Harry’s Ramblings. Seaside Riots
by Harry Pope
The Salvation Army responsible for riots in sedate south coast of England? Surely not, but yes, it did occur, against a background of temperance. In 1880 in London’s East End the Skeleton Army was formed. Their basic principle was to be opposed to everything that the Salvation Army stood for, the two main tenets being religion and alcohol. Both these ideologies being diametrically opposed, violent conflict was inevitable.
Demon drink was blamed for a lot of Victorian ills, so it was natural for the Salvation Army’s founder General Booth to ally his beliefs to the temperance movement. Of course, with living and working conditions so dire at the time, alcohol was a balm to the working classes, who saw it as a temporary relief from the daily drudge. It is impossible for us to completely comprehend the conditions those experienced at that time, we can only draw on the tales of the likes of Charles Dickens, who seemed particularly competent in fictionalising Victorian depressed life. The anti-drink campaigners were quite successful in their endeavours, hence the number of churches built during this time, the influence of the clergy, and the number of worshippers.
The Salvation Army had an insignia including SSS which stood for Soup, Soap, and Salvation. So the Skeleton Army incorporated BBB. These meant Beef, Beer, and Bacca. The banner also had a coffin, some had skull and crossbones, maybe even monkeys, rats, and the devil. The Salvationists marched while playing instruments, so the Skeletons would throw stones and dead rats at them. 1881 saw Skeleton armies founded in Exeter and Weston Super Mare, strange places to us these days for a foundation of such a movement with violence at its heart. Court cases ensued, with the Salvationists being prosecuted for inciting public disorder. The 1882 charge was that as they were marching, playing instruments, they were provoking the confrontation. If they hadn’t been there in the first place, then the offence by the Skeleton Army would not have happened. A spurious foundation for a court case, but one that was defended. The verdict was in favour of the Salvation Army.
The biggest year for the Skeletons was 1884, when in Worthing there was a full-scale riot. The seaside seemed to attract conflict for some strange reason, this time it was an alcohol shop owner who reacted against Salvationist criticism, problematic because the Citadel and the shop shared an alley, they didn’t like to walk past the purveyor of the demon drink. Black sticky tar was painted onto the alley walls, so uniforms were damaged. Eggs filled with blue paint were missiles thrown at those in uniform, who continued despite this provocation. Worthing opinion was divided, General Booth ordered the local officer in charge Captain Ada Smith to remain in the barracks with her troops until the local constabulary were able to provide protection. Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt ruled it was not within the police remit to do this, so Captain Smith went out one Sunday at the head of her supporters to supply public worship.
It was Sunday 17th August, with the Salvation Army on one side, the Skeleton Army much stronger on the other, with police in the middle. For an hour violence was avoided, but then suddenly the air was full of bricks, dust, paint, anything that could be thrown at Captain Smith. They returned to their barracks, the Skeletons tried to burn it down. The man who owned the alcohol shop defended his property with a pistol, shooting various men. It was a while before any kind of peace was restored, with pacifism stretched very far.
A Citadel was built in now genteel Eastbourne, but it was erected in the poor part of town, houses without running water, electricity, or most basic amenities. It was an area ideal for their principles, depression alongside the booze outlets. It was now 1890, the Skeleton Army was on a popularity slide, so it was left to the local ruffians to form an ad hoc force to counter the prohibitionists. There was also elected opposition to the Citadel being built, and when the Army marched on Sundays playing their instruments a local law was introduced banning both at the same time. Local youths had great fun, pelting the bandsmen as they marched to the beach, but within a couple of years the opposition had all but disappeared.
In those two years however, some bandsmen had been jailed at local Lewes Prison for their beliefs. The authorities realised they were not going to win, so ultimately backed down. Some of these band members were ladies, who objected to being pelted with stones from the nearby beach. They received three month sentences of hard labour. The local law was unenforceable, impractical, and unjust, so ultimately rescinded, but not before Salvationists had suffered for their beliefs.
During both World Wars the building was used for the benefit of the military, especially WW1 when many servicemen were billeted locally. It must have been a strange situation, because no music, smoking, or alcohol were allowed, basic military activities from all over the world, let alone UK. The original Langley Road building was not that dissimilar to what is there today, just a major rebuild occurring in 1990, a century later. The original turretting was removed, then restored, so the present façade has not appreciably changed. The stained-glass window in the entranceway is new, and the whole of the £660,000 refurbishment cost was met from the legacy of an anonymous benefactor. Sit at the front of the chapel, and you can clearly see the original structure, the framework, and imagine how 500 worshippers were accommodated.
No-one famous has worshipped at this Citadel, apart from the early riots nothing noteworthy has occurred. The building has just been quietly performing its duty for 130 years.