvation Army, at first known as the East London Christian Mission, in 1865. William had resigned as a Methodist  preacher in favour of working as an independent evangelist. Delivering his first open air sermon outside the Blind Beggar pub in Bethnal Green (better known today for its connections with East End gangsters, and specifically as the location where Ronnie Kray shot and murdered George Cornell) he was invited to preach in Mile End Waste, an old Quaker burial ground in Whitechapel, where he set up a tent and began his Christian mission.

Booth proclaimed that  salvation was only possible through repentance from sin and an obedient faith. While the righteous might thus achieve eternal happiness, the wicked who did not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ could expect endless punishment. “Blood and Fire”, the Salvationist “war cry”, professed faith in the saving blood of Christ and the sanctifying fire of the Holy Spirit.

As its name implies, the Salvation Army adopted a quasi-military structure and government, with  General Booth himself at the head of the organisation and a hierarchy of Officers and Soldiers of Christ beneath. They sport a flag, a crest, and uniforms  with colour coded epaulettes denoting rank. In the early days officers could only marry others of the same rank. In 1879 they began publication of War Cry, their campaign magazine, sold widely in pubs to raise funds. And Booth was nothing if not autocratic; three of his own children left to form breakaway movements finding it too difficult to collaborate with him.

But beyond the Christian revivalism and the emphasis on the salvation of souls, Booth was also acutely aware of the poverty, destitution, and hunger prevalent in Victorian England. He summarised his mission as the Three Ss: Soup, Soap, and Salvation, to be administered in that order. The Salvationists provided hot meals, blankets, and toiletries for the homeless. They established night shelters.

Booth’s activities went beyond the alleviation of poverty: In his work In Darkest England and the Way Out he drew up a blueprint for its elimination, and promptly set about putting his plan into operation.

He set up ethical businesses including the Salvationist’s own match factory. There, red phosphorus replaced the dangerous white phosphorus used by Bryant and May which caused necrosis (phossy jaw). His factory paid workers four pence a gross instead of the usual tuppence ha’penny. The match boxes bore the mottoes Lights in Darkest England and Fair Wages for Fair Work.

In 1891 Booth bought 3,200 acres of land in Essex and established the Hadleigh Farm Colony. The young residents were provided with accommodation, a bath house, laundry, reading room, hospital, and meeting room. They learned farming, market gardening, brick making, and construction, enabling them to find jobs in the overseas colonies. By 1912 7,000 trainees had passed through Hadley Farm.

Booth was an early campaigner against child prostitution. He established special rescue homes reaching out to women working on the streets and in brothels, to alcoholics, morphine addicts, and to released prisoners.

From the 1880s the Salvation Army spread abroad, firstly to Australia, Ireland, and America, then to France, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Canada, India, New Zealand, and Jamaica. During Booth’s lifetime branches were established in fifty-eight countries. In the twentieth century the Army became involved in disaster relief work in response to the 1901 Galveston Hurricane and the San Francico Earthquake of 1906.

All this took place against a background of strong opposition to the Army. Booth was accused of being a charlatan, out to make money, and of nepotism in appointing his son, Bramwell, as his successor, and his daughter Emma as principal of the training school for women when she was just nineteen. There were violent attacks by the Skeleton Army, formed by those involved in the production and selling of alcohol which the Salvationists campaigned against. Clashes led to deaths and injuries. The Church of England was hostile, and Shaftesbury described Booth as the Anti-Christ not least for the “elevation of women to the same status as men” within the ranks of his organisation.

Yet by the time Booth “laid down his sword” opinion had swung in his favour, and a reverential attitude accompanied his funeral. 150,000 people visited his body as it lay in state for three days, 40,000 attended his funeral and 7,000 Salvationists including forty bands marched in his funeral procession to Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington.

Grave of William and Catherine Booth, Abney Park.
The stone that marks the grave is in the shape of a Salvation Army badge. In addition to his birth date it records that he was “Born Again of the Spirit 1845,” and sets down with supreme confidence that he “Went to Heaven 20th August 1912”
Nearby is the grave of William Booth’s son, Bramwell, who succeeded his father as General of the Army
The grave proclaims with a glorious, sonorous, orotund resonance which one can almost hear, that he was, “Born of the Spirit 1863” and “Promoted to Glory 16th June 1928”.
And a stone commemorating Robert Hoggard’s work trumpets: “He waved the Blood and Fire Flag throughout the land of Korea…To God be the Glory!”

Today the Salvation Army is an international charity with branches in 133 countries. In America it is the largest non-governmental provider of social services. Where states fail it steps into the breach. Focusing on homelessness, it provides accommodation for 3,000 people a night in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland alone, catering in different establishments for singles, the young, vulnerable women, mothers and babies, families with children, the elderly, those with mental health, drug, and alcohol issues, and those entangled in the criminal justice system. Temporary night shelters cater for rough sleepers in cold weather.

The Army runs adult day care centres and rehabilitation centres for addicts. Hadleigh Farm is now a training centre for young people with special needs who learn horticultural, carpentry, catering, and office skills, in a realistic working environment before seeking  work elsewhere.

Salvationists channel humanitarian aid in response to disasters and help with refugee resettlement programmes and initiatives seeking to combat slavery and human trafficking.

Even  those of us who recoil at their religious dogma cannot but respect and admire their practical philanthropy, unbounded by any fastidious qualms, engaging where many of us would draw back.

And those brass bands? The first one was set up by Charles Fry and his sons in 1878 to support Booth, acting as his “bodyguards” by distracting unruly crowds at open air meetings. They quickly became an integral part of Salvation Army worship and parades, and an instantly recognisable symbol of the Salvationists. And in December they herald the Christmas Season for Atheist and Christian alike as the emotion-charged notes of well-known carols reverberate through our city streets.

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Abney Park Cemetery opened in 1840 as a non-conformist garden cemetery when Bunhill Fields ran out of space. When it in turn reached capacity it experienced a period of neglect in the mid twentieth century until the Save Abney Park Campaign was set up by locals. Today it is a registered Historic Park and Garden and local nature reserve run by the Abney Park Trust. See  www.abneypark.org for details of wildlife and nonconformist graves. And by way of contrast see https://spitalfieldslife.com 2019/06/10 on Music Hall Artists in Abney Park Cemetery.

The Anchoress, The Privateer, The Dissident and The Broadcaster

Whitchurch Canonicorum lies only a few miles from Charmouth and Lyme Regis, but while  holiday crowds hug the Dorset coast the tiny inland village remains undisturbed.

It was not always so, for the church of St. Candida and the Holy Cross was once a busy and prosperous centre of pilgrimage. Today it  houses the only British shrine with relics, apart from that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, to have survived the Reformation. The simplicity of the tomb concealed its true purpose and, mistaken for an ordinary grave, it escaped destruction.

St. Candida, or Saint Wite,  was a Saxon holy woman, an anchoress purportedly martyred  in  831 when  15,000 Danes landed at Charmouth and engaged in widespread slaughter.  In the church a thirteenth century marble tomb chest contains her relics. When the chest cracked open in 1899-1900, a lead reliquary  was found inside. It contained the bones of a forty-year-old woman  and bore the inscription “HIC REQUECT RLIQE SCE-WITE” (Here rest the remains of Saint Wite) on the lid. The stone beneath the tomb contains  three vesica-shaped openings where pilgrims left offerings of coins, candles, cakes, and cheeses. More dramatically they inserted diseased limbs or, with a little struggle, their whole bodies, into the vesica to ensure the closest possible contact with the relics. When the cure was successful they made candles, the length and breadth of the previously afflicted part, which burned around the shrine. Suspended above it hung their discarded crutches and sticks.

The visible repair on the left side of the tomb shows where it cracked in 1899-1900 enabling inspection of the reliquary found within. Also visible are prayer cards still left in the vesica by twenty-first century visitors.

A mile to the south of the church lay St. Wite’s well where the saint lived and prayed and maintained fires as beacons for sailors. The pure waters of the well were reputed to heal eye diseases.  The wild periwinkles which bloom in the area at this time of year are still known as “St. Candida’s Eyes.”  

St. Candida’s Eye; wild periwinkles bloom in profusion in the area in early spring

Also in the church, buried beneath the floor of the now vestry, are the remains of John Somers. Following a shipwreck, this privateer started a colony and became governor of The Somers Isles, later Bermuda. His life as a castaway allegedly provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. When he died,  of “a surfeit in eating of a pig,” his heart was buried in The Somers Isles, but his body, pickled in a barrel, was landed at the Cobb in Lyme Regis, and returned thence to Whitchurch Canonicorum .

Memorial to George Somers, shipmate of Walter Raleigh and coloniser of the Bermudas

But I had not come in search of either of these luminaries. I was on the trail of a Bulgarian dissident killed by the Bulgarian secret service in cooperation with the KGB in 1978. Georgi Markov had been a successful writer in Bulgaria, winning literary prizes, part of the official intelligentsia, associating with high-ranking politicians, and enjoying an affluent lifestyle, including driving a silver BMW. Indeed, Zhivkov, the Party leader, had tried to lure him, with offers of more privileges and positions, into serving the authorities through his writing. But instead, his work had become more critical and satirical in relation to the regime. He came under increased scrutiny and some of his works were banned. In 1969 he defected to Italy and in 1970 moved to England, where from 1975-1978 he was employed by the BBC World Service and by Radio Free Europe. Increasingly he used these organs, especially his broadcast In Absentia for RFE, to criticise the Communist government in Bulgaria, and to accuse Zhivkov of fraud, nepotism, incompetence, mediocrity.

Then, in September 1978 came a drama which we would previously have associated only with the novels of Le Carré and the dark, mysterious streets of those Eastern European cities which lay beyond The Iron Curtain. Markov had left work at  Bush House and was waiting  at a bus stop in The Strand near Waterloo Bridge for the bus home to south London. In this most mundane of circumstances  and humdrum of environments a man bumped into him and with the tip of his umbrella pushed a sugar-coated ricin pellet into his leg. As the sugar dissolved  the poison was released into his bloodstream. The man disappeared in a taxi and that evening Markov was admitted to hospital with a fever and died there four days later. Medical staff had been sceptical of his claims that he had been poisoned but Scotland Yard, aware that there had been two previous attempts on Markov’s life, ordered an autopsy and the remains of the poisoned pellet were discovered. To test the theory, they injected a pig with the toxin. After suffering identical symptoms to Markov, the pig died two days later.

Markov’s stone in the churchyard at Whitchurch Canonicorum records his death “in the cause of freedom” in English on one side and Cyrillic on the other.

Markov’s grave in the churchyard at Whitchurch Canonicorum

No one was ever arrested for the killing but suspicion fell on the Italian born Bulgarian agent Francesco Gullino. The latter had been arrested for smuggling in Bulgaria in 1970 and  offered a choice between prison and espionage work. His file in the Bulgarian archives records his training and missions but pages relating to the time of Markov’s killing are missing, however one of his fake passports shows that he was in London at the time of the murder. In 1993  British  authorities interviewed him based on information from Bulgaria but no arrest was made. He remained free until his death in 2021 leaving the suspicion that he may have given evidence on other cases in return for his freedom.

About to leave  the churchyard I spotted another small, flat stone dating from 2000 and bearing the legend “The Grand Inquisitor.” Here were the ashes of Robin Day, the television journalist credited with inventing the political interview on television. I remember him as a  staid, conservative figure, uncritical of government and traditional institutions like monarchy and the legal profession, one who accepted a knighthood,  and was chummy rather than subversive in his interviews with politicians. In the 1950s however Day had been the first to break with the habitual deference which journalists had previously shown when interviewing members of the establishment. At the beginning of his career, he was criticised for being disrespectful and  pugnacious towards his subjects. His incisive, abrasive style was turned first against Kenneth Clarke then chairman of Independent Television and thus his employer. Later he interviewed President Nasser  after the 1956 Suez crisis, and ex-president Truman: “Mr. President do you regret having authorised the dropping of the atomic bomb?” he asked. His  less than respectful 1958 interview with then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was described by the Daily Express as “the most vigorous cross examination a prime minister has been subjected to in public”. Hence he became known in British broadcasting as “The Grand Inquisitor.”

The ashes of Robin Day, The Grand Inquisitor, gradually disappearing beneath the march of wild celandines

I wonder how they rub along: the anchoress, the privateer, the dissident writer, and the journalist. They surely have a wealth of stories to share as they lie together now in the quiet of Whitchurch Canonicorum.

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